Highstead: A leader in local, regional conservation efforts, with focus on saving forests

Highstead’s Geordie Elkins, operations manager, and Emily Bateson, conservation director, stand outside the Highstead Barn, where programs are conducted. Highstead is leading the Wildlands and Woodlands initiative to conserve 70% of New England’s forests. —Susan Wolf photo

Highstead.

For many years the property off Lonetown Road was called Highstead Arboretum, but now it is simply called “Highstead,” a reflection of its expanded mission as it has grown to be both an ecological research facility and a leader in regional conservation.

Emily Bateson, Highstead’s conservation director, said Highstead started as a natural area and arboretum 30 years go. Over time, she said, Highstead added a serious ecological research component and since 2006, has had on staff an ecologist, Ed Faison, who oversees the long-term forest monitoring and research. Mr. Faison performs research on large herbivore-forest dynamics and forest history with academic collaborators across New England, and is working locally in Redding and beyond to expand research on deer population impacts.

“Highstead has also continued to evolve and added a regional conservation component, said Ms. Bateson, who has more than 25 years of conservation experience. “Highstead’s core mission is now focused on regional forest conservation and specifically on advancing the Wildlands and Woodlands vision,” she said.

This Wildlands and Woodlands vision is based on a 2010 report from the Harvard Forest and academic collaborators across New England.

The report calls for a 50-year conservation effort to retain at least 70% of New England in forestland, permanently free from development. As explained on the “W&W” website: “90% of forests would be ‘Woodlands,’ conserved by willing landowners and sustainably managed for multiple uses, from recreation to wood products.  10% of forests would be ‘Wildland’ reserves, identified by local communities and shaped only by the natural environment.”

Highstead has partnered with the Harvard Forest to take the lead in advancing the W&W initiative through extensive collaboration with many regional and national organizations and agencies and through launching new initiatives to help double the pace of conservation in New England.

Ms. Bateson serves as the regional Wildlands and Woodlands coordinator. She works out of her Boston office but comes to Highstead once a week. Geordie Elkins is Highstead’s operations manager, charged with overseeing the 100-plus acre landscape and facilities.

Ms. Bateson said that for the last 150 years New England forests have been growing back after devastating loss to agricultural expansion and timber exploitation — an “explosion of green that is widely celebrated as a success story.” However, the Wildlands and Woodlands report documented that New England is now losing forest on a net annual basis, not to farming this time, but to irreversible development and urban sprawl, she said.

“The central premise of Wildlands and Woodlands is that if we want a forested region going forward, and if we want to retain the economic, ecological and cultural benefits forests provide, we have to work together on this shared objective and double the pace of forest conservation,” Ms. Bateson said.

“The Wildlands and Woodlands vision is a wake-up call,” according to Ms. Bateson. “We lost our forest once and it is lucky for us that it grew back. This is our second chance, but we have to grab that chance while we still can. We absolutely have to reverse the current trend because today development is outpacing conservation in every New England state.”

Leadership role

Highstead works collaboratively and on several scales to help advance conservation both locally and regionally. Highstead coordinates the W&W initiative including quarterly meetings of the leadership team.

Highstead also spearheads a number of value-added initiatives, including working with land trust collaboratives to help them accelerate conservation across New England. Highstead has created a network of “regional conservation partnerships” to help support the many land trusts and communities that are now working together across town, county and even state lines to achieve conservation on a scale larger than the partners could achieve working alone.

“We need larger protected areas, explained Geordie Elkins, “and we need habitat connectivity to conserve ecological health — particularly in a time of climate change.”

The Regional Conservation Partnership Network provides technical training at an annual conference, opportunities for information exchange, and web resources (at wildlandsandwoodlands.org/rcpnetwork) to help conservation practitioners succeed in this innovative and rapidly growing field of landscape-scale collaborative conservation, according to Ms. Bateson.

