Major land gifts expand habitat protections

FALLS VILLAGE — Two Northwest Corner land donations to The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut (TNC) in areas of “high ecological importance,” totaling 346 acres, will expand protections for critical forest and wetlands habitats, environmental officials announced on Tuesday, May 2.

The multigenerational land gifts, at preserves in Winchester and Falls Village, are connected to what scientists at TNC have labeled the “Resilient and Connecticut Network,” areas of lands across North America with limited human disturbance, robust microclimates that can withstand climate change and linkages to other sites in the network.

Mapping out these habitats and the natural pathways among them shows where plants and animals have the best chances to find new places to call home. Similar initiatives are part of a national and international movement to improve connectivity across human-dominated landscapes.

In Northwest Connecticut, the Berkshire Wildlife Linkage serves as a key corridor of the Appalachian Mountains and includes “the most intact forest ecosystems in southern New England and some of its highest carbon stocks,” according to the nonprofit TNC.

“The communities of Northwest Connecticut have a long tradition of embracing land conservation,” said Frogard Ryan, state director for TNC.

In a land deal completed at the end of 2022, Julia and Eric Wilson donated 16 acres in Falls Village to expand Wangum Lake Brook Preserve, where TNC has already protected 435 acres through a combination of ownership and easements.

The preserve is close to an extensive complex of more than 7,000 acres of protected land which includes Housatonic State Forest, Canaan Mountain, Robbins Swamp and TNC’s Hollenbeck Preserve, among others.

The Wilsons’ gift was made in honor of Julia’s Father, John Shelton Sinclair, and Eric’s mother, Laura Louise Foster, whose land donations first created the preserve.

“This area deserves to be protected and maintained alongside the land donated by our predecessors,” they said in a joint statement.

“Three generations have worked to help TNC CT protect these lands, and their latest donation will help us expand protections in a key, climate-resilient region as we prepare for a warmer world,” TNC’s Ryan said.

Holly Atkinson and Stephen Plumlee donated 330 acres in Winchester, which will more than double the size of the existing Silas Hall Pond Preserve and contribute to TNC’s ongoing work in the Berkshire Wildlife Linkage.

The preserve is situated in the town’s northwestern corner, to the west of Grantville Road, near the Norfolk town line.

“The gift expands a protected area that was initially created through donations from an earlier generation of the family,” TNC’s Ryan explained. Atkinson and Plumlee said in a joint statement that they are happy to be able to significantly contribute to the preserve’s expansion.

“Silas Hall Pond Preserve is part of our family legacy, and we were inspired to learn of its newly recognized regional importance to the Berkshire Wildlife Linkage corridor. The Nature Conservancy of Connecticut has been a reliable steward and we are eager to continue this partnership to preserve the forests and watersheds of Connecticut and the plants and animals that live here.”

Silas Hall Pond Preserve, which is open to the public for hiking and underwent a significant trail expansion in 2018, is part of a larger network of open space, including Winchester town watershed land, land trust and other privately protected land, and Algonquin State Forest.

A unanimous town vote in spring 2022 approved protecting 1,300 acres of Winchester’s municipal water company land in the area with easements funded through the Highlands Conservation Act and the Housatonic Valley Association’s Greenprint Partners Pledge Fund, according to TNC. It is expected to close by January 2024.

The forests of the Berkshire and Taconic Highlands of Western Massachusetts link the Green Mountains of Vermont to the Hudson Highlands of New York, creating a connected corridor of habitat for a wide range of species such as black bear, moose and bobcat.

This geography, known as the Berkshire Wildlife Linkage, has an estimated 75 percent forest cover and includes the most intact forest ecosystem in southern New England, according to TNC.

The Nature Conservancy and its partners have been protecting this landscape for decades because of its ability to support rare species, ensure clean air and water, provide natural areas for recreation and store carbon. Forest cores like these often overlap with critical wetlands surrounding streams and rivers, all of which are some of the most resilient to climate change.

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