Land trusts dream of a central home

Photo of Robert Miller
This is national Society of Professional Journalism winner Robert Miller. Photographed in Danbury, Conn. April 29, 2013.
This is national Society of Professional Journalism winner Robert Miller. Photographed in Danbury, Conn. April 29, 2013.Michael Duffy / Michael Duffy

If you have people in your town who care about saving open space, there’s a good bet your town has a land trust. There are about two dozen land trusts in the northwest corner of the state alone.

Some are staffed with full-time employees. Most are staffed by volunteers, with whoever is president providing the office space.

There’s also river commissions and watershed coalitions and environmental advocacy groups.

If they can afford to, they rent a small office. Sometimes someone donates space, or they double up on their quarters with another group.

What if there were one central place where groups could share space and technology, where there would be classroom space and demonstration projects on sustainable, low-impact development?

That’s the question the Northwest Conservation District is now asking.

Over the next few years, if the heavens align correctly, environmentalists may have an answer in a meeting place they can call home.

The district, which serves 34 towns in Litchfield County and northern Fairfield County, hopes to create a Center for Environmental Conservation and Sustainable Development that could house a variety of environmental groups and activities.

The plan is only a concept now. Some central needs — land for a center, money to put up a building — are still in the cross-your-fingers stage. Those who have heard of the project consider it worth pursuing.

“The concept is a good one,” said Steve Law, director of the Steep Rock Preserve, a land trust centered in Washington. “It will be interesting to see how it evolves.”

“Anytime you can get land trusts working together to become more efficient and to share information, that’s a good thing,” said Catherine Rawson, executive director of the Weantinoge Heritage Land Trust, which is based in Kent and is the state’s largest land trust.

Sean Hayden, the executive director of the Northwest Conservation District, is the person responsible for the idea of an environmental center for the northwest corner.

So far, he said, he’s been pleased with the way others have reacted to the idea.

“It’s starting to gain some traction,” he said.

The district — with its offices in Torrington — offers environmental planning and soil science technology to its 34 towns. Its staff advises town planning and wetland boards and also works with individual landowners on sound environmental practices.

Hayden said, since he began working for the district 15 years ago, he realized there is no central office where different environmental groups and like-minded individuals could gather.

Earlier in his career, he added, he worked for the Society for the Protection of the New Hampshire Forests, one of the oldest organizations of its kind in the United States. The group had a center in Concord, N.H., serving the greater community by offering space and support to smaller environmental groups. That’s what Hayden envisions for Connecticut’s northwest corner.

The advantages would be obvious in terms of offering technical support to such groups. Hayden said it’s also a good thing simply to be in the same building with your co-environmentalists.

“You get wind of what each other is doing,” he said.

What the district would like to have for the center is a green building that can provide its own energy and have minimal impact on its surroundings. That way, the building would be a demonstration project on low-impact development.

The center would also have staff to advise environmental groups on everything from soil and water science to GPS mapping. It would have classroom space for educational programs and also to help train professionals on a host of subjects — agriculture, forestry and best practices for land use.

Hayden acknowledged there would be a lot of work ahead if such a center ever becomes a reality. That means a lot of time discussing the project with other groups, building up support for it, and finding a site that would best serve the area, then building or renovating a facility.

The lessons such a center could offer would be worth the work.

“It’s about showing people how light a footprint we can leave on the earth,” Hayden said.

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