By Clark Judge.
(Jan. 27, 2022) — Until now, the push to preserve and protect Deer Lake as an open space has been a local movement, led primarily by activists and advocates. But that changed Thursday with national support from a forceful public figure.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal joined a coterie of local and state dignitaries on a frigid afternoon at the 255-acre Deer Lake property, promising to seek funding to keep it “a pristine treasure,” as he called it, and prevent its sale to a private developer.
“To allow it to go the way of development,” he said, speaking at an outdoor news conference, “would be unconscionable.”
That message was echoed by others, including State Sen. Christine Cohen, State Rep. Christine Goupil, First Selectwoman Nancy Gorski, former First Selectwoman Cathy Iino and representatives from Save the Sound, Connecticut Audubon, the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, Killingworth Land Conservation Trust, Save Deer Lake and the Trust for Public Land.
“I am not anti-development,” said Cohen. “I am anti-developing this property. We need to make sure that we preserve this land.”
With the future of Deer Lake uncertain, the appearance of Blumenthal, as well as state and local officials, comes at a critical time. Owned by the Connecticut Yankee Council of the Boy Scouts of America, the property has been for sale since last fall – with two offers currently on the table. One is from a private developer. The other is from the Trust for Public Land (TPL), a non-profit organization designed to preserve and protect land.
A decision on its future was expected at the Connecticut Yankee Council’s board of directors’ December meeting. But it was postponed until this month … and then postponed again. According to president Rudy Escalante, one of two members of the Connecticut Yankee Council who attended Thursday’s news conference, a February board meeting — with a potential sale announced — almost certainly won’t happen, either.
The reason: Blumenthal’s involvement could bring additional sources of revenue. So the board can wait.
“We would love to keep it as open space,” Escalante said of Deer Lake. “That would be great. But [TPL] has to have a reasonable offer.”
It is unknown what the two offers are.
In the meantime, local and state politicians stepped forward to voice their support for preserving Deer Lake – with Gorski opening the news conference by reading a letter the Killingworth Board of Selectmen sent the Connecticut Yankee Council earlier this month on behalf of the town’s Open Space Committee.
“The Killingworth Open Space Committee finds that the Deer Lake Scout Reservation is a crucial part of the state greenway that runs through town,” she said. “As such, it should be a priority for preservation as open space, in keeping with Killingworth’s Plan of Conservation and Development.”
Six speakers, including Blumenthal, followed, all with the same plea.
“For all of us,” said Blumenthal, “[Deer Lake] represents some of the best of Connecticut. It is part of the ecological lifeblood of this region. If we lose it, there is no way to recover. Open space is not something that you lose, then recover somehow. Once it’s lost … once it’s developed … once it’s gone … it’s gone forever.”
The most poignant moment occurred when Goupil, whose family has camped at Deer Lake, read from her son’s Scouts handbook, turning to a page where he scribbled down the names of habitats and wildlife he witnessed on hikes there.
“I truly feel that development needs to take place in areas of existing infrastructure,” she said, “and we need to focus on areas of conservation where they already exist and preserve them … At this point, we’re just hoping that we have enough momentum to help support some of the non-profits so we can get the funding in place to purchase the property. Some sort of partnerships are what we need at this point.”
The question, of course, is how that can be accomplished – especially if TPL’s offer falls short of the competition. Blumenthal said he planned to seek relief through the Great American Outdoors Act, a bill passed in 2020 authorizing billions in funding through two major park-related needs, the National Park Service deferred maintenance service backlog and the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Promising “to go to the federal government, pound on doors and pummel officials,” Blumenthal said he would seek “whatever resources” he could find through the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
“There’s nothing novel about what we’re trying to do here,” he said. “There’s nothing imaginary or obtuse. It’s been done before. These kinds of preservation efforts succeed because of the advocates and actions at local levels.”
Nevertheless, it is the Connecticut Yankee Council that decides the future of Deer Lake, and it wasn’t heard Thursday. However, it should be soon. After the news conference, Escalante said he plans to schedule a meeting with Blumenthal to discuss the property.
“[The Boy Scouts] deserve credit for being good stewards,” said Blumenthal. “All we’re trying to do is carry on that tradition of being good stewards that the Boy Scouts so ably reflected. Certainly, we’ll be in touch with them and ask what their intentions are.”
Escalante liked that.
“I thought it was great,” he said of the presentations. “We love this place. We’ve been stewards of it for the last 50 years. So, it’s not like we don’t have an emotional commitment, as well. We just hope to be successful when we work with him on it.”
He’s not alone, as Thursday’s news conference demonstrated.
“The goal,” said Blumenthal, “is to preserve and protect. Think of it as the lungs of our state. If you fly over our state, you see areas of open space. They help us breathe. Literally. The goal very simply is to stop development … and make [Deer Lake] fully accessible to all the people of Connecticut.”
Photos by Clark Judge.