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In Land We Trust

A look at preservation efforts



Photo by Wendy Carlson

One day last October, Emily Kent sat at a picnic table soaking up a vista of autumnal splendor, while her two young boys, Owen, 7, and Sam, 5, raced each other through a nearby cow pasture. Until then, Kent had never heard of Weantinoge Heritage Land Trust or realized that the 220-acre Smyrski Farm neighboring her home in New Milford was part of the trust’s vast tracts of protected land.

At Annual Members Day last fall, neighbors were invited to learn more about the trust and partake in activities, including tethered balloon rides, trail hikes, and a hay-wagon tour. But the key attraction was the spectacular view from the restored barn.

The beauty of the natural world is one of the biggest draws of the northwest corner. Hidden gems like Smyrski Farm are scattered throughout Litchfield County, the result of numerous conservation organizations that have worked to acquire and protect land—and make it accessible to the public.

“That’s one of the great things about this area, being able to come back and reconnect with the land,” says Torrance Robinson, a weekender from Brooklyn, who spent his summers and weekends in Litchfield County when he was growing up. Now he and his family are weekenders in Washington, where he serves on subcommittees for Steep Rock Preserve.

Of the more than 600,000 acres comprising Litchfield County, more than 21 percent are protected land. The amount of preserved land varies from town to town, ranging from five percent in Bethlehem to more than 46 percent in Canaan and Falls Village. Nearly every town in the county has its own land trust, but last year marked the anniversaries of two of the region’s conservation powerhouses. Weantinoge Land Trust celebrated its 50th anniversary, and Steep Rock Preserve is now in its 91st year.

The Housatonic Valley Association (HVA), which protects land and water throughout the entire 2,000-square-mile, tri-state Housatonic area and holds 5,000 acres, held its 25th anniversary auction last November, honoring auction founder Diane von Furstenberg. There, bold-face names donated to the cause, including comic Seth Meyers who paid $3,000 to have three apple trees planted at his Litchfield home.

Prominent residents, interested in protecting their own vistas as safeguarding property that reflects the spirit of their communities, are often key players on the land trust. Gala invites can often read like a Who’s Who—American philanthropist, art patron, and collector Agnes Gund; socialite Anne Bass; Academy Award–winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis and his wife, writer Rebecca Miller;  and so on. When Steep Rock celebrated its 90th anniversary last summer with its annual picnic at Steep Rock, Danny Meyer, New York City restaurateur and neighboring landowner, and his wife, actress Audrey Heffernan, a Steep Rock trustee, were among those tucking into the informal barbecue dinner. 

Steep Rock itself originated when prominent architect Ehrick Rossiter, who owned land abutting what is now the preserve, sought to protect his views. In 1889, just as he was about to break ground on his own country house in Washington, he discovered that the wooded hillsides nearby were slated for clear-cutting. Using the construction money for the house, he bought the land from the timber company, protecting forever 100 acres that now make up the core of Steep Rock. During his 36 years of ownership, Rossiter built carriage roads and small river crossings.

In 1925, he donated the land to a group of trustees, ensuring its preservation. Vestiges of carriage roads remain; on weekends they are used by joggers, dog walkers, and hikers. Over time, numerous landowners have donated tracts to the Steep Rock Association, which now comprises more than 2,700 acres.

Weantinoge was started by a small group of citizens in New Milford in 1965 and developed as a regional organization because few towns had established their own land trusts and they needed guidance, explains executive director Catherine Rollins. 

Weantinoge has evolved into the largest land trust in the state with 15 working farms and 9,000 acres in 17 towns in Litchfield County. The organization reached a milestone this year when it earned national accreditation, assuring that it meets the highest standards of land conservation.

Hefty donations from generous members help keep trusts like Weantinoge moving forward in their quest to acquire more land, but members from a broad economic cross-section help with the work of stewarding it: mapping land holdings, checking protected land, and serving on subcommittees. 

Linda Allard may be known as the face behind Ellen Tracy, the clothing line, but on Members Day, she helped with the less fashionable work of stacking plates with cider doughnuts and refilling coffee urns. Allard serves on Steep Rock, Weantinoge, and HVA boards. She says: “Conservation is just something I grew up with—it’s part of my being.” 

Another group in the mix is the Litchfield Hills Greenprint Collaborative, which falls under the HVA and works with 24 land trusts in identifying resources. Last May, Greenprint helped the Cornwall Conservation Trust acquire 300 acres, connecting 1,000 acres between West Cornwall and Cornwall Bridge.

The collaborative’s aim is far reaching. The state’s goal is to preserve 21 percent of regionally significant land by 2030, “but we’ve already reached that in our region,” says Greenprint director Timothy Abbott, who is committed to further protecting 70,000 acres.

It’s a tall order, but Abbott sees promise in the ability of trusts to work together strategically to acquire land and finance transactions. “That,” he says, “is the power of collaboration.” 

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