By Stuart Winquist

Aerial photo, the view north by northeast. This photo shows about half of the beaver pond, the entirety of which lies within the bounds of this projects parcel. Meshomasic State Forest lies beyond the beaver pond. Photo credit: Ehren Meisinger/Gary Meisinger

We are excited to kick off our fall 2022 community fundraising campaign for our Meshamosic’s Rattlesnake Brook Land Acquisition Project.

This property is adjacent to the Meshamosic State Forest and our 9-acre Rattlesnake Brook Preserve in Portland.
Preserving these 147 acres of woodlands will allow us to protect endangered and rare species from the Portland Reservoir to the Connecticut River; expand the 15,000+ acre Meshomasic State Forest/Forest Landscape Greenway; and connect to and expand the blue-blazed and other recreational trails.

We have met several key milestones toward our goal of protecting this keystone ecological property in perpetuity.

  • We secured an agreement to purchase the property from its current owners.
  • Governor Malloy announced an Open Space and Watershed Acquisition grant award of $364,000 to the Middlesex Land Trust for this project.
  • The Meshomasic Hiking Club marked the importance of this project with a $25,000 donation.
  • We were recently awarded a $100,000 grant from the Bafflin Foundation.

Purchasing this property for conservation is a big deal, because one day in the future, it will be an old growth forest.

First let’s look at two critical issues impacting us today: the biodiversity crisis and climate destabilization.

The World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London released their new Living Plant Index, which analyzes years of worldwide data on wildlife populations. Between 1970 and 2018, it showed the average reduction of wildlife populations is 69%. While the U.S. reductions were smaller, at 20%, one must consider that much of the damage to wildlife populations in the U.S. occurred prior to 1970. The primary driver of this was the change of vast swaths of natural landscapes into industrial and agricultural uses. This measurement is on total populations of all wildlife.

The picture is much grimmer for individual species that have evolved to optimize specific habitats that have become increasingly threatened. Cornell Ornithology Laboratory recently categorized 70 of 136 North American bird species, which have lost 80% of their populations in the last 10 years, are now considered At Risk. This designation indicates they may soon be Threatened or Endangered. Of course, biodiversity covers more than just mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. Insects, plants, and funguses are much more diverse than creatures more familiar to us and are nonetheless important to the fabric of life that sustains life as we know it. Loss of habitat and pollution have been the primary drivers to date.

Climate destabilization is the looming hammer to the biodiversity crisis. This is in addition to the damage from climate change that we are more viscerally aware of: massive damage to cities and lives from hurricanes in the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico and the southern United States; wildfires in Australia, Greece, Spain, and across the American West; and severe water shortages in the drought-ridden areas across the world, including our western states and the agriculturally important Colorado River, which are impacting our food supplies.

Southern New England is not immune to these climate effects. Longer and hotter heat waves are raising the temperatures of our lakes, streams, rivers, and Long Island Sound, impacting fish species across the food chain. Recent studies show that Long Island Sound and the Gulf of Maine are leading the world in climate-driven water temperature increases, pushing cold water species out. Hotter and dryer spells increase the vulnerability of our trees to invasive insects and tree diseases. The list goes on, and it is getting longer as science teases out subtle relationships between species that are being disrupted by climate change, and as the temperature keeps creeping up.

So, does preserving forested land in Connecticut make a difference? And is it a wise investment?

Absolutely. Climate resiliency is the ability of an ecosystem to absorb stresses and continue to survive or even thrive. Two major concepts that impact an ecosystem’s resiliency are connectivity and critical size. Many species move. Osprey cover thousands of miles as it migrates from Argentina to the mouth of the Connecticut River to feed on river herring, and bunker when they first hit dry land. After refueling, it may stay in Connecticut to nest, or continue up into Maine to breed and raise its family on a remote lake or river.

The movement of trees occur at a much different pace, with the range of a tree species shrinking from its southern limit and expanding north, as climate conditions change, a process measured in decades. The ability of a species to move, and make these changes that ensure their survival, is connectivity. Connectivity also allows established, distant populations to intermix, on occasion, through the dispersion of juveniles, allowing their gene pools to refresh and keep populations healthy.

Critical size is keeping enough useable, uninterrupted habitat in a single area to sustain the species’ needs for survival. This is most easily understood in terms of keystone predator species. A grizzly bear needs not only a large enough range to support a single bear, or a family of bears, but enough bears to maintain a viable gene pool. The current population of grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is a little over 700 bears. Not a terribly big number, but one that requires a lot of connected space. Of course, Yellowstone and grizzlies are a long way from the Meshomasic Forest.

We often hear about Core or Block Forest, which is defined as forest that is 400 feet from an ‘edge’ – a road, yard, or other development. Block forest is needed for many bird species to breed. That distance from edges protects the forest from invasives, such as Japanese Barberry or Asian Bittersweet, which crowd out native plant species birds have evolved with and provide better nutrition in their fruits or insects they support. The timing of their flowers supports co-evolved insects that migrating birds feast on as they move north. Fruiting native plants support the timing of the energy needs of those that depend on them. An extensive forest block will also help keep out predators and limit cowbirds, which are obligate brood parasites and have done serious damage to many bird populations.

The Meshomasic State Forest is 9,000 acres. It could support many wood thrushes at 30 acres per nesting pair, but a full 9,000 acres is the requirement for one pair of another keystone predator: the Northern Goshawk. I’ve only seen or heard a few of these fierce, secretive creatures, and mostly in wilderness areas: The Pharaoh Lake Wilderness in upstate New York, the George D. Aiken Wilderness in the Green Mountains, and the northwest slopes of Mt Rainier. There are a few breeding pairs in CT, though not likely in Meshamosic State Forest, whose 9,000-acre map looks more like a gerrymandered redistricting map, with carveouts and thin arms reaching to capture forest bands sandwiched between neighborhoods or potential new neighborhoods. Now impose the 400-feet-from-an-edge-rule and the amount of block forest drops off precipitously from a nice big circle or square of forest.

Our new Meshamosic’s Rattlesnake Brook Preserve will preserve one of those potential carveouts. Because we don’t plan to timber this preserve, its forest will continue to grow and mature. One day in the future it will be an old growth forest.

Old growth forests allow self-selection of trees that are better adapted to the specific conditions of that sight over generations of trees. They add large structure of downed mature trees that provide hiding places for an assortment of creatures. The maturing canopy that is not cut for timber will continue to buffer daily and seasonal temperature and humidity cycles at the forest floor, supporting greater diversity of funguses, bacteria, insects, amphibians, and reptiles. A forest that is 100 to 150 years old sequesters and stores more carbon than a young forest of 0 to 50 years, storing carbon in both trunks of the trees, the soil, and the biomass it supports. It will send cooler water down Rattlesnake Brook, helping to create thermal refuges in the Connecticut River during summer heat waves. It will provide a soft landing for migrating birds that still have hundreds or thousands of miles still to go each spring and fall.

All in all, purchasing this property for conservation is a big deal. We hope you can join us and be part of this success. Thank you for your support.