Sunny Valley Preserve is 'a huge asset'
A kestrel soars overhead and deer prance across an open field.
Butterflies unfold their wings for the first time and a New England cottontail hops about amid the vegetation.
Cows graze in the afternoon sun and vegetables grow in tended soil on working farmland.
These are some of the natural wonders that surround us daily.
For those who don't have the pleasure of seeing these in or near their own backyard, they can be seen at Sunny Valley Preserve.
"Conservation is for wildlife and plants. It is also for people because our welfare is inextricably linked to nature and what it provides," said Wayne Woodard, preserve manager of the Nature Conservancy's Sunny Valley Preserve in New Milford and Bridgewater. "We're conservationists in your backyard. Walk on our trails and view our landscapes. We give people a place to go and feel like they want to be here. There's a real connection between people and nature."
Managing the preserve's working and natural lands is what makes Sunny Valley Preserve unique, Woodard said.
He said the preserve and the Nature Conservancy "have demonstrated to people that you can have these lands together."
Sunny Valley is part of the Connecticut Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, a 63-year-old conservation organization whose mission is to conserve the lands and water on which all life depends.
The preserve has 1,900 acres of land -- consisting of 1,250 acres of natural lands, 450 acres of active agriculture and 200 acres of grassland -- and 12 miles of hiking trails in Bridgewater and three miles in New Milford.
It leases out five working farms in the two towns (see sidebar).
Active agricultural land and natural habitats are featured on the preserve's 14 parcels, six of which offer hiking trails.
"Our trails offer a walk through Connecticut," Woodard said.
He cited hardwood forests, hemlock groves, rock formations, wetlands, farmland edges, a butterfly field and trails along Lake Lillinonah as some of the landscapes visitors could experience.
The trails are for all skill levels, Woodard noted, although some are harder than others, and are designed to manage habitat protection and hiker enjoyment.
The preserve is currently forming a trails working group and needs volunteers.
"I truly believe the Sunny Valley Preserve is a huge asset to New Milford and other communities," said Dan Calhoun, director of New Milford Parks & Recreation Department. "This is a wonderful place to bring children to experience nature first hand, and to observe a working farm."
The preserve's properties were gifted to the Nature Conservancy by George Pratt in 1970 (see sidebar).
Following his wishes, the Pratt family and the Nature Conservancy created the Sunny Valley Preserve Foundation and oversaw the properties at first.
Then, in 1991, the Nature Conservancy assumed management of the properties.
Over the years, the Nature Conservancy has fixed up the properties, including several buildings on the various lands.
It has also leased out farmland to independent farmers to serve as privately operated businesses that "enable the preserve to carry out the farming obligations" requested by Pratt, according to the preserve's literature.
"We have a really good relationship with Sunny Valley," said Paul Bucciaglia, who operates Fort Hill Farm with Rebecca Batchie. "Wayne is a super guy and (Sunny Valley Preserve) wants to see (the) farms succeed.
"It's great they've preserved all this farmland in the middle of town. They've preserved the town's agricultural history."
The preserve's non-farmed properties are natural habitats. The creation of an early succession habitat is in the preserve's plans in the near future.
"Look out," Woodard said, glancing out the preserve's office window on Sunny Valley Lane. "You see open space and woodland, but there's no transition."
He emphasized how nearly 50 species rely on successional habitat.
It would be made by clear-cutting certain areas and managing it, he noted.
Sunny Valley Preserve invests even further into conservation, initiating surveys to develop an inventory of the preserve's wildlife and plants.
Woodard said he works with land trusts, nonprofit organizations and municipalities that have acquired agricultural land and are looking to the future, helping them set goals.
"One of our successes is that we work with people," Woodard related.
He said sometimes a group may have an idea of what they want to see on the land, but "the land will tell you" what it wants.
To recognize and celebrate the work of the Nature Conservancy and Sunny Valley Preserve, the preserve holds an annual Open Farm Day, during which visitors can experience life on a working farm.
A variety of demonstrations, animal exhibits and petting, machinery and farm equipment displays, hayrides and pumpkin sales are available. In addition, guests are welcome to hike the preserve's trails.
This year's Open Farm Day is slated Sept. 27.
For more information about Sunny Valley Preserve, visit www.nature.org/sunnyvalley or call the office at 8 Sunny Valley Lane at 860-355-3716.