OLD SAYBROOK — After the 2015 purchase of The Preserve, a 963-acre woodland spanning Old Saybrook, Westbrook and Essex, donors and community members expected the land to be protected in perpetuity, but language included in an easement stated that the land is designated as a state forest — which allows forestry management, including logging.
In a meeting on Wednesday, members of the town’s Ad Hoc Committee, the advisory board to the Conservation Management Committee — which manages The Preserve — expressed dismay and concern about a proposed forestry plan that would include timbering as well as hunting and trapping on the land.
“At no point in the acquisition campaign were we ever informed that the Preserve would become a working forest. Sixty percent of the funding came from the Town of Old Saybrook, donors, and private foundations and we request that some compromises be considered and that the final proposed draft management plan go before a public hearing,” John Ogren, co-president of the Old Saybrook Land Trust, told the CMC.
Logging was the main focus of concern for a number of attendees because of potential damage to the property’s extensive habitat for flora and fauna. The land contains at least 38 interconnected vernal pools, described as highly productive. Three watersheds — the Oyster River, Mud River and Trout Brook — run through the property and flow into the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound.
The property is laced with 25 miles of recreational trails. Migratory birds stop to refuel in the forest canopy and the Pequot Swamp Pond. Spotted turtles, box turtles, spotted salamanders, wood frogs, and blue-winged warblers number among the many species, some endangered, that have been found on the site.
Not being heard
In a letter sent to the Conservation Management Committee prior to Wednesday’s meeting, the Ad Hoc Committee said it could not endorse the current forest management plan, nor the public recreational use plan — both developed by GEI Consultants — and recommended that the CMC not accept the plans as final.
“Unfortunately, the town’s Preserve ad-hoc committee … charged with representing the Town and its citizenry, and making recommendations regarding the management of The Preserve, has had virtually no input in the making of the final draft plans over the past four years,” the Ad Hoc Committee said.
GEI had informed the committee that its review and recommendations would not be considered in the final draft plans, but would be included in an appendix along with comments from the public.
The stewardship of The Preserve is overseen by the CMC, which has two voting members — Carl Fortuna, First Selectman of Old Saybrook, and Will Hochholzer, state lands program supervisor Connecticut’s state forests, who represents the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
In a February 24 meeting, the Ad Hoc Committee met with Hochholzer and several DEEP representatives to express significant concerns about DEEP’s intentions to pursue active timbering throughout The Preserve and allow hunting.
“We were thankful to have DEEP explain the reasoning behind their intended course of actions, however, by the end of the meeting it was deflating to realize all of the Committee’s ideas were considered undesirable or unfeasible,” the committee said.
The town’s Economic Development Commission submitted a letter to CMC requesting a formal presentation of the GEI plan at a public hearing prior to acceptance of the plan.
Susan Esty, chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission and a member of the Ad Hoc Committee, told the CMC that the group did not feel heard, given the weight of the concerns about the property’s future, especially concerning timbering and hunting.
“We are the advisory group to the CMC and we take that very, very seriously. We may not have all the letters after our names for specifics on forestry or botany or anything else, but we have an enormous amount of experience in the field, in the woods, in this special tract of land,” said Esty.
She said that meshing together the range of activities on the land — dog walkers, bikers, equestrian riders, hikers, to name a few — and then closing off areas for timbering, would be extremely complex.
A working forest
In 1998, 250 houses and an 18-hole golf course were proposed for the property — and that’s when efforts to preserve the land began. In 2013, the Trust for Public Land arranged to purchase the land from River Sound Development, LLC and began fund-raising.
The $10 million campaign to purchase the property included $3 million from the Town of Old Saybrook, $200,000 from Essex, $7 million in public funds, $3.3 million from Connecticut, which included $1.4 million in federal funding, a $471,000 open space grant from DEEP, and $250,000 from Newman’s Own Foundation.
The majority of the property is owned jointly by the state and the Town of Old Saybrook. About 70 acres are owned and managed by the Essex Land Trust.
But in 2015, when the state contributed $3.3 million, part of the deal was the land became a state forest — and that entailed an easement that included silviculture — or timber harvesting.
Chris Cryder, who formerly worked for Save the Sound, told CT Examiner that when the deal was signed, no one understood that a state forest meant a working forest.
