Preserving open space brings challenges

Connecticut’s wide diversity of bird species is diminishing due to a lack of conservation management, according to the Connecticut Audubon Society’s 2014 State of the Birds report issued last week.

“The report shows how land conservation agencies and organizations throughout the state have reduced or eliminated the natural processes that otherwise would create a mosaic of different habitat states and types,” the society says.

These reductions and eliminations are causing “an increasingly large forest monoculture and a diminishing variety of birds,” according to the State of the Birds report, which also highlighted where conservation planning and management has succeeded in sustaining Connecticut’s most endangered habitats.

“There is still a wealth of beauty and biodiversity throughout Connecticut, but managing areas for wildlife is a lot more complicated than just letting them go,” said society President Alexander Brash.

“Because our landscape is already human-dominated and no longer naturally balanced, we must determine what we want a landscape to look like and then actively manage the process to achieve that goal.”

According to the report, “birds that require early-successional, or scrub-shrub, habitat have experienced the most rapid decline of any group of Connecticut birds, because their habitat has been allowed to grow into mature forest or has been converted to lawn.” These birds include:

  • Blue-winged warbler.
  • Eastern towhee.
  • Indigo bunting.
  • Chestnut-sided warbler.
  • Field sparrow.

Grassland birds like the bobolinks and the eastern meadowlarks have faced a similar decline, according to the report.

Protection and management

Managing open space is a continual challenge, Wilton Land Conservation Trust President Bruce Beebe said this week, and hands-on management is not always possible. The land trust owns approximately 800 acres on 100 properties, about two-thirds outright and the remainder through conservation easements, usually with the town as a partner. “The town of Wilton owns eight or nine parks and open space,” he said.

Aside from maintaining trails and work of that nature, “we leave our owned properties alone,” he said. “Many of our properties don’t have trails. If trees are falling or leaning in those properties and they’re not a danger to the public or neighbors, then we just kind of leave them alone.”

In the case of a conservation easement, the property is in the hands of the owners and the land trust will step in and help on request.

“Nature is not static, we are faced with massive invasives,” Mr. Beebe said, particularly winged euonymus, commonly known as burning bush, bittersweet vine, and Japanese barberry, another shrub gone rampant.

The land trust is already involved in an effort to clear invasives from Schenck’s Island and is about to undertake an experiment to remove bittersweet and barberry from small sections of the Gregg and Harrison Smith preserves. The project has not started yet and is expected to last five years.

“We are trying to figure out ways to control invasives,” Mr. Beebe said. “They are crowding out the natives. Our main interest to restore the natives. We can’t let deer manage our properties.”

The hope is if more native flora can be restored, perhaps more native fauna will flourish.

“It isn’t kids playing or people picknicking” that is a threat to native birds and plants, he said. “It’s nature having its way.”

Conservation planning

In its report, the Connecticut Audubon Society recommended and called for:

  • Increased support for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) and the creation of a grant program to help land trusts prepare conservation management plans.
  • The creation of a state commission of land conservation experts to work with the DEEP and state municipalities to document the amount, location, conservation planning status and conservation values of their preserved lands.
  • Full implementation of Connecticut’s 2012 Open Space Law.

In order to meet the state goal of preserving 21% of Connecticut’s land by 2023, conservation agencies and organizations would have to preserve about 25,000 acres a year for the next decade, according to this year’s State of the Birds report.

“Every 10 years, it’s required by state law that every town produce a plan of conservation and development, and Wilton has done that on a regular basis,” said Mr. Beebe, adding that open space — a concept endorsed by a vast majority of Wiltonians — is a high priority in the plan.

Wilton’s conservation and development plan usually includes “properties identified as particular interest to remain open space,” said Mr. Beebe.

“That means they’re an open space now and ideally they would remain an open space — either owned by the land trust or by the town, or even another property owner.”

Mr. Beebe said the Wilton Conservation Land Trust keeps a list of properties it has its eye on.

“The land trust wants to know if there’s any likely sale of the properties,” he said, “in which case we might step in and make a phone call to see if the owners of the property have any interest in preserving some or all of it.”

If the owners want to preserve the property, said Mr. Beebe, they can choose to have the property preserved by the town or by land trust, or by the two jointly. They can also chose to maintain ownership and create a conservation easement “which would protect land from being subdivided or developed.”

—Jeannette Ross contributed to this story