OLD SAYBROOK —After public outcry about logging in the Preserve, officials say an upcoming study of vernal pools will determine where logging, as well as recreational activities, will be allowed in the 1000-acre woodland that spans Old Saybrook, Westbrook and Essex .
Carl Fortuna, first selectman of Old Saybrook, who is one of two voting members of the Conservation Management Committee that manages the land, told CT Examiner that a study of the Preserve’s vernal pools — used by frogs, salamanders and turtles — has been proposed for Spring 2023.
Fortuna spoke to CT Examiner in favor of “good forestry practices” which could include logging in the Preserve.
“Once that report is complete, the state will be able to put together their 10-year plan which would include keeping the forest healthy – which could involve logging. Good logging, good forestry practices and timbering are part of a healthy forest,” said Fortuna.
The study will likely be conducted by Dr. Michael Klemens, a herpetologist who identified 38 vernal pools in The Preserve in a 2006 report and has proposed a new plan to map the the locations and productivity of the pools and habitats.
Klemens said that the state’s initial plans created “quite a stir” because it appeared that “the way they were proceeding wasn’t really going to conserve the resources” in the Preserve.
But according to Klemens, a discussion with the Trust for Public Land, the Nature Conservancy and the state forestry personnel has changed the conversation.
“Where we are now is the forestry people definitely don’t want to do anything that’s going to be adversely impacting the ecological integrity of the Preserve,” Klemens said. “They are really looking at everything from a resource biodiversity approach.”
The state has adopted his report as the standard for next year’s study, Klemens said, which is “much more complex and protective than what was in the DEEP handbook.”
He said an intermediate study of critical habitats in the Preserve by William Moorhead, a field biologist, identified three more potential vernal pools – beyond the original 38 – that will be included in the survey.
The vernal pools include a 100-foot “envelope,” which Klemens said will be a protected “no touch zone” and that compatible forestry practices can be done in the 100 to 400 foot zone around the pools.
“From my perspective, the first tier in the pyramid is going to be conservation of the Preserve, because that’s why we spent a huge amount of money, years and years, fighting was for the ecology of Preserve – so that’s the primary goal of the study is to determine where the ecological hotspots are,” he said. “The next thing is to layer in the forestry plan so it complements but doesn’t contravene the wildlife and natural resources.”
The importance of a deep freeze
In 2015, a $10 million campaign to purchase the acreage of the Preserve included contributions of $3 million from Old Saybrook and $200,000 from Essex. The state of Connecticut paid $3.3 million and public donations provided the remaining funding. The impetus for the purchase was a 1998 proposal by River Sound Development, LLC, to build 250 houses and an 18-hole golf course on the land.
Even though Old Saybrook and the state jointly own the majority of the property – with about 70 acres owned and managed by the Essex Land Trust – the state’s $3.3 million contribution qualified the property as a state forest and included an easement for timber harvesting.
John Ogren, co-president of the Old Saybrook Land Trust, said at a March meeting of Conservation Management Committee that at no point during the acquisition campaign were the public informed that the Preserve would become a working forest subject to logging.
But according to Will Hochholzer, who works as the lands program supervisor for Connecticut’s state forests, whether logging will take place in the Preserve still depends on a number of factors, including the existence of deep freeze conditions. Hochholzer is the second of two voting members of the Conservation Management Committee, and represents the DEEP.
“For vernal pools, the recommendation is to work the forestry operations when the ground conditions are frozen and in Connecticut – not just Old Saybrook – we really haven’t had long term frozen ground working conditions in the state in recent years,” Hochholzer told CT Examiner.
He said that without frozen ground conditions, other considerations will need to be taken to protect the amphibians that rely on the vernal pools.
“The concern is that you could run over and crush things if you pass through those areas when the ground was soft, then you might have a larger negative impact on the population,” he said.
He said the study will be used as a guide for where forestry operations can occur that have the least amount of impact on the amphibian populations using the vernal pools.
“There’s upland areas where the pools aren’t located. With forest management, you’re managing for each class diversity, species diversity, forest health, but you’re also managing for habitat, for wildlife, plant communities. There’s a lot of benefits to having forest management as long as the goals have been identified.”
Focus on Recreation, Funding
The last part of the study – which Klemens said is the most controversial – will consider the trails in the Preserve.
“With recreation, basically there’s passive and active recreation, and they have different impacts. For example, right now we have many of the trails passing right next to or through the habitat areas of the vernal pools, the first 100 feet,” he said. “So we need to sort of establish a trails system that respects the resources more.”
Klemens said that public access was the emphasis when the Preserve opened, but according to Klemens, more thought needs to be given to ecological habitats.
“We hope we’ll have a plan that creates the balance between the resource protection, forestry — which is extremely important component of managing the Preserve — and recreational access and also the types of recreation,” he said. “You just can’t build parking lots and create trailheads without understanding exactly what’s there.”
He said passive recreation, like walking on trails, is vastly different from horseback riding and mountain biking. Unleashed dogs are also a big problem, he said.
“Technically by law, dogs in state parks are supposed to be leashed, but in this case, because Old Saybrook does not have a leash law, people let the dogs off leash, they run into the vernal pools and they pick up the turtles and play with them – and these all have to be brought under control,” he said.
Klemens said his proposal will require $60,000 in funding to hire field technicians. He said he’s waiting for a response from the Trust for Public Land and the Town of Old Saybrook.
Fortuna told CT Examiner that the study will be funded by “the Trust for Public Land and/or a contribution from the town.”
Walker Holmes, associate vice president and Connecticut state director for the Trust for Public Land, to CT Examiner that her organization received a proposal for the vernal pool study and that funding was a possibility.
“We manage a stewardship fund for the land and we are committed to funding projects that the towns and State feel are necessary to preserve the natural resource values of the Preserve,” Holmes wrote in an email to CT Examiner.
Klemens said that after several months of field work beginning in March, the summer will be used for data analysis, followed by meetings with “key stakeholders” to create maps.
“The public rollout is planned for the end of this coming year,” he said.