Leaving Nature in Charge
by Nicole Rivard
At his home in Owego, N.Y., Jerry Pierce chuckles as he reminisces about his former neighbor, Edith Coleman. “My friends and I were like 14 years old, and we’d run like hell because Edie would come out with a broomstick and chase us off her property,” he recalls.
Living in an area with a long hunting heritage, Coleman suspected everyone was a hunter, so she was protective of the wildlife who shared her 110-acre property.
“Her property was all wooded. She had 40 or 50 apple trees and the deer would come eat right off the apple trees,” Pierce said. “She would watch fawns being born.” Ironically, now Pierce, a retired police officer, is the one making sure hunters don’t trespass on Coleman’s property.
The land is now the Lyman Coleman Wildlife Sanctuary and is owned by Friends of Animals. The property officially became a protected open space for wildlife back in 1979 when Coleman, who could no longer care for the property, donated it to FoA in honor of her late father, Lyman Coleman, from whom she inherited it.
Edith Coleman passed away in 1986 at the age of 92, and today FoA is proud to say the land remains entirely open space, free from development, hunting, trapping, fishing and ranching—a place where nature is in charge of nature and biodiversity is celebrated. FoA once contemplated the addition of trails and other visitor facilities, but instead decided to leave the land completely fallow as Coleman intended.
“Edith was a school teacher so she probably did a lot of diligent research trying to find an organization that would respect the property after her death and who would take the best care of it,” Pierce added. The sanctuary is comprised of five different habitat types: open fields, orchard, second growth woodland, old growth woodland and riverine. These habitats are ideal for bluebirds, several species of owls, rabbits, foxes, deer, bear, coyotes, woodchucks, mice and raccoons.
Coleman was outspoken in the local newspapers about the evils of hunting and she was also president of the Tioga Wildlife Club, whose members patrolled NO HUNTING posted lands in the area during hunting season.
When FoA’s own NO HUNTING poster signs deteriorated about 10 years ago, an invitation to out -of -towners to come in and poach, Pierce contacted FoA. He was concerned because he saw some activity on the property during New York’s rifle deer season and suspected hunters were treading on the area. Pierce offered to give the postings on the property a facelift so it would be obvious anyone trespassing would be prosecuted, and that’s what he did.
THE BENEFITS OF OPEN SPACE
Unfortunately, Coleman’s respect for wildlife and desire to conserve biodiversity is not ubiquitous these days as adults and children alike spend evermore time indoors, disconnected from nature. Compounding the problem are communities that are driven by development plans without the flip side—an open space plan. The result is a direct loss of habitat through clearing, paving, draining and filling of wetlands, but also the fragmenting of natural areas into smaller, isolated patches. And even organizations that do a good job of preserving open spaces from development unfortunately often allow hunting and even ranching.
Connectivity between undisturbed ecosystems can be key to the health of natural and human communities, according to Conserving Natural Areas and Wildlife in Your Community, a handbook created as part of the Hudson River Estuary Program in New York to help land-use officials make better decisions for natural areas and wildlife. Species that use vernal pools and large wetland complexes are at risk when connections with surrounding uplands or nearby wetlands are broken.
For example, the Eastern box turtle, a species of concern in New York, uses several habitats to complete its life cycle: forests, wetlands, streams and open areas. In addition biologically diverse habitats and ecosystems can prevent the spread of diseases, provide pollinator habitat, as well as rich soils for growing food. Wetlands absorb floodwaters. And natural vegetation stabilizes soil and limits erosion. And experts say connectivity will be key as wildlife adapts to climate change.
“Another key concern is creating wildlife migration corridors so animals and plants can move in response to climate change and development pressures in order to maintain genetic diversity and healthy populations,” said Michael Reineme, deputy director, wildlands communications at The Wilderness Society.
“This is important virtually everywhere but might be best understood in the Northwest around the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Crown of the Continent region of Montana where species like wolves, wolverines and grizzly bears need vast areas of habitat to survive and maintain healthy populations.”
