EPA grant to help restore coastal forest in Westport

The trail through the H. Smith Richardson Wildlife Preserve in Westport was created as a result of the efforts of volunteers and local environmental nonprofits.
The trail through the H. Smith Richardson Wildlife Preserve in Westport was created as a result of the efforts of volunteers and local environmental nonprofits.Contributed Photo

WESTPORT—Three years ago, Greens Farms resident Jerid O’Connell said the land behind his home was overrun by invasive trees and vines.

“You could not walk through it to save your life,” O’Connell said.

The 74-acre Sasco Creek Road property behind O’Connell’s home, the H. Smith Richardson Wildlife Preserve, is owned by the Connecticut Audubon Society, so O’Connell wrote to them. He also spoke with his neighbors about the property and together they started a Facebook page, “Friends of Smith Richardson Nature Preserve.”

Through the social media group, they organized a neighborhood volunteer cleanup day. In the end, about 100 Westport residents and volunteers from local organizations, such as Builders Beyond Borders Inc., and the Staples Service League of Boys, showed up to help.

“I was overwhelmed by all the people marching through the woods with axes and clippers,” O’Connell said.

The task of cleaning up the preserve, which O’Connell once thought insurmountable, soon proved otherwise. The volunteer group created a walkable path where people could bring their dog on a leash, a privilege which O’Connell said is rare for a nature preserve.

In the years since the initial volunteer day, the Friends of Smith Richardson Nature Preserve have organized four clean-up days and helped secure funding for the effort.

In mid-November, the Connecticut Audubon Society received a $145,780 grant as part of a larger $1.2 million effort to protect and restore Long Island Sound, which borders the Preserve. Specifically, the money from the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will go toward restoring 33 acres of coastal forest.

“We are in the early stages of a restoration project, the point of which is to remove most of the invasive plants and replace them with native shrubs, wildlife and trees that make up a better bird habitat,” said Tom Anderson, director of communications and outreach for the Connecticut Audubon Society.

“The grant itself will be used to hire contractors and equipment to do the heavy part of the work and plan the work.”

Audubon Society staff will oversee the work, while volunteers will provide time as well. One condition of the Long Island Sound Futures Fund grant is the Audubon Society provide matching funds — to the tune of $134,047 — in the form of staff time.

The work will start this winter, but Anderson said the project is bigger than the grant and noted restoration efforts will continue for years to come.

Alicia Mozian, director of Westport’s Conservation Department, is not involved in the Audubon Society’s latest grant, but her office has received three other Long Island Sound Futures Fund grants.

“The fact that we have this money available to the community and other nonprofits to do this kind of work, especially given the limited funding by the state, is most welcome and much needed,” Mozian said.

As for O’Connell, who first brought the plight of the preserve to light, he and his neighbors look forward to this next stage in the restoration project, and O’Connell said the effort is especially important, considering the small number of public lands available along the coast for people to walk.

“It’s one place in Westport where you can walk and actually be in nature,” he said.

More than anything, O’Connell said his participation in restoring the preserve has changed his normally pessimistic views.

“It’s very much the best of Westport. I didn’t realize how powerful the community was,” O’Connell said.

svaughan@hearstmediact.com; @SophieCVaughan1