The Roxbury Land Trust is celebrating its 50th anniversary at a time when more people than ever are using its nature preserves as a welcome outlet for exercise and well-being in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Established in 1970, the non-profit organization now has close to 450 members and 3,800 acres of land preserved, protected and maintained for public use.

Under its stewardship, 32 different preserves offer 30 miles of trails, large swaths of woodlands and wetlands with precious habitat for wildlife, access to long stretches of the Shepaug River and spectacular vistas that maintain Roxbury’s rural character.

In addition, the land trust maintains three working farms, a granite quarry and a 19th century iron mine listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Many people treasure Roxbury’s natural beauty, but some forget that the town’s wooded knolls, open farmlands and historic sites could have been lost forever if not protected by the Roxbury Land Trust,” said Julie Steers, the organization’s president.

“We owe a debt of gratitude to our founders who had great foresight about the lasting power of conservation and to everyone who have given so generously to the land trust through the years,” she said.

The land trust, which earned prestigious national accreditation from the Land Trust Alliance in 2016, organizes educational walks and hikes throughout the year, working with local groups and schools.

In addition, the organization sponsors free educational talks to enhance environmental awareness and offers opportunities for community service projects for Eagle Scouts, Shepaug Senior Projects and others.

“The Roxbury Land Trust has done a remarkable job of fulfilling its mission of preserving Roxbury’s rural character for generations to come,” said Roxbury First Selectman Barbara Henry. “Roxbury residents, weekend visitors and neighboring communities all benefit from our town’s beautiful open space and the nature preserves have been a treasured outlet for many during the coronavirus crisis.”

To mark its anniversary, the Roxbury Land Trust hopes to hold a celebration this fall depending upon developments with the coronavirus.

A new website with interactive trail maps was recently launched and an art show featuring different nature preserves has been rescheduled for 2021.

Replacement of Volunteers’ Bridge over the Shepaug River between the River Road and Orzech Family Preserves has also been postponed due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Governed by a volunteer board of directors, the Roxbury Land Trust relies on donations, grants, member support and gifts of land to pursue its mission.

A history of generosity

History has it that the Roxbury Land Trust was founded when Charles Pratt, Mitchell Gratwick and Harold Birchall sat around the kitchen table in Pratt's Roxbury home in 1970.

Birchall was a local dairy farmer and the town's first selectman from 1968-81; Pratt was a nationally known photographer whose family started the Pratt Institute; and Gratwick was a doctor and the retired headmaster of the Horace Mann School in New York.

The three men had one thing in common: an abiding love of Roxbury's rural landscape and a deep conviction that something had to be done to preserve the land and the quality of the water in its rivers and brooks.

Few could have predicted what the unlikely trio’s foresight would launch when they signed incorporation papers and began inviting others to join the conservation effort.

The first years of the organization were the hardest, according to those who remember the struggle to get people to understand that Roxbury's wooded knolls, undulating farmlands and historic sites could be lost forever if not protected.

After one director finally "loaned" some land for a nature trail, the trust began bringing in school children for hikes — a tradition that continues to this day.

The non-profit organization's first gift of land came in 1974. Dr. Robert and Ruth Sherman donated 56 acres on Squire Road in memory of Brian Tierney, who had given his life in the Vietnam War.

As the land trust was building trails on this magnificent property, a second major gift came in. Intrigued by stories in the local newspapers about what the land trust was doing, Natalie Todd Lilly decided to donate 128 acres of her farm in memory of her husband, who had died 25 years earlier.

Those two gifts would help establish a pattern of donations of land and money by townspeople — often in memory of loved ones — that has continued for decades.

In the fall of 1978, the land trust launched an ambitious fund-raising campaign to acquire Mine Hill. David Beglan, a long-time Roxbury resident, director and former president of the trust who was a driving force in the effort, described the property as Roxbury's "crown jewel" in terms of natural resources, flora, fauna and a rich history entwined with the town since the 1800s when the iron mine fueled the area's economy.

It took two years for the land trust to raise $350,000 and receive a $105,000 matching grant to buy the 360-acre tract.

The preserve, which now encompasses some 450 acres and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, attracts history and nature lovers alike.

Another major undertaking was the design, engineering and construction of a bridge over the Shepaug River to connect the River Road and Erbacher Preserves.

During six weekends in 1991, more than 80 volunteers brought their own hammers, saws and drills to erect the 100-foot long, 15-foot high span.

Now known as Volunteer's Bridge, it cost just $7,500 to complete — far less than the original estimate of $80,000.

In early 2020, the Roxbury Land Trust had begun planning to replace the bridge when the COVID-19 crisis hit and the effort was postponed.

The holdings of the land trust continued to grow steadily through the years with gifts of land and money, but the pressures of development were becoming more and more obvious as houses sprouted in farm fields and along ridge lines.

To help preserve the town's rural heritage, the land trust embarked on its second major fundraising campaign to save three of Roxbury's most historic farms.

The Save Our Farms Capital Campaign was officially launched in 2001. By the end of 2004, $7.1 million had been raised to acquire the Gavel, Orzech and Good Hill farms and preserve in perpetuity 800 acres of prime farmland.

The generosity of the farm families, private donors and matching grants by the State of Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection's Open Space and Watershed Acquisition Fund made this daunting feat possible.

After 50 years, the Roxbury Land Trust has made significant strides in fulfilling the founders' original vision. The Roxbury Land Trust now safeguards 18 percent of the approximately 16,800 acres in the town.

Approximately 15 percent of the land is owned, and 3 percent is protected via conservation easements.

Hard work, an unrelenting "can do" spirit and remarkable gifts of time, talent and money have carried the organization to where it is today.

But perhaps more important has been the readiness of people from all walks of life — carpenters, lawyers, farmers, Wall Street traders, artists, bankers, writers, and young and old alike — to work together toward the common goal of preserving Roxbury's natural splendor.

For more information and a timeline on the history of the organization, visit www.roxburylandtrust.org or call 860-350-4148.