Chaplin, CT--Rusty Lanzit is in his element here beside the Natchaug River where it runs past his Christmas tree farm. "There's something about living along the water that all of us can appreciate," he says. "Clean air and clean water are what people want."
He should know. As First Selectman of Chaplin, Rusty has long been a leader in efforts that communities in eastern Connecticut are undertaking to protect local rivers such as the Natchaug and its headwaters, Bigelow Brook and the Still River.
Seven towns, Ashford, Chaplin, Eastford, Mansfield, Union, Windham and Woodstock marked a milestone earlier this summer when the river system became an officially designated Connecticut Greenway, the latest of about forty natural areas within Connecticut to be given special status by the state.
The state describes greenways as corridors of open space that may protect natural resources, features, landscapes, views or historic sites and serve to connect protected areas or biotic corridors.
For a municipality to submit an open space corridor for designation it must formally endorse the greenway with a resolution or compact, include it in its Plan of Conservation and Development and agree to undertake improvements. Designation earns communities "bonus points" that can give them a leg up when applying for state grants for projects such as improving trails or habitat or acquiring open space within a greenway system.
While mustering votes for resolutions can be a daunting task, in the Natchaug watershed the process worked to rally support for community-based environmental protection, tapping what many describe as a groundswell. "Development pressure has made [land use] a front burner issue," Rusty says. "Our goal [for the greenway in Chaplin] is to protect and preserve it--and the time is right. We have all our boards involved."
"There has been a tremendous amount of grassroots support for protecting these resources," says Holly Drinkuth, conservation commission liaison for the Green Valley Institute. Holly was the point person on the greenway application and coordinated the towns' efforts to protect the watershed for the past five years. "The designation creates a rallying point and serves to let people know what a wonderful resource we have in the river and what they can do to become part of its protection. Citizen involvement has been terrific."
Holly is well known in eastern Connecticut for her efforts to inform community land use boards and commissions here about landscape-level conservation. On any given day, Holly and her colleague, Steve Broderick, co-director of the Green Valley Institute, may be out surveying local forests, rivers, even roadway storm drain sedimentation around the Quinebaug Highlands region.
By night they can often be found at meetings at one town hall or another, sharing with people who volunteer to serve on local planning, zoning or conservation commissions what they have learned about managing and preserving the rural, pristine nature of the Quiet Corner.
Community plans to protect the Natchaug watershed began taking shape in 2001 when local leaders such as Rusty and the Green Valley Institute set out to study conservation needs in the Quinebaug Highlands region. "We began to wonder how do we maintain quality forest land?" Holly says. "The quality of the water in rivers in northeastern Connecticut has always been high so another question was how do we protect the quality of our water systems?"
In 2004, Green Valley Institute partnered with The Nature Conservancy Connecticut to identify essential natural resources in the region and conservation tools that could be used to protect them. Based on findings of its staff scientists in the northeast region, The Nature Conservancy offered answers to key questions. "We began to recognize that you need to protect the rivers that run through the forests to keep the whole system working," says Nature Conservancy Connecticut Chapter Director Lise Hanners.
"What's critically important is that conservation plans are based on science," says Steve. "That's where The Nature Conservancy's ecologists have been so helpful. It's great to talk about protection, but what does that mean? That's what The Nature Conservancy and their scientific resources have been helping us to understand."
Community-based: going beyond governmental regulation
Since the state officially designated the Natchaug greenway in June, the real work of protection has begun. "In the end it's up to the local communities to assume responsibility and take the lead on protecting the greenway," says Steve.
The reality is that the state designation by itself isn't enough to protect a natural resource or corridor. "It's voluntary," says Leslie Lewis, Greenways Coordinator for the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. "It has no teeth. There are no 'shalts,' only 'shoulds.' I believe the real benefit is that designation can serve as a blueprint for plans of conservation and development without the negative impacts of government over regulation."
