Highstead Foundation: Getting data on your backyard eco-system

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Geordie Elkins, operations manager at Highstead.

Just beside the Redding Country Club lies a stretch of land known as Highstead.

Originally established as an arboretum, the 100-acre-plus parcel now more closely resembles a giant living laboratory, boasting ecological research of all kinds.

“There are big research stations in places like Costa Rica, and there are tons of studies [on the ecology] down there, and they get a whole lot of coverage in the media. So, people tend to forget about what’s going on in their own backyard,” says Highstead ecologist Ed Faison.

“Though, in Redding, residents are pretty conscious about what’s going on,” he added.

Geordie Elkins, operations manager at Highstead, walks through a natural species back yard.

Geordie Elkins, operations manager at Highstead, walks through a natural species back yard.

Highstead, a foundation originally established in 1982, has a focus on long-term ecological studies in Redding, Faison says, including one on deer impact that has been running for 17 years.

For that particular study, Highstead workers set up deer exclosure pens, which prevent deer from accessing a specific area of the forest, to study what ecological difference the animals can make.

“Certainly towns like Redding are interested and concerned about the effects on deer on forests,” he said.

“To learn about this, we periodically monitor the vegetation, make a plant diversity map, and look at tree regeneration, plant abundance and so forth, comparing the inside and outside of the exclosure.”

The foundation does not place “value” on the changes caused by deer, Faison says, but reports its findings “without a bias.”

“[Deer and the forest have a] complex and not really very straightforward relationship,” Faison says.

“Some exotic species benefit from deer browsing and some do not. Japanese barberry does better in areas where deer can graze, but burning bush and oriental bittersweet do better protected.”

In terms of native shrub species, there is greater diversity of native shrubs inside a deer exclosure.

Counterintuitively, however, there is greater diversity of native herbs outside the deer exclosures.

“A lot of people would like to put values on those changes and that’s fine, but they’re really value judgments about what’s happening,” Faison says. “What’s happening is a lot more complicated than people think.”

A view of some of the hiking trails at Highstead.

A view of some of the hiking trails at Highstead.

Deer are not the only research initiative taken up by Highstead.

In recent years, the foundation has also worked to study the effect of strong storms and exotic species on Connecticut forests.

“Highstead is a place where we don’t have a strong agenda,” Faison says. “We’re not trying to push a particular management perspective. What we’re most interested in is reliable information, and providing an understanding of the forest in as non-biased a way as possible.

“We’re not trying to increase or reduce the deer population,” he adds, for example. “We’re just trying to know what’s going on.”

Regional activities

On both a local and regional level, Highstead “focuses on conservation, land stewardship and ecology,” says Jes Siart, Communications Coordinator.

“We work with a lot of local groups in Fairfield County to try and bring together groups with similar goals. We’ve become sort of a convener and a facilitator to help leverage conservation and achieve things a group might not be able to pursue as a single organization,” she said.

One partnership supported by Highstead, Siart added, is the Fairfield County Regional Conservation Partnership, a group of land trusts throughout Fairfield County.

On a larger scale, Highstead is the organizer of Wildlands and Woodlands, which coordinates actions of regional organizations, and helps bring 43 different regional conservation partnerships together.

Wildlands & Woodlands proposes a basic vision to conserve 70% of New England as protected forest and landscape over the next 50 years,” Siart says.

“Regional conservation partnerships are groups of local organizations working together to achieve conservation at a faster pace than they could on their own. One group isn’t likely to get a $1 million grant, but 20 groups working together might,” Siart says.

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.

Local membership

When Highstead was basically an arboretum, the foundation actively encouraged visitorship and membership.

While visitors are not turned away today, and the foundation has no plans to “close the doors” to the public, it no longer specifically invites residents to visit the property except during special programs.

One of these special programs is a Sept. 20 art gallery that is hosted annually on the property featuring the work of the Greater New York chapter of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators.

Another is a Saturday, October 10 program called Gardens Full of Life, which will give area residents information on natural plantings for residential areas.

Membership, today, is mostly about “partnering with local people who are interested in what we’re doing,” says Geordie Elkins, operations manager.

“If members want to come here and walk the property they’re welcome to, but we’ve transition from an arboretum to a conservation organization. We’re not standing out there waiting to take tickets from people.”

Information: www.Highstead.net.

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