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In his daily work and through special projects and programs, Town of Branford Department of Inland Wetlands and Natural Resources staffer David McCarthy is working to provide more connections to the community to support an environmentally conscious Branford. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
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David McCarthy has only been working at Town Hall for six months, but he’s already making strides toward connecting with the community to create a more environmentally conscious Branford.
The Town of Branford Department of Inland Wetlands and Natural Resources staffer brings enthusiasm, experience, and passion for working with people, building community around nature and connecting nature with people. David earned his master’s degree from the School of Forestry at Yale University and brings a background that includes recent work with New Haven’s non-profit community tree planting program, Urban Resources Initiative; as well as with Yale Climate Connections, the journalistic arm of non-profit Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
With support from First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove, David is working on projects that extend the scope of his responsibilities in the department to institute new environmental programs to benefit the community. One of his first efforts was spearheading the town’s first Endangered Species Day in May. To announce its commitment to protecting biodiversity and threatened species, on May 17, the Town of Branford planted a Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha)—America’s first rare tree—on the Branford Green.
David searched the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species for just the right tree for Branford.
“I looked for [endangered] trees to host, and we have lot we have in town, and some are already on the green being cared for, like elm [and] ash, but we don’t have a Franklin tree,” says David.
The tree was first discovered in 1765.
“The Franklin tree was named after Benjamin Franklin, who was a New England patriot,” says David. “And you can’t get more patriotic than the state of Connecticut—and here we have this beautiful, colonial town [celebrating] its 375th anniversary. So it’s kind of marrying the old with the new.”
During the 19th century, the Franklin tree became extinct in the wild.
“It’s been homeless for a long time,” says David. “So we’re happy to have a home for it here, and I’m looking forward to seeing it grow.”
The little tree, planted near the Civil War monument beside Town Hall, is expected to grow some 10 to 12 feet tall. Part of its attraction are loads of lotus-like, fragrant blooms—as David says, “...more than you can count” appearing from July to October.
“It’s doing well,” says David of the town’s Franklin tree. “It has buds on it now, so I’m hopeful that we’ll see some flowers soon.”
Flowers, plants, and plenty of community input figure into David’s next project for the town, which just received permission for launch from the First Selectman’s Office.
“We’re joining, as a town, the National Wildlife Federation’s Community Habitat Program,” David says. “I’ll be reaching out to the community soon to host a meeting, and in that meeting we’re looking to create a leadership committee to then reach the width of Branford, to start building and galvanizing interest in creating gardens that increase pollination, food, habitat, shelter, and water for wildlife.”
The success of the project will turn on gathering the right leadership team for the effort, David says.
“The key point of the leadership team is to be as diverse and inclusive as possible,” he says. “It’s really easy to reach out to the people in the community that have always been [involved]. It’s more difficult to reach a wider audience. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. It means it’s going to be worth the work. The harder the challenge, the better the reward.”
David’s hoping to gather point-people from across Branford, including those who “haven’t even really thought, ‘Hey, maybe I can have a voice in how my community looks or how my community responds to nature,’” he says.
Bringing those voices to the table, and inspiring leadership among them, will then empower them to foster the project in their areas of town, he adds.
“I’m a big proponent of taking a community stance on environmental stewardship, and I’ve personally witnessed what that looks like, and how that feels, and how that rolls out,” he says. “If you get the community behind a project, what it won’t do is die.”
In this case, that could mean many new beneficial gardens that will live on in Branford under the care and supervision of community members who helped to foster them.
“If it comes from the community, they’re going to take pride in it, they’re going to care for it, and they’re going to want to talk about it. And that’s how I think we really achieve a more environmentally conscious Branford.”
That said, David is thrilled to be working with a municipality that has been taking the lead in practices which value conservation and the environment, in a proactive department dedicated to protecting Branford’s inlands, wetlands, and natural resources.
“I think it’s fantastic that the town has this department where not only are we processing and enforcing the state statutes on how to regulate activity, but we’re also an entity that allows people to anonymously just point out things that they don’t think is good for the environment,” David says. “You have other towns that don’t necessarily have that. Here, there’s a lot of energy and excitement about retaining the natural resources that we have, and I’m very proud to serve the public in that manner.”
The department is led by Inlands Wetlands Director, Enforcement Officer, and Tree Warden Diana Ross.
“Typically, at least three or four days a week, we’re out in the field, either on our own, or if it’s a more complicated project, then we’ll both go, so we have two sets of eyes to review it,” says David, who also works as part of the team administering the regulatory processes and paperwork involved with projects.
“Even though a lot of the work can be task-centric and administration- and paper-heavy, all of those are opportunities to engage with people and just to talk them about their trees, wetlands, soils, and anything that connects them to their environment,” says David.
It’s also about recognizing climate change and planning for its impacts.
“For example, in thinking about wetlands, if you just myopically look at the town of Branford and block everything else out, you’re losing sight of the big picture that tells you climate is changing, and climate is going to bring more precipitation to New England, let alone Branford,” says David. “So if you have an increase in precipitation [you need to] think, ‘Will the drainage on this site plan be able to handle that? Will the wetland be able to handle more than what’s currently there? Are the plans going to be the plans of the future?’ Because the climate’s changing, and basically, the extremes are becoming more extreme, [so] if we didn’t account for all that, we might be making decisions that are less effective.”
David’s master’s degree in forestry includes concentrations in coastal management, urban forestry, and climate change adaptation and policy.
“This is a job that really hits on a lot of those nails,” says David. “And it allows me to work at a scale that I really wanted to, which was municipal but at the same time thinking global while working local. So I’m very attuned to a lot of the little things we’re doing here, and how that can be aggregated to the state, nationa,l or global scale, or vice versa.”
The New Haven resident and his wife, Kelly, enjoy sharing their love of nature with their one-year-old daughter, Clara.
“We love the outdoors,” says David. “We love the scenic roads in Branford—we drive them at least once a week. We go to beaches all along the Connecticut coastline and we like hiking and picnicking. My wife will sometimes visit me at work, and we picnic right on the Town Green.”
Prior to pursing his masters’ at Yale, David worked with a poverty reduction program affiliated with the Town of New Haven.
“I’ve always wanted to help and work with people,” says David. “It was during my time there that I decided that I wanted to follow my youthful instincts, which was to be involved in the environment, and go help and advocate for something that can’t help and advocate for itself. “
With continued support from the town’s administration, David’s looking forward to developing more environmentally conscious projects to benefit Branford and beyond.
“I’m very happy to have these aspirations, and be able to put them into action here in the Town of Branford,” he says.
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