BE THE CHANGE IN YOUR COMMUNITY
FoA is heartened when we hear of people preserving open space of any size in their community, as is the case in the newly formed six-acre Silvermine Fowler Preserve in our backyard in New Canaan, Connecticut, which curbs development in favor of natural areas for wildlife. When we attended the opening of the Silvermine Fowler preserve, where hunting is prohibited, we learned it not only protects acres of serene woodlands and a freshwater pond from the threat of development, but creates connectivity to the New Canaan Land Trust’s 41-acre Hicks Meadows-Kelley Uplands Audubon Sanctuary, also a hunting-free zone.
You may recognize the last name Fowler. The property is where Jim Fowler, former star of the long-running TV program, “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” and his wife Betsey, raised their family for more than 30 years.
“This could easily have been a couple of houses and instead it’s a wonderful preserve for the southeast corridor of New Canaan,” said Ben Weiland, project manager at the Trust for Public Land, a national organization founded in 1972 with the goal of protecting land in and around cities. “The Fowlers didn’t want to see the land that they had grown to love while they lived here changed.”
The land features a rolling landscape of wetlands, and mixed hardwood trees, primarily of oak, birch, beech, hickory and maple. It is home to owls, red-tailed hawks, heron, wood ducks, mallards, frogs, fox, wild turkeys, deer and migrating birds, among other animals.
“We have to start proving that we really care what happens to our planet. And this is a pretty good place to start,” said Fowler at the opening of the preserve in October. Fowler also remarked that he never cut down any trees and kept the property completely wild.
“American biologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson pointed out that when we pave over half of this planet, it’s downhill from then on. It’s true folks. We have to be careful about what we do,” Fowler said. “There is a tremendous need for us to connect humanity with nature. There’s no way we are going to survive if we don’t understand that.”
There is overwhelming evidence that the physical, psychological and social wellbeing of humans depends on contact with nature. A majority of the adults surveyed in a national study, The Nature of Americans, released last April, noted that certain smells and sounds of nature bring to mind some of people’s happiest memories, and that being in nature provides a sense of peace and helps give meaning and purpose to their lives.
FoA is hopeful that there will be more Edith Colemans and Jim Fowlers wanting to leave a land conservation legacy. If this sounds appealing to you too, a good place to start is the Land Trust Alliance, which has 1,363 members nationwide and is chock full of info about how to protect your land, through such methods as land donations, conservation easements, etc.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
However, be aware that protecting wildlife is not always the main priority of conservation organizations or land trusts—their goal is stopping development, so they may allow different activities on different properties. FoA has discovered more land trust properties that allow hunting and/or trapping and ranching than those that don’t. Some land trusts are reluctant to ban hunting as part of their mission because they claim, in certain instances, it can help protect the balance of nature when invasive species and animals with serious diseases are cause for concern in a particular landscape.
For instance, rather than merely conserving nature for nature’s sake, The Nature Conservancy condones widespread hunting, inviting people to visit animals in their homes and kill them. They have also been involved in questionable financial deals that involve land swaps. Likewise, we would not recommend the HSUS Wildlife Trust. While it says it prohibits recreational and commercial hunting and trapping on properties donated as conservation easements, HSUS touts itself as the leading advocate and innovator in “humane” wildlife-population control. HSUS is actually the registrant of the fertility control pesticide PZP.
Fortunately, there is no one size fits all when it comes to the way land trusts manage different landscapes— some actually don’t even allow any human activity when there is endangered flora or fauna. Our advice to landowners is to be clear about prohibiting unwanted activities such as hunting in the language of their conservation easement in the same way such an agreement will prohibit development.
Shop around until you find an organization that will take care of your land the way you want it to. While we lost 3,031,700 acres to development in the U.S. from 2007 to 2012, according to the National Resources Inventory Report released in 2015, the good news is that 56,434,181 acres were protected by land trusts in the U.S. in 2015, up from 47,399,620 in 2010.
People and local communities and governments who have open space plans do have the power to make open space protection outpace land development in the years ahead.