"There are opportunities for towns to integrate ideas in the plans with their zoning and conservation work," says Holly. "There is some potential to put in additional restriction such as setbacks, but the real opportunity is for towns to work together to adopt similar strategies and to promote informed, voluntary stewardship."
The idea is to provide people with relevant information, to inform landowners along the river about best practices such as maintaining buffer zones that help cleanse runoff and provide shade that helps keep river water from getting too warm. By fostering a stewardship ethic, a community-based approach can succeed where government regulation often fails.
"The hope is that the guy who has a pile of car batteries in his yard will be made to feel like the outlier," says Steve, "and that we can create an environment where peer pressure and community pressure work to protect natural resources on a voluntary basis.
"And that's a do-able thing, but you have to keep up the drumbeat. It's a continual process of outreach and awareness building. Outreach is a key part of a successful plan."
Steve's insights (and optimism) comes from seeing the results of the outreach work he and Holly have already done, and the knowledge that environmental stewardship has long been a part of the culture of eastern Connecticut. Standing at Diana's Pool, a spot along the Natchaug where legend has it that the forlorn sobs of a broken-hearted Chaplin woman "who jumped to her death in the icy waters" can still be heard, Steve talks about the real tradition of environmental conservation that exists here.
"This is an area that has its roots in private citizen conservation," says Steve. "It's a favorite spot that has been protected since the 1930s, when James L. Goodwin (for whom the state forest and conservation center in Hampton is named) bought the property down river from an old mill and held it until the state could acquire it. Now we have an opportunity to continue that legacy."
Welcome to Eastford's Boston Turnpike Trail! Here you will be standing on the ONLY remaining unaltered portion of an early road system that first connected our cities and town during colonial times. It was first established under King Charles II of Britain and followed trails laid out in much earlier times by Native Americans.
The Boston Post Road was not a single road, but actually a system of roads that connected the important cities of the colonies: Boston, Hartford, Providence, New Haven, New York, Philadelphia, Williamsburg and Charleston. The portion in Eastford was part of the Middle Route that ran east from Hartford to Putnam, then on to Dedham, MA and finally to Boston. The trip to Boston to New York via this route was about 225 miles - considerably shorter than the southern Boston Post Road that ran along the coast.
As the name implies, an important function of these roads was to carry the mail. Back in 1673 it took about a month for a letter to go from New York to Boston. First it was carried by horseback and then later by stage coach. These roads also gave farmers a way to get their goods to markets and were also important for moving troops during colonial wars and the American Revolution.
In order to raise money to pay for the upkeep of the road, the newly formed states of the United States allowed towns to charge tolls on their portions of the Post Road. The roads then became known as "turnpikes" because of the turnstiles where travelers had to pay a toll before passing.
At some places along the Boston Turnpike Trail, you will notice that the old roadway still maintains its crown at the center. This allowed rainwater to drain off to the sides - an especially important feature in the mud season! Although cattle drivers were permitted to use the route, the cattle had to be kept off the main road. You will see stone walls running parallel to the road in places. On the other side of these walls is where the cattle were permitted to walk.
This trail passes through part of the Natchaug State Forest (for more information - see the Trails & Recreation Page in this website), as well as over privately owned land. We thank the land owners who have given their permission for the public to use this trail.
The portion of the trail between Old Colony Road and State Forest Road passes through what is known as a typical maple/oak/hickory forest. Near to the State Forest Road, the trail passes through wetland habitat. A small bridge and short length of boardwalk have been constructed (by local talent and Conservation Commission member, Thomas DeJohn) to ease your passage through these areas.
The Boston Turnpike TRail continues through hardwood forest down Rt. 198. You can turn back and re-trace your steps on the old roadway, or follow the newly cleared loop trail and visit several different habitats. Along this section, you shall cross a stream, find stands of coniferous trees planted by the Connecticut DEP Division of Forestry, pass a vernal pool, and finally return to the old Post Road after passing by a lovely meadow.
Enjoy and please attend a Conservation Commission meeting - the first Tuesday of each month - at the town office building if you are interested in volunteering on future Commission Success Story Projects!