Two years ago, when the governor signed Public Act 12-152, An Act Concerning the State’s Open Space Plan, the new law was heralded as evidence of Connecticut’s enlightened approach to conservation. Not only was the initiative seen as an endorsement of the state’s goal of extending open space protections to 673,210 acres — 21 percent of the state’s area — by 2023, it was intended to foster the same kind of strategic planning to open space protection that is normally accorded to land development. Specifically, it called for integrating open space acquisitions with the critical environmental need for protected wildlife habitats and ecosystems. The idea was to facilitate the efficient flow and operation of natural systems just as we might for transportation systems. It is a great concept, which according to a report issued by the Connecticut Audubon Society last week, is not working out in practice.
In its “State of the Birds 2014” report, the Audubon Society warns that the lack of conservation management in Connecticut has reduced the diversity of bird species in the state; further declines are expected. The report notes, with some notable exceptions, how conservation agencies and organizations have unwittingly abetted the disappearance of a “mosaic of different habitat stages and types” by securing open space and then letting it return to a forested state. The result is an expanding forest monoculture in Connecticut, which has significantly diminished the variety of birds here. Through the 19th and early 20th centuries, Connecticut was still a largely agricultural state. As little as 25 percent of the state was forested, with the preponderance of open spaces maintained as meadows and grasslands to support farming. Today, the state is about 60 percent forestland. The impacts on birds and other less studied and tracked forms of wildlife and plant life are profound.
Connecticut Audubon Society President Alexander R. Brash explains that “managing areas for wildlife is a lot more complicated than just letting them go.” That insight is not lost onNewtown’s public and private conservation groups. More active open space management was the intended purpose of the 2012 open space legislation, which appears to be suffering the same fate of most open space conservation efforts: no follow-through with funding and resources.
A good start would be to fund and implement a database of conserved open space in the state, both public and private, administered by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The state has an inventory of its protected spaces, but there is no single accounting of all the lands held by municipalities and private conservation organizations. Such a database would serve as a tool for conservationists and communities across the state to monitor open space by location, habitat, and possible threats and encroachments. And it would help ensure the continuity and integrity of ecosystems that sustain and nourish Connecticut’s rich and diverse heritage of natural beauty.