Highstead also plays a lead role in several regional conservation partnerships through its regional conservationist, Bill Labich. One example is the Fairfield County Regional Conservation Partnership, where land trusts and community leaders come together to set conservation priorities and work collaboratively to increase the pace and scale of conservation across the entire county, Ms. Bateson said.

“There are more than 30 Regional Conservation Partnerships in New England,” according to Ms. Bateson. “These groups are working on more than 60% of the regional landscape. And so the conservation success of the Fairfield Regional Conservation Partnership and others will be both locally meaningful and, in combination, regionally significant. This is an exciting but critical time for conservation in New England.”

Another Wildlands and Woodlands initiative led by Highstead is the New England Forest Policy Group, an initiative involving about 100 conservation partners that educates Congress and the Administration on the economic and ecological importance of the region’s forests and why they deserve “a fair share of funding.” The goal is to make sure Congress understands “the value of our forests, the immense pressure of development, and the critical need for federal funding even in a time of shrinking federal budgets,” Ms. Bateson said.

Mr. Elkins explained that Highstead also uses its own lands and facility to inform and inspire people on conservation, and will continue to build these programs through Highstead workshops, lectures, and more.

The Wildlands and Woodlands vision is about large-scale conservation, he said. “But how do you do this in a suburban context?” he asked.

“We can host programs to help people become interested in that type of conservation. We can model how we manage our property.”

For example, a meadow sits in front of the Highstead Barn, its headquarters building, instead of two acres of turf grass, he said.

There are now 100-plus acres at Highstead, and if all the woodlands around Highstead were connected, there would be 700 to 800 acres, he said. “Then our effort would be more significant.”

While many people agree with the Wildlands and Woodlands initiative and have adopted it in theory, no other organization has taken it under its wings so completely. “Our staff is dedicated to Wildlands and Woodlands,” said Mr. Elkins. In addition to hiring a regional conservationist and now a W&W coordinator with Ms. Bateson’s recent arrival, Highstead is in the process of hiring a communications director to further expand the reach of its regional conservation work.

“The value of Wildlands and Woodlands is that it sets out an epic vision of what needs to be done to secure New England as we know it for the future,” said Ms. Bateson. “We want to spread that word to as many people as possible and help accelerate conservation at this pivotal time of opportunity.”

Why?

The reasons to conserve the forests are clear, she said, pointing to clean air and protected drinking water. “Our forests are the quiet champions of New England air and water,” she said, “and also of climate change.”

Forests across New England mitigate climate change as they sequester carbon, and aging forests in wildland reserves store vast quantities of carbon, helping to reduce the pace of climate change, according to the Harvard Forest report.

The forested landscape also provides myriad jobs in the forest products industry and in tourism, according to Ms. Bateson, describing  conserved forests as, “absolutely central to our current and future economy.”

There is also cultural value in trees, said Ms. Bateson. “Imagine New England without trees, the fall foliage season, maple syrup, local firewood, walking in the woods with grandchildren. Forests are quintessentially New England.”

“Highstead is a strong advocate of not only conserving forests but also understanding why we should do so, and spreading the word to its members,” Ms. Bateson said.

Membership to Highstead is $25 annually and larger donations are encouraged to support Highstead’s facilities and conservation work. Members are welcome weekdays 8:30 to 4 and non-members are asked to call for an appointment at 203-938-8809. There are interpretive trail maps for those wishing to walk Highstead’s trails. Because it is a serious ecological research site, members are asked to leave dogs at home and to respect the natural surroundings.

Signature events include an Open House and Trails Day in early June when the Kalmia are in bloom that includes a guided tour and a conservation lecture. In the fall, there is an art exhibit by the Greater New York Chapter of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators and an associated art opening and lecture.

“The mission has changed and we have evolved dramatically,” said Ms. Bateson. But the commitment is the same — “to inspire people with respect for the natural world around us… We hope people come here, enjoy the trails, appreciate the ecology, but go home with a renewed commitment to conserve their own lands and the natural landscapes around them.”

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