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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Charlestown will be getting even more open space, courtesy of the feds

Tale of Two Bunnies
By Will Collette
While Charlestown and most of South County are within the boundaries of the new Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge, the actual amount of new land the feds want to acquire is pretty small. Much of the area is already conservation protected space. Screenshot from the USNWR map.
The federal Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service announced its decision to go forward with the creation of a new, multi-state National Wildlife Refuge to be called The Great Thicket that will include large swaths of southern New England, including Charlestown and the rest of South County.

As is the case with most federal wildlife refuges, Great Thicket has the important mission of protecting wildlife habitat, In this instance, it’s the indigenous New England Cottontail which has been largely supplanted by its cousin the Eastern Cottontail.

The Eastern Cottontail apparently has a number of evolutionary advantages, but by preserving large areas of forested brush land, there is some hope of giving the New England Cottontail the kind of habitat it needs to thrive.

Even though I probably couldn’t pick a New England Cottontail out of a line-up of bunnies, I think it’s great that they will get a chance to do well. As a longtime bunny fan, I’ve always enjoyed spotting bunnies and even consider them a sign of good luck.

The cottontails in question. One is an Eastern Cottontail. The other is a New England Cottontail.
Can you tell which is which? The answer is at the bottom of this article.

The federal plan for Great Thicket will have substantial impact on South County. If you look at the fed’s map, you’ll see large parts of South County will be counted as part of the Refuge.
Near the center of the map, outlined in green and shaped like an appendix,
is Reeds Point, on the FWS's shopping list for addition to the Great
Thicket NWR (screen shot from the NWS map)

A substantial amount of South County land is already government-owned or conservation-restricted – that includes well over 50% of Charlestown’s total land mass. However, the map also shows some additional acreage the feds hope to acquire. It's outlined in green to the left.

Because Charlestown is already mostly open space or conservation land, the one spot the feds seem to want is a parcel called Reeds Point on Ninigret Pond. It looks to me like an appendix.

The area is bracketed by Wells Lane and Kennedy Lane. The plan may include some portion of those two roads – it is unclear from the feds map how much they will actually seek to acquire.

There’s been a lot of debate in Charlestown over what is the right balance between open space and living space, especially living space that contributes to the tax base. 

There are fringe positions on both sides the the debate. On one extreme, there's the desire to see all of Charlestown be open space (except for the house you live in). This particular fringe believes that families with children are parasites. I’m not making this up.

Then you have the fringe on the other end of the spectrum that wants to see rampant development more along the style of Westerly or Wakefield.

The feds hope to acquire much larger amounts of land in South Kingstown
and Narragansett (map screenshot)
Like most Charlestown residents, I fall in the middle. I truly love open space, but also believe it is possible to have too much of a good thing especially if it chokes the town to death.

With few full-time jobs, we have a aging, declining population that is trending demographically toward human extinction. While some may be fine with that, I’m not.

All that said, I think the modest amount of land the feds seek here in Charlestown to protect our indigenous bunnies is just fine.

Here is the feds official news release with links to maps and useful documents. At the end of the release is the answer to which bunny is which in the photo above.



OFFICIAL NEWS RELEASE:

New Refuge Approved!
US Fish and Wildlife Service

We are pleased to announce that in October 2016, Dan Ashe, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), and Wendi Weber, Northeast Regional Director of the Service, approved Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge (NWR; refuge)—a new refuge dedicated to managing shrubland habitat for wildlife in the Northeast.

Alternative B was selected from the final Great Thicket NWR Land Protection Plan and Environmental Assessment (LPP/EA). The Service may now acquire up to 15,000 acres of wildlife habitat from willing landowners as part of the refuge. The final plan depicts 10 Refuge Acquisition Focus Areas (RAFAs) in New England and New York which represent the outer boundaries of areas of interest.

Summary of Public Comment on the Draft LPP/EA

We initially released the draft LPP/EA for 45 days of public review and comment from January 19 to March 4, 2016. In response to several requests, we subsequently extended the public comment period another 30 days.

During the comment period, we held information sessions upon request. Two were held in Maine, three in New Hampshire, two in Massachusetts, two in New York, one in Connecticut, and six in Rhode Island. Audiences included sportsmen’s groups, land trusts, and town and county officials.  All six Congressional delegations were contacted initially via email, and follow-up phone calls or in-person visits occurred with most district staff offices.

After the 75-day public comment period ended, we compiled all of the comments we received. In total, we received 6,064 written comments, of which 5,523 were a form letter in support of the proposal. We also received one petition signed by approximately 2,455 individuals in support of the proposal. All comments received are summarized and responded to in appendix C of the final LPP/EA.

Changes from Draft to Final LPP/EA

Modifications to alternative B from the draft to final LPP/EA include minor corrections or changes in response to public and partner comments on the draft plan. For example, we reduced the Plymouth RAFA in Massachusetts in order to better complement the priorities of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife in this area. Our target for Service acquisition remains at 500 acres in this RAFA. We also modified the Northern Housatonic RAFA to complement the interests of Dutchess County, New York and our conservation partners in that area. Our target acquisition remains at 2,000 acres in this RAFA. Appendix C in the final plan includes more details on these changes and our responses to other comments we received on RAFA boundaries.

Click here to access the final LPP/EA document. To request the document in print or on CD-Rom, contact Beth Goldstein, Natural Resource Planner, at beth_goldstein@fws.gov or (413) 253-8564.

Implementation

We will work with partners and willing-seller property owners to identify opportunities to acquire priority lands in fee simple or conservation easement within the 10 Great Thicket RAFAs. Willing sellers will be compensated for their land based on the appraised market value. Landowners within RAFAs choosing not to sell will retain all the rights, privileges, and obligations of land ownership.
If you are a landowner within one of the 10 RAFAs and are interested in selling or donating your fee simple interest or a conservation easement on your land, please complete the “Landowner Interest Form” and submit it to: USFWS, Northeast Region, Realty Chief; 300 Westgate Center Drive, Hadley MA 01035. If you are unsure of whether you are within one of the 10 Great Thicket RAFAs, please contact the Realty Chief at 413-253-8590.

Other Resources

Direct links to more resources:
·         2-page Newsletter (PDF-526KB)
·         Landowner Interest Form

·         Media release

Which Bunny is which?
The bunny on the left is the New England Cottontail and on the right is its cousin, the Eastern Cottontail