“We generally have felt that because it’s been labeled a state forest that they apply their state forest template to the property and have been unwavering,” he said.
20 years of science
For Wednesday’s meeting, the Ad Hoc Committee invited Dr. Michael Klemens, an ecologist and herpetologist who has studied the flora and fauna of The Preserve since 2002, to comment on the forest management plan.
Klemens said that the forestry plan is “reasonably likely to cause unreasonable harm to the public trust and the natural resources of the state.”
He said that he was not opposed to hunting, recreational use and forestry practices, “but everything needs to be done in right place and needs to be done based on science, not based on the desires of a group of people whether they be in DEEP or in Old Saybrook or elsewhere.”
Klemens was a consultant for Lehman Brothers Holdings, which previously owned The Preserve and, through River Sound Development Corp., proposed the golf course and housing development. Klemens said his goal at the time was to try to maximize the conservation of the land in a development context, and that included “conserving 76 percent of the amphibian bioproductivity of the site.”
Klemens said the GEI forestry plan would turn “one of the most unique natural areas in the state into a working forest, giving scant consideration to the ecological integrity of the site.”
He said the plan will eventually put almost the entire preserve into logging rotation over the next 110 years, excluding about 30 acres that are inaccessible, using mechanized equipment.
Klemens said the core vernal pools should be designated as permanently preserved and protected from heavy recreational use and forestry operations.
“The key problem, I believe, is the whole process was done backwards. Core areas should be identified first, then mapped with an adequate buffer around them and then the forestry plan be developed that respects these no-touch areas. The exact opposite has occurred.”
After Klemens’ presentation, Cryder told CMC that the Ad Hoc Committee agreed with Klemens that a compromise can be reached, with the core high ecological areas conserved with minimal intrusions.
“Using the scalpel instead of the chainsaw methods — there are areas that can benefit from forest management,” Cryder said.
Hochholzer responded that he hoped Klemens would help assist DEEP and the Ad Hoc Committee in identifying the core areas.
“DEEP’s mission is to preserve, protect and enhance … Moving forward as we implement forest practices there will be review and comment and revision to what areas are actually treated based on some of the information we have,” said Hochholzer. “I think we could easily map out some of these conservation areas.”
Hochholzer said his agency also wanted to make sure the decisions were based on the science in order “to protect this property for generations to come.”
He added that the forestry plan is meant to be a “guiding document” for the property requiring a public process of approval.
“There isn’t anything that is going to come of this plan that doesn’t first get to be presented on an agenda to this committee and then voted on for approval to take action on a recommendation of that plan,” he said. “By having that plan, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to go out and do every single thing that’s been identified.”
Later on Wednesday Cryder told CT Examiner that the meeting was “a breakthrough” because it was the first time that the state — represented by Hochholzer — said it would consider Klemens’ science as a basis for preserving parts of the land.
“It was the first time we heard from the state … that they would consider a meeting to really consider the science that was generated over a 20-year period to conserve the highest valued ecological areas in The Preserve and potentially set aside as a conservation area,” Cryder said. “Hochholzer even invited members of the Ad Hoc Committee, maybe Dr. Klemens himself — we could all sit down, so that was new.”
Cryder said it set a hopeful path forward.
“I’m focusing on the forest itself, pretty much, and its inhabitants. It has probably been the most heavily studied forest in the state. And as you heard from Dr. Klemens, it’s very unique and we have not sensed from the state that they really have sensed and really understand how unique it is,” he said.
Cryder emphasized that the Ad Hoc Committee respects the principles and science of forest management.
“I want to make this really clear that we’re not opposed per se to active timbering and forest management because there are benefits,” he said. “The state really believes that what they do is benefiting the forest and its inhabitants that rely on the forest and is best for creating a resilient forest in the future and I fully understand their points of view and the science behind it.”
But, Cryder said, as Klemens outlined, each property has to be dealt with based on the specifics within that property.
“You heard today why the forest is unique — interconnected wetlands and vernal pools, which are unlike any other in the state, and the highest productivity that Dr. Klemens has studied over his whole career happening in The Preserve,” he said. “What we want is a compromise.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story stated that Chris Cryder is Special Projects Coordinator for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound, but he has retired from that position. Also, 70 acres of The Preserve are owned and managed by the Essex Land Trust, not the Town of Essex.