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A group of dedicated volunteers are quietly working to ensure that The Preserve, its natural resources, and public enjoyment are equally balanced.
The Preserve, a 1,000-acre parcel that encompasses parts of Old Saybrook, Essex, and Westbrook, was acquired by the state of Connecticut, the town of Old Saybrook, and the Essex Land Trust three years ago. It is mostly forestland but also contains a fen, rare type of wetland, in addition numerous vernal pools and other natural resources. Protecting these delicate ecosystems while allowing the public to continue to enjoy access is one of the goals of a study that is currently underway to evaluate the health of the preserve.
That study, termed a Natural Resource and Public Use Assessment, was funded by the Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national non-profit working to help communities preserve open space. The TPL raised funds to help Old Saybrook purchase The Preserve as well as to maintain and improve it. The assessment is being conducted by GEI Consultants, an engineering and environmental firm.
The study is analyzing all aspects of the property, from the health of the trees to the state of the more than 100 species of amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds that make The Preserve their home.
The goal is to “make sure the forest is healthy, maintain its diversity, and reduce invasive species to protect the health of the forest,” said William Hochholzer, the state lands management program supervisor in the Division of Forestry the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection.
Balancing preservation with the public’s enjoyment of the land is “a big challenge,” Hochholzer said—but it can be done, he added. “Really, passive recreation on well-designed, well-placed trails can really minimize the impact.”
Hochholzer is one of two members of the Conservation Management Committee (CMC), which is tasked with overseeing the maintenance and protection of the Preserve. The second member is Old Saybrook First Selectman Carl Fortuna, Jr.
The CMC meets quarterly and is advised by an ad hoc committee that convenes monthly. Members of the ad hoc committee are volunteers, with the exception of Ray Allen, the director of Old Saybrook’s Parks & Recreation Department.
The ad hoc committee retained the services of William Moorhead, a consulting field botanist, to conduct a complementary study that will advise both committees on the health of the flora in The Preserve.
Kathy Connolly is a landscape designer who is an active member of the ad hoc committee. She maintains the Preserve’s Facebook page (“The Preserve in Old Saybrook, Essex, Westbrook”) and sends out an email newsletter about six times a year. She emphasized the need for the public to be informed and involved.
“Trail maintenance needs to be done. In the near term, we’re trying to get volunteers to help with that,” she said.
Those interested in more information can follow the Facebook page, which provides a “Sign Up” button for subscription to the newsletter.
Connelly posts on Facebook about public hikes, information about The Preserve’s flora and fauna, state advisories about bear sightings, and other topics.
A recent post, accompanied by a photo, reads: “What is this ghostly plant of the October forest floor? It is Beech-drops (Epifagus virginiana) a saprophyte that lives only on the roots of beech trees. (No taste-testing, please! Not edible.)”
Connolly encourages Preserve enthusiasts to attend the ad hoc committee meetings, which are open to the public. These are working meetings that convene on the fourth Thursday of the month at 6 p.m. at the Parks & Recreation building at 308 Main Street, Old Saybrook. She noted that calling the Parks & Recreation Department on the day of the meeting is a good idea, to ensure it is going forward as planned.
“I think everyone wants to protect the forest and any sensitive habitats and help promote and strengthen that,” Hochholzer said. “Through dialogue and open conversations, people tend to fall into agreement. What the CMC has in place is excellent: good communication between the ad hoc committee and all the partners.”
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