Efforts to protect Connecticut’s highlands region move forward
KENT — When the Highlands Conservation Act went into effect in 2004, it only averaged about one annual land protection project in the Highlands region, which runs through Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and northwestern Connecticut.
But with recent commitments to fully fund its $10 million annual allocation, that tally is now up to two or three projects a year. The $30 million spent alone in the past three years is more than the $20 million spent in the act’s first 12 years. It now makes up nearly 1/6 of the entire land protection budget of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“It is conserving land at a robust rate,” said Tim Abbott, the regional conservation and greenprint director for the Housatonic Valley Association.
This is good news for Connecticut, where the $8 million awarded between 2008 and 2017 led to the protection of more than 1,630 acres through the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, municipalities and land trusts. This includes 81 acres at Towner Hill in Sherman, 254 acres at West Aspetuck in Kent and 262 acres at the East Kent Hamlet in Kent and Warren, which used to be a Girl Scout camp.
At least 1,000 more acres are in the process of being preserved using Highlands money, including a site in northern Sherman.
The last funding piece for the latest project was presented to DEEP Commissioner Rob Klee at a ceremony Friday, where dozens of land trust members and politicians gathered at the base of the ridge in the Highlands at Kent Land Trust’s Southern Gateway Preserve to celebrate the efforts to protect the Highlands region, and especially the Highlands Conservation Act.
The $250,000 donation to HVA’s Greenprint Partners Pledge Fund and presented to Klee enabled the state to protect 420 acres on Norfolk, a key protection spot in the Highlands.
It’s this public/private partnership that makes the Highlands Conservation Act so efficient, officials said.
Generally, Connecticut is able to leverage more than $3 for every $1 of federal Highlands money. The federal money comes from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses royalties from oil and gas companies.
“That’s a pretty remarkable number,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, who has advocated for the act since joining Congress.
He said this preservation was especially important to protect natural resources from global warming and as sprawl and development continue.
About 25 million people live in the Highlands region. For Connecticut, this area includes 26 towns, spanning from Danbury up to Granby.
It also serves as the primary drinking water source for another 20 million people, Murphy said.
The Highlands region is also home to some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the area, as well as cold water systems, which are especially necessary as climate change forces animals to migrate further north, Klee said.
“It protects really critical resources,” Klee said. “We need to make sure we have interconnected spaces within these landscapes because birds and bears and other animals don’t know political boundaries.”
The highlands are also attractive vistas, drawing people to the area and offering recreational opportunities.
Abbott said most of the Highlands projects so far have been along the ridge, but can be anywhere in the region, especially with the open space grants available through the state.
“It takes everybody to recognize the job we have ahead,” Abbott said. “We’re not trying to save every acre, but we’re being very smart about it.”
The next step will be to ensure the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is set to expire in October, is renewed. He said 44 senators are already signed on, but it’s a more difficult political issue in the midwest where the senators have a harder time signing on to private land being turned over for public use and protection. Oil and gas companies also have a lot of power in Washington D.C. right now.
Murphy’s optimistic about land conservation in the U.S. though, even if the other environmental news coming from the Trump administration seems bleak, including peeling back regulations and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement.
The Highlands Conservation Act itself expired in 2014, but even though it lapsed, the act was still funded its maximum amount of $10 million each for the past three years and is now enacted through 2021.
“In the midst of all of that bad news we’re getting some wins for land conservation,” Murphy said.