The Litchfield Hills Greenprint has released an locally-driven assessment of conservation priorities, land protection trends and development threats across 25 towns in Northwest Connecticut. The Danbury News Times and Waterbury Republican newspapers gave prominent coverage of the Greenprint's map and data release in June 23rd's editions and most local news outlets are interested in featuring the story. As the director of the Greenprint, I find the extremely positive public response to what we have shared deeply gratifying, but also essential if these maps and figures are to be meaningful and able to inspire an increase in both the pace and quality of land protection by many conservation interests and municipalities across the Litchfield Hills.
Getting to this point has been a true collaboration. Towns, land trusts, state agencies, planners and private citizens willingly shared their time and information and helped markedly improve the model we constructed to aggregate all this data and spatially represent the most significant resources for conservation. Unlike some information gathering tools that have information flowing all in one direction, the Litchfield Hills Greenprint is meant to be both relevant and responsive to local values and attitudes. The conservation priorities our predictive model suggests are not tied to any one organizations mandate or funding source, but help us collectively better understand what we individually already know and recognize the patterns and processes that make this landscape and our communities so special and influence conservation and development activity across this region.
New Englanders, conventional wisdom holds are a fractious bunch, often defining themselves in contrast to their neighbors. Regional planning is viewed in many communities with suspicion and in Connecticut is particularly under-resourced. Yet even the most insular of communities in the Litchfield Hills have started to realize that the threats they face individually are greater than themselves and what happens down the road in the next town may profoundly influence life in their own. The Greenprint data, a regional perspective reflecting issues of deep local interest, has been greeted with astonishment and enthusiasm in town after town and folks are hungry for more.
We are still sifting through the results of this assessment, but some fascinating information and trends have already emerged.
- The 25 towns of the Litchfield Hills Greenprint area comprise 571,666 acres. 20% of these is permanently protected open space. This compares to less than 15% statewide but is still below Connecticut's goal of 21% of the state in permanent conservation by 2023. If each acre conserved were of equal conservation value, one might conclude that we should focus our land protection work in areas of the state with less conservation land than the northwest corner, but the fact is that this region has far more conservation value than many parts of the state. 75% of the region has forest cover, compared to 60% of Connecticut as a whole. There is more land in agricultural use in Litchfield County than anywhere else in the state. More than 90% of the Litchfield Hills Greenprint area has significance for preserving water quality. 1/4 of the state's biodiversity is concentrated here.
- The Greenprint assessment of those attributes of the Litchfield Hills and its communities that with conservation value determined that nearly 50% of the total land area has conservation importance. Some of that significant land is in permanent protection, leaving a bit more than 200,000 acres in play, or about 35% of the total land area of the Litchfield Hills. That's a lot of land, and some of it will certainly be developed and may even be able to be developed without compromising the conservation values of those properties. Some of our communities have significant percentages of their towns in permanent protection, but almost without exception these are also places with large amounts of unprotected land still of conservation importance. In contrast, there are communities in the Litchfield Hills with 15% or less protected open space. New Milford has 8.2%. Bethlehem has 4.5%.
- Nearly 73% of the lands already protected were identified as having conservation significance according to the model criteria developed by the Litchfield Hills Greenprint. Because protected status was not a criterion for determining conservation importance, there appears to be a strong correlation between what people told us they value and would like to see conserved and what actually has been protected to date. It is also possible that conservation areas that have been spared development impacts for a long time will develop better habitat qualities, scenic and recreational opportunities, etc and would therefore would emerge as significant resources. Even so, we are doing far less good a job protecting some of the important conservation resources of this area than others. We have 85,549 acres of farmland cover in this area, and only 1/7 of these fields and pastures are permanently protected. We lose farmland more rapidly here than any other landcover type.
- We have protected less than 20% of our riparian corridors and only 25% of the natural areas along our major rivers. Less than 14% of our prime agricultural soils are protected, and much of what remains is in areas highly threatened by development.
While is is extremely useful to be able to spatially represent areas of conservation value, it will also be extremely important to anticipate where the development threats are greatest. Understanding the patterns of rural sprawl has been a keen interest of mine, and the existing models did not adequately represent what we believe is driving development pressure in the Litchfield Hills. Therefore, this program has developed a new conceptual model to predict two types of development with conservation impacts : large parcels divided and developed with multiple residences and intact natural areas fragmented by inappropriate development and poorly sited infrastructure. We constructed the model using parcels greater than 100 acres -we had these parcel layers for every town in the Litchfield Hills - and unbroken natural areas greater than 200 acres. We looked at desirability factors in each town , factors that placed the specific parcel or natural area at risk of development, and building constraints. The results are brand new and will undergo peer review and refinement, but the most fascinating and compelling finds are that when the areas of greatest development and habitat fragmentation threat are merged with the areas of conservation significance, it highlights about 2.5% of the total area of the Litchfield Hills as likely places for conservationists to focus their land protection efforts before they go on the market.
There is much to do, but we now have a powerful tool, reflecting local values and attitudes and using locally-derived data, that can help ensure that the ecological qualities of this landscape and the unique character of its communities will endure for generations to come. The task for all of us working in land use planning and conservation across the Litchfield Hills is to turning this powerful assessment tool into sustained and coordinated action.