Hundreds of Acres to Be Preserved in Eastern Conn.

Hundreds of acres in eastern Connecticut are in the process of being acquired by the state to expand existing parks and wildlife conservation areas, but thousands more need to be attained or protected in order to meet a fast-approaching goal.

The Connecticut Comprehensive Open Space Acquisition Strategy, or Green Plan, sets a target of preserving 673,210 acres or 21% of the state's land by 2023. As of June 30, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection estimated that 508,718 or 75.5 % of the total open space goal had been reached.

"We still have a ways to go," said Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, a private conservation organization. "What the state has been admitting for years is, it's unlikely we're going to be able to get to that goal. But we want them to keep pushing."

Last week, Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, who represents eastern Connecticut, announced that three federal grants totaling more than $560,000 were being awarded to the energy and environmental department to support future land acquisition at three sites in the region.

The list includes $312,500 to acquire 313.2 acres of privately owned land to be added to the 290.1-acre Monro Pond State Park Reserve in Columbia; $157,500 to add 97.74 acres to Devil's Hopyard State Park in East Haddam; and $94,250 to obtain 15.69 acres of privately owned land to be added to the 1,695.21-acre Quinebaug River Wildlife Management Area, which spans across Canterbury and Plainfield.

Courtney noted the process of acquiring each parcel of land is still ongoing, but the federal funding from the U.S. Department of Interior's Land and Water Conservation Fund represents an important step forward and will "help ensure that more of our natural heritage will be protected and enjoyed for generations to come."

Under the state's Green Plan, 10% of the 21% open space goal is supposed to be comprised of DEEP-owned state parks, forests and wildlife areas. The other 11% is to be owned by towns, private nonprofit land conservation organizations, water companies and the federal government.

As of late 2015, DEEP held about 80% of its statutory share of open space acquisitions, while the towns, land conservation groups and others had met 69% of their statutory share.

Hammerling said the state needs to commit to spending more money on open space acquisition. He noted how it remains uncertain whether any funds will be included in the final state borrowing package that has yet to be finalized. Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont's administration has been negotiating the legislation behind closed doors with Democratic legislative leaders after an agreement couldn't be reached during the regular legislative session.

Lamont has called for the state to go on a so-called "debt diet" to reduce its bonding costs. In a recent letter to Republican lawmakers, Lamont's budget secretary Melissa McCaw wrote about the need to "reduce our automatic and discretionary authorizations" in order to dig the state out of debt.

But Hammerling said protecting land should be a priority.

"As much as we appreciate bringing under control our state's credit card, we do think there are certain things that are worth investing in," he said. "And we'd put land and trails on that list."

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