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-15,370-Acre LegacyNature Conservancy Unveils Statewide 'Last Great Places' Program



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—15,370-Acre Legacy

Nature Conservancy Unveils Statewide

 ‘Last Great Places’ Program

MIDDLETOWN, CONN. — With June’s state budget votes, The Nature Conservancy has launched a $10 million fundraising project to provide the remaining funds needed to protect 15,370 acres of water company land in western Connecticut – the largest land conservation project in state history. The conservancy also announced a statewide conservation plan of which these lands are a key part.

The state budget includes $80 million in state funding for the joint purchase of the Kelda Group’s lands by the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Conservancy. All combined, this land is about 24 square miles; bigger than the town of West Hartford. The Conservancy has pledged the remaining $10 million for the $90 million purchase. The land has been appraised at $193 million.

The purchase could have cost as much as $98 million, depending on the number of years required to complete the purchase; the state has saved considerable money by providing all the funding this year. The closing on the land is expected to take place next March.

“We’re delighted this public/private conservation partnership has been approved, thanks to the leadership of Governor Rowland and the General Assembly, and to the huge donation of the Kelda Group,” said chapter director Dennis McGrath. “We’re pleased to have helped negotiate the terms of this purchase, and are eager to raise our $10 million commitment.” Kelda is a British water utility that acquired Aquarion, the parent of Bridgeport Hydraulic Company, in January 2000.

“Protecting the Kelda lands is a big step, but we see it as part of a much larger picture,” Mr McGrath added. “We’re focusing on our state’s Last Great Places: seven remarkable landscapes in every corner of Connecticut. We believe the last chance to save them begins now.”

“Six of these landscapes are dominated by the large forests that sustain our state’s environment, where we hope to work with citizens, communities, other conservation groups, and make a difference. These land- and seascapes have been identified by The Nature Conservancy as among the most significant in lower New England,” Mr McGrath continued.

The seven areas include the Saugatuck Forest Lands in Fairfield County; the Berkshire-Taconic Landscape at the convergence of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York; the Meshomasic Landscape in central Connecticut; the tidelands of the Connecticut River; the Quinebaug Highlands in northeast Connecticut and southern Massachusetts; the Pawcatuck Borderlands straddling the Connecticut-Rhode Island border; and the Coastal/Marine Program of Long Island Sound.

“The Kelda is a large portion of one of our greatest natural treasures: the few remaining large forests of their type,” Mr McGrath said. “These forests are the strong binding fabric of our environment; high quality representatives of an ecological region stretching from Maine to northern Virginia.

“The citizens of Connecticut will conserve a big piece of that fabric for future generations through the Kelda project. We have a big fundraising challenge ahead, but equal in every way to the magnitude and importance of the natural landscape,” he continued.

With the state budget passed, the final link to protecting the 15,340 acres is a $10 million fundraising challenge for the Conservancy, to meet its pledge toward the purchase.

The Kelda transaction covers land in more than 20 towns of southwestern and northwestern Connecticut. Over half of the Kelda lands lie in  the midst of two of seven areas in the state The Nature Conservancy had identified as Connecticut’s highest quality landscapes.

“Connecticut only has a few opportunities left to preserve unfragmented forests large enough to support the diversity of life that is vital to southern New England,” said Mr McGrath. “The Kelda lands around the Saugatuck and Aspetuck reservoirs and river systems in Fairfield County, and on Canaan Mountain and Mt Riga in Litchfield County, are crucial components of these intact forest areas.”

The lands surrounding BHC’s Saugatuck and Aspetuck Reservoirs are the heart of a 24-square-mile forest that includes The Nature Conservancy’s Devil’s Den Preserve, recently preserved Trout Brook Valley, and land owned by the Redding and Aspetuck land trusts as well as the towns of Weston and Redding. Considering its location in a densely populated part of southern New England, the forest is notable for its ecological integrity and healthy plant and animal communities. Lands held by Bridgeport Hydraulic Company total 36 percent of the large forested landscape.

Other large Kelda holdings include 635 acres around the Laurel and North Stamford Reservoirs and the Rippowam River in Stamford and New Canaan, and 1,390 acres around three reservoirs in Shelton and Monroe.

Governor Rowland announced in February an agreement under which the state Department of Environmental Protection and The Nature Conservancy would acquire ownership of or conservation easements over all of Kelda’s dry lands for a total of $90 to $98 million. The lands had been valued by two appraisals at $193 million. The appraisals included discounts on much of the land to reflect regulatory restrictions on the sale of certain classes of water company lands.

The state’s two-year budget includes a total of $152 million to preserve open space around the state, $80 million of which will go toward the purchase of the Kelda lands; $50 million in bond funds and $10 million from current year’s surplus will be used for the Kelda purchase.

The Open Space Matching Grants program, which assists municipalities, land trusts, and water companies with land acquisition, has received 74 grant applications during the current fiscal year totaling about $19 million. The program will receive $12 million in bonding for the next fiscal year and $15 million the second year.

The Recreation and  Natural Heritage Trust program, the bond fund with which the Department of Environmental Protection acquires additions to the State Parks and Forests system, will receive $20 million during the 2001-02 fiscal year, and $25 million the next.

Since creating its first preserve at Mianus River Gorge in 1955, The Nature Conservancy has protected more than 12 million acres in 50 states through purchases, gifts of land, and conservation easements. Today the organization still pursues land protection as its primary  conservation strategy, but also employs alternative methods such as cooperative management agreements with landowners and compatible economic development.

Moreover, the Conservancy has increasingly focused its efforts on protecting larger landscapes – the Last Great Places – and working at the same large scale at which nature works.

The Connecticut chapter office is at 55 High Street in Middletown. It can be contacted by calling 860-344-0716, extension 332.

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