A federal grant will help protect more than a thousand acres in the unique Last Green Valley of northeast Connecticut.
The grant, provided by the North American Wetlands Conservation Act managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with contributions from other project partners, will protect 1103 acres of significant habitat through purchase, landowner donation and conservation easement.
View of the Meyers tract. All pictures courtesy of Alden Warner.
"The project area is part of The Last Green Valley the federally designated Quinebaug-Shetucket Rivers Valley National Heritage Corridor recognized for its important ecological condition and intact natural habitats," according to the FWS project summary. "The upper sections of the Thames River Watershed - including the project area - are the least developed sections of Connecticut."
The tracts comprise 268 acres of critically important wetlands, more than seven miles of streams, and 832 acres of forest within the Natchaug Basin. The majority of wetlands in the project are emergent marsh, well isolated from human activity, which provide breeding grounds for remnant populations of birds.
Several of the tracts in the proposal area and the vicinity of the Natchaug River are recognized as some of the last and best remaining inland nesting American Black Duck habitat in the state, according to TNC findings. The grant proposal gave particular attention to recognizing the potential for conserving wetlands used by this fowl.
The forest is key habitat for the Cerulean Warbler in Connecticut.
"This was a nice score for the warblers," said Holly Drinkuth, director of the Conservancy's Quinebaug Highlands Program. The Cerulean Warbler requires 1000-2000 acres per territorial pair, making it important to retain the unfragmented character of the forest lands.
The wetlands also provide critical wintering and staging areas for migratory waterfowl. Other wetland birds like American Bittern and Sora enjoy the watershed's still-undisturbed marshes, and species like ringed boghaunter dragonfly and frosted elfin butterfly dart through the Atlantic white cedar swamps and acidic talus woodlands."
"There is also some really nice marsh for Marsh Wrens , Swamp Sparrow and Louisiana Water Thrush," Drinkuth added. "We expect to retain some early successional habitat as display areas for the American Woodcock."
The wetlands are an ideal refuge for the American Bittern, Sora, Virginia Rail, Mallard, Pied-billed Grebe, Gadwall, Blue-winged Teal, and Hooded Merganser. The Thames River Watershed, including the Natchaug Basin, is recognized as the major production area for Wood Duck in Connecticut.
Upland portions of the project site "provide nesting habitat for priority waterfowl, help eliminate human related development, and maintain long-term food sources for beavers that are responsible for creating wetland habitat for waterfowl," the grant summary said.
This system also provides for human communities, Drinkuth said. "The water is very high quality because it is so densely forested. The Highlands sustains the largest surface water drinking water supply watershed in Connecticut, with benefits that trickle down all the way to Long Island Sound."
Two of the project tracts are located within a 34,000-acre block of intact forest where the Mount Hope and Natchaug Rivers have created a mixture of unique freshwater and forest habitats.
Adjacent tracts, including the 7800 ac. Yale-Meyers tract owned by Yale University, the Nipmuck State Forest of 9000 ac. and Natchaug State Forest tract of 12,000 ac. owned by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, are already managed for the benefit of flora and fauna within the watershed.
Dr. and Mrs. Ralph Otto, who donated 115 acres to TNC, were "true steward s of the land they bought forty years ago to protect," Drinkuth said. A 75-acre portion of their donation known as Lost Pond Preserve was an important part of the matching funding for the NAWCA grant.
Flora at Meyers-Bigelow tract.
"We are attempting to keep this block of forest as intact as possible," said Drinkuth. "This area has escaped intense development, has few fragmenting roads, and this project will continue to protect the undisturbed condition."
The project is the result of a partnership between The Nature Conservancy, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, the University of Connecticut Extension System's Green Valley Institute, U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, Wyndham Land Trust, the towns of Eastford and Woodstock and three private landowners.
Partners provided additional matching funds of $3.27 million to acquire property, purchase easements, conduct restoration and other expenses. A portion of the matching funds are the result of the property donation.
"We were thrilled to have so many partners," Drinkuth added.
Their effort is a significant step towards the Conservancy's larger conservation initiative throughout the upper Thames River Basin. At 941,371 acres, the watershed encompasses 10 individual river sub-basins that are critical to breeding and staging waterfowl in Connecticut.
TNC has been working to conserve habitats in this area since 2000.
The $1 million grant is the largest yet received in the Quinebaug Highlands, Drinkuth said, with grant funding based on recognition of goals to protect habitat and species. The value of the cooperation achieved during the years working with the eleven project partners was also recognized with the success in receiving the federal funding.
Protecting the Quinebaug Highlands is a key project in achieving the objectives for fowl conservation identified by the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture and the North American Waterfowl Management Plan.
Following acquisition of fee or conservation restriction on the properties, TNC and Connecticut DEP will conduct inventory analysis of each individual property to determine the final ownership. The four grant tracts will be owned or restricted by The Nature Conservancy, Inc. or Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.
"This region is incredibly beautiful," said Drinkuth, who has been involved with the effort since 2004. "With its sense of backwoods, you wouldn't know you were in Connecticut. It is a spectacular and wonderful place."