By Clark Judge
(October 5, 2022) — When a local nonprofit announced its purchase of Deer Lake last month, board members punctuated the event by joining conservationists and preservationists in an informal celebration. Cake was served. Two magnums of Champagne were uncorked. And the sign that read “Deer Lake Scout Reservation” and hung over the entrance to the 255-acre property was cut in half.
It now reads “Deer Lake.”
“This wasn’t just a come-from-behind victory for Deer Lake and this community,” an exultant state Attorney General William Tong said at the September 16, 2022 news conference. “This was a Hail Mary.”
Against all odds, Pathfinders, Inc. – the nonprofit dedicated to preserving Deer Lake as open space – had engaged in a fundraising campaign that raised $4.75 million to purchase the property from its owner, the Connecticut Yankee Council (CYC) of the Boy Scouts of America, and to save it from development.
But, contrary to what some believe, the Save Deer Lake campaign is not over. In fact, it’s far from complete.
Yes, Pathfinders spared the property from private development. But, no, it cannot and will not assume complete ownership until it repays the $1.8 million in low-interest loans that comprise 38 percent of the purchase price … and that will necessitate a second-round of fundraising.
“We achieved our goal of gaining possession of the property,” said Ted Langevin, Chairman of Pathfinders, “but we still have some time to go before it can be permanently protected … When the loans get paid off, we’ll be able to put a permanent conservation easement on the property, which is what we intend to do. That takes money, and that takes fundraising.”
So what now? Keep reading.
Q: What’s the next move?
A: To retire the $1.8-million debt as soon as possible. Two loans were made, one of $1.3 million by Don Vaccaro, CEO of TicketNetwork, and the other of $500,000 by Tom Mercaldo, president of Aquinas Consulting. Mercaldo, an Eagle Scout and Boy Scout Leader of Troop 1 in Milford, has since joined the Pathfinders Board of Directors. “There’s another piece to this,” said former State Rep. Bruce Morris, speaking for Vaccaro. “We need to get on to permanency. We encourage everyone for the posterity, for the legacy of the state of Connecticut, for children of the future … let’s see what we can do to get the posterity done.”
Q: Who can help?
A: Anyone and everyone. When the “Save Deer Lake” drive began in mid-March of 2022, it netted more than $3 million in donations from 87 Connecticut towns, 34 states and four countries … and it did that in two months. “Astounding,” said the head of one conservation group. Now a second push is necessary to cross the finish line, with a campaign jump-start launched in October.
Q: Why did the Save Deer Lake campaign resonate with so many people?
A: Because so many people cared … and cared deeply … about Deer Lake and their experiences there. Campers, counselors, youth groups, hikers, conservationists, preservationists, politicians, neighbors walking their dogs …you name it … advocates refused to let the property disappear. One reason was practical. As spokespersons for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Save the Sound pointed out, preserving the area as open space was critical to more than just Deer Lake. TNC named the area as one of the “most resilient” to climate change near shoreline in the Northeast, while Long Island Soundkeeper Bill Lucey detailed Deer Lake’s importance to the well-being of the Sound. “If you don’t have a healthy watershed,” he said, “you don’t have a healthy Long Island Sound. All the water that falls in the state of Connecticut drains into Long Island Sound. So it needs to be shaded, filtered and cleaned. And this (Deer Lake) is part of it.” But there’s another reason the Save Deer Lake movement had momentum, and it is personal and emotional. “There are special memories that this place holds for so many,” said State Sen. Christine Cohen. “It doesn’t matter whom you talk to; there is always a connection. Even if they hadn’t visited here themselves, they knew somebody who had and who shared a special moment they had on the lake or camping with the Boy Scouts. Mark and Patty Clifton are treasures. The land and the water are like none other. The memories run deep.”
Q: Besides the general community, what are other sources of possible funding?
A: U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal mentioned one at the September 16th news conference: The Inflation Reduction Act, which, he said, “has a $5-billion allocation for the regional conservation and preservation program. I don’t know how the Inflation Reduction Act is being implemented, but, one way or another, I’m confident these loans can be paid off and that there will be a conservation easement.” Killingworth First Selectwoman Nancy Gorski promised town help, saying, “We are prepared to stand next to Pathfinders and do what needs to get done to pay down the debt.” Cohen mentioned state assistance through the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. DEEP staff have walked the Deer Lake property. So has Gov. Ned Lamont. So they have first-hand knowledge of the area. “(Deer Lake) is contiguous to state forest, which is contiguous to Chatfield Hollow. So it makes a lot of sense for the state to come in and take a piece of ownership to help Pathfinders retire some of that debt and allow it to maintain the parts of the camp that make sense for Pathfinders and allow the state to come in with parts that make sense for the state.” Don’t expect immediate relief. “That’s always the question,” said Cohen. “DEEP has certain bonding available for this type of thing, but it takes a long time. Nothing moves quickly, let’s say. They need to make appraisals, work with the party that owns the land and do surveys. I can’t put a timeline on it, but we already are talking about what those possibilities could be. We really want to help Pathfinders make this work for everyone involved …and, most important, for the people of Connecticut. I’m very optimistic”
Q: Anything else not involving political entities?
A: Plenty. Weekend rentals and overnight camping will bring in money. So will leadership outings, weddings, events requiring use of the Dining Hall, outer buildings and surrounding property, outdoor education programs and subscriber donations. In the past, Deer Lake has hosted the Yale University hockey team for a one-day event, athletic teams from Fairfield University, Central Connecticut, Southern Connecticut and Connecticut College. It also once hosted Wesleyan Outdoor Wilderness for freshman orientation and Yale freshman staff training orientation.
Q: Will there be a celebration to thank local donors?
A: Yes. Plans call for an October 30, 2022 Open House at Deer Lake from 10:00 a.m.to 4:00 p.m., with the public invited at no cost. The idea is to celebrate what Blumenthal called “a profoundly important step that we thought couldn’t be done” and to thank the community for its role in an extraordinary grassroots effort. There will be food, drink, vendors, hay rides, music, guided trail hikes, a silent auction and, most important, education stations where donations can be made.
Q: Is the property now open to hikers and campers?
A: It is. Though Deer Lake is still privately owned, hikers are welcome. They are encouraged to check in with Mark or Patty Clifton, who operated the Deer Lake summer youth camp the past 36 years, and groups of five or more are asked to call ahead (203-421-4040). If hikers are accompanied by dogs, they’re asked to leash them and pick up and dispose of waste. Campers are welcome, too, but they must pay rental fees as they have in the past. Essentially, the rules are virtually identical to those a year ago under the CYC. “We welcome everybody,” said Langevin. “We want to make sure as many people know about this place. The support we’ve had has been just incredible.”
Q: Will the Boy Scouts be able to return, too?
A: Yes. In fact, Pathfinders is clear on this subject. Scouts — Boy and Girl …are as welcome now as they were a year ago. In fact, six Boy Scout groups signed up for a recent weekend (only one was able to come due to inclement weather). As in the past, they will pay for overnight camping and use of the facilities, with fees set by the property’s new owner, Pathfinders.
Q: How will the sale affect the summer youth camp?
A: It won’t. Remember, Pathfinders ran the camp this summer when the property was leased from the CYC. Mark and Patty Clifton ran it, as they have for more than three decades, and camp rosters were full, with waiting lists for every session. The only difference from last year at this time is that, then, there was serious indecision going forward because the future of the entire acreage was unknown. Not anymore. Expect earlier notices, decisions and camp invitations for the 2023 camp.
Photos by Clark Judge