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Long Island Soundkeeper Raising Awareness about Deer Lake

By Clark Judge.

(March 8, 2022) — When a news conference was called in late January to save the Deer Lake Scout Reservation as an open space, an array of politicians, preservationists and advocacy groups appeared. Included were the Connecticut Forest and Park Association … and Connecticut Audubon … and the Killingworth Land Conservation Trust … and the Trust for Public Land. But then there was Save the Sound, and I know what you’re thinking.

Huh?

“You’re probably wondering,” said Bill Lucey, the Long Island Soundkeeper since 2017, as he stood before a microphone, “why is the Soundkeeper back up off the shore and hanging out in the trees up here.”

Well, as a matter of fact … yes.

“There are two reasons I’m here,” he said then. “The first one is that our organization is very committed to preserving open space in Connecticut. We’ve been involved in over 18,000 acres of that work over the course of our 50-year history. The reason I’m specifically interested in that is that protecting these chunks of core forest is huge. We’re losing a little bit every year, but we still have areas like this where there are big tracts of forest. And why is that important? Well, when the rain falls on this forest, it gets clean. When it travels along these streams, it cools down. And that’s exactly what we need to increase the health of Long Island Sound.”

That made so much sense that I looked for Lucey again last week. With the Connecticut Yankee Council of the Boy Scouts of America voting to sell the 255 acres that comprise its Deer Lake property to a private developer, I wanted to hear more – especially since the Council won’t close on the reported $4.625-million offer until after March 31. So I approached Lucey, a Connecticut native who spent years living in Vermont, Guatemala, Alaska and Hawaii working at the municipal, state and federal levels of government, running a commercial fishing business, a sawmill and who now lives in Killingworth. This is what I learned:

Q: Why is Save the Sound interested in a land preservation project?

Lucey: Save the Sound has been involved with land conservation and preservations for decades. We are currently involved with efforts to save Plum Island from private development and create a place where the public can visit some of the last wild coastline of Long Island Sound. We are also working with local groups in the Oswegatchie Hills, which hold some of the last remaining coastal forest along the Niantic River. We have worked with water companies in the past to prevent land from being sold to development and are involved with planning efforts now to create more hiking opportunities on company lands. There is a direct correlation between contiguous forest and water quality. If the watershed is degraded, it will degrade Long Island Sound. If you want to clean up Long Island Sound you have to restore the damaged watersheds that empty into it. It is far cheaper to protect intact forests and wetlands than to restore them after they are damaged.

Q: So, then, this is about more than saving 255 acres pf open space. It’s about protecting an ecological balance over a far greater area?

Lucey: If you look at the state of Connecticut from Google Earth, you can see a green triangle running from Middletown down the Connecticut River to Old Saybrook and over to North Branford, angling back to Middletown. The coast is intensely developed, but the interior for the triangle is a mix of state forest, state park, Connecticut Water Company-protected land and several land trust properties. There are, of course, many subdivisions across this area, but it holds some of the remaining core forest near Long Island Sound. Many of the river systems in this area are short coastal systems. Watersheds need protected headwaters to keep the water clean. The added benefit of contiguous forest is the quality of wildlife habitat. Certain bird species, like warblers and thrushes, will only nest in larger chunks of forest. The trees shade the streams in the heat of the summer and capture nutrients and pollutants before they wash into the streams.

Q: What is the environmental impact we could face if the land is developed?

Lucey: Road runoff, with its salt, sand, dirt, little oil drippings, brake dust and tire particles, degrades water quality. More development brings more hardened surfaces like rooftops and driveways. New developments create higher demand on water resources and sewage disposal, adding to the nutrient load to groundwater, streams and ultimately Long Island Sound. More houses in core forest increases bird strikes to windows and pets like cats and dogs chase off and kill wildlife creating impact zones around each new housing unit. Having intact systems means that bobcats and snakes keep rodent populations down, birds eat garden and tree pests and coyotes keep deer populations under control. Areas without these intact predator guilds end up with ecosystems that become unbalanced: Too many deer, invasive pests, etc. Where I lived in Alaska, all the major predators on land and in the water were present and kept a dynamic check and balance on the entire system. It was world-class wildlife viewing, hunting and fishing. We have seen some recovery in Connecticut, and there are still vestiges of the former natural grandeur that once existed. However, as development increases, you see a general degradation of the ecosystem function. Hunting-and-fishing-quality drops. There are fewer reptiles and amphibians and a lower biodiversity of bird species. People spray for weeds and ticks and apply chemical fertilizers to the landscape. I moved to Killingworth because it reminded me of growing up in Wilton, CT. When I was a child, we would see box turtles and wood turtles, lots of snakes, amazing insects like Luna moths and all kinds of wildlife that seem to be gone from that area now as the town has been increasingly developed. Once an area is developed, it is very difficult for many of these species to survive. This is called creeping incrementalism. Each generation accepts a slightly more degraded situation as normal and enjoys less and less publicly accessible land. Once the property is privately developed, no-trespassing signs will go up and yet one more place will be closed off to the public. Compared to the Western U.S. and Alaska, Connecticut is intensely developed and covered in private land. From my perspective, it is already over-developed and people’s access overly restricted. Losing yet another parcel of land continues that relentless march to reduced opportunity for future generations to see and enjoy the increasingly rare forests of southern New England.

Q: What, if anything, makes this particular property unique?

Lucey: This property in Killingworth is an integral part of the mosaic of protected land that includes Chatfield Hollow State Park, Cockaponaset State Forest, Connecticut Water Company land, and Killingworth Land Trust parcels. Much of this regional acreage is available to hikers, birders, hunters and anglers. The areas that are closed to the public, like drinking water lands, provide high quality habitat to a variety of creatures that spread out from the protected areas into the large chunks of publicly accessible forests such as Deer Lake, affording people the opportunity to see and interact with all manner of creatures. The Deer Lake property is part of the Connecticut Blue Blaze Trail system, has an ongoing project bringing back American chestnut trees and was given funds from Audubon to create a bird sanctuary. It is a mix of habitat types important to a wide variety of wildlife. The current low-key development on the site provides campers and Scouts a place to camp out, have fires, catch fish and other critters, and enjoy a beautiful landscape.

Q: What exactly can Save the Sound do, and what do you anticipate happening on or before March 31?

Lucey: All we can do as an organization is raise public awareness and encourage the Connecticut Yankee Council to accept a market value offer to conserve the property. The Council seem to feel that they should capitalize on it and get the most money they can from a sale. I personally believe this is contrary to the mission of the Scouts. From the “Land Ethic of the Scouts,” developed from Aldo Leopold, we read; “A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.” The Scouts are a non-profit, not a real-estate business, though they seem to be the latter now as they liquidate their holdings.  I understand there are fewer Scouts now than in times past, but the Deer Lake property is an easy way to make a couple of million bucks and still have the local Scouts be able to use the grounds by engaging with the CT Trust for Public Land. My son is a Cub Scout, and I was a Scout … as was my father. The Scouts are supposed to be dedicated to public service. I no longer feel that is the case after observing the negotiation inflexibility and creating of false deadlines for a quick sale when they know the general public is against it. The property is used by hundreds of Connecticut’s children every year, and there is a reasonable offer on the table from the Trust for Public Land. So why not make a decision based on the guidance of their own land ethic?

Photos by Clark Judge.

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