Happy Birthday, Sidney Van Zandt - Our Conservation Queen

Stroll out to Bluff Point in Groton, one of Connecticut’s most spectacular shoreline treasures – at 800 acres it comprises the largest undeveloped peninsula between New York and Cape Cod – and imagine instead of breathtaking views of Fishers Island Sound a Coney Island-style amusement park cluttered the beach, with hot dog stands, Ferris wheels, bathhouses and a paved access road leading to a 4,000-car parking lot.

Next, amble to the adjoining Haley Farm and picture what the stone walls, rolling fields and hiking paths overlooking Palmer Cove would look like dotted with duplex houses.

Repeat this scenario at the Merritt Family Forest, the Sheep Farm, Candlewood Ridge, the Avery Farm – all unspoiled parks spared from development, thanks to dedication and hard work over the years by visionary conservationists.

Though the cause has been a team effort, everybody involved would agree that much less would have been accomplished without the work of one woman, Sidney Van Zandt of Noank.

Today (Saturday, March 22), several hundred of her closest friends will help Sidney celebrate her 80th birthday at a party at Shennecossett Yacht Club in Groton, an occasion that not only will recognize her extraordinary contributions to land conservation in the region but also promises to highlight the many nautical adventures she and husband Sandy have shared.

Sidney got started by helping found the Groton Open Space Association in 1965 that fought a housing development proposed for Haley Farm in Groton and raised money so the state could buy the property for a park. She also served as co-chair of the Bluff Point Advisory Council that staved off various ill-considered development proposals and eventually drafted legislation that led to the creation of Connecticut’s first and only coastal preserve. On a personal note she nominated me to fill a vacancy on that board and I had the privilege to work with her and others on that cause.

Sidney also has been a member of the boards of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, the Governor’s Council of Environmental Quality, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Coastal Management Program, and the Mashantucket Land Trust (now called Avalonia Land Conservancy).

To simply say she served on these boards doesn’t adequately describe Sidney’s efforts. She attends meetings in Hartford; prepares voluminous reports, organizes letter-writing campaigns, makes countless phone calls to mayors, governors, senators … . She doesn’t give up or take no for an answer.

“Sidney is a pit bull,” her husband Sandy onced joked to me.

I had been a young reporter just out of college when I first met Sidney at a public hearing about a new road the town of Groton considered constructing – a so-called “east-west highway” that officials promised would ease traffic on Route 1 and open up a large section of town to new shopping centers and apartment complexes.

To my then-environmentally unaware sensibilities the idea at first seemed to make sense, but Sidney took me aside after the meeting and set me straight.

“Think of all the trees they’ll have to cut down,” she began. “And all that asphalt and concrete … What about all the animals that will be displaced? Do we really need more fast-food restaurants?”

Until then I’d never thought much about the impact such projects have on the outdoors, even though I enjoyed hiking, running, swimming and kayaking. I took it for granted that there would always be places for these activities.

Sidney helped me understand that there is continuous pressure to build, build, build – and once open space disappears it’s gone for good. At the same time she reminded me that all development is not evil. After all, we need stores, houses, apartments, factories, highways — we just don’t need them spread out in a sprawl from sea to shining sea.

Over the years we’ve become friends, and my wife, Lisa, and I have shared some of my happiest experiences with Sidney and Sandy – cross-country skiing in Vermont, rowing out to their boat moored off Noank with our then-infant son, Tom, or simply strolling through the woods together. They stopped by our house the other day for our annual maple syrup party and while a crackling fire boiled sap we reminisced about various fun times on land and sea.

I’ve always admired Sid and Sandy’s sense of adventure — they built a 39′ steel sailing vessel in 1981 and spent the next 14 years sailing 95,000 miles, including four transatlantic passages and a global circumnavigation. If Sidney is the one person you want on board to organize a campaign to create a new park, Sandy is the guy you want at the helm in a force 10 gale.

Like all their friends I’m delighted the Van Zandts are back on terra firma today so we can celebrate this happy occasion.

Happy birthday, Sid, and thanks for helping me perceive the wisdom of of Henry David Thoreau:

“We need the tonic of wildness...At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”

 

 

Reader Comments

MORE BLOGS

Our Debt of Gratitude to President Obama, the Environmentalist-in-Chief

As we prepare to inaugurate a president who has repeatedly called climate change a "hoax," appointed as Environmental Protection Agency administrator an Oklahoma attorney general who is suing that agency, named the CEO of ExxonMobil as secretary...

Call of the Wild: A Clash Over Cellphones in The Great Outdoors

"Yeah, I’m standing on the summit now! … The view is incredible – I can’t believe I’m getting a signal up here!"

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Plunging into Icy Fishers Island Sound at the Annual New Year's Day Run-Swim

Look, I’m not going to lie: While some longtime participants in one of southeastern Connecticut’s most enduring, challenging and madcap traditions insist that plunging into icy water after a run on Jan. 1 is a refreshing and...

No Such Thing as Too Much Fun: A Great 2016; Hopes for an Even Better 2017

When it comes to adventurous fun my philosophy has always been too much is never enough, so when I look back at the highlights of the past 12 months, as I typically do when the calendar is about to flip, I can honestly say that 2016 was a...

Hey, Has Anybody Else Noticed It's Gotten A Little Chilly?

I guess I first realized the temperature had dropped a few degrees when I went out for a 5-mile run this morning and noticed that my eyelids had started to freeze shut, which loyal readers will recognize as Level IV on the Fagin Frigidity Index,...

Granola Munchers Vs. Snickers Gobblers: Conflict Over Plans for a Hotel on New Hampshire's Mount Washington

The first time friends and I trudged up New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in winter the frozen peak might as well have been Antarctica – hurricane-force winds and blinding snow battered us, the only climbers that day atop the highest...

How to Build a Stone Wall in 14,863 Easy Steps

I realized long ago that you’re never really finished building a stone wall, even after you’ve dragged and hefted into place what seemed like the final boulder, exhaled mightily and stepped back to admire your work.

Just in Time for the Holidays: Fagin's Annual Gift Catalogue for the Discerning Outdoorsman and Outdoorswoman

How often does this happen to you: You’re merrily tearing through the woods in your four-wheeler and come to what looks like a shallow stream but turns out to be a deep, water-filled ditch, so your beloved machine sinks like a stone beneath...

Arduous Autumn

In spring we crawl out of our cocoons and celebrate bursting rejuvenation; in summer we play outside from dawn to dusk; during the dark, frigid winter we hunker down like hibernating bears – which leaves fall, when we try to set aside time...

Chain Saw? We Don't Need No Stinking Chain Saw…

So, did you hear that doctors have developed a new method of performing an appendectomy without using anesthesia? It’s exactly like the old operation, except it hurts like a son of a b.

You CAN Go Home Again: A Run Through My Old West Haven Stomping Grounds

Although for decades I’ve been living in a home surrounded by trees that is heated primarily by wood stoves, and I enjoy kayaking, mountain climbing, building stone walls, growing organic vegetables and many other active outdoor pursuits,...

Utah Rocks Part II: Kayaking Down The Colorado River

Propelled by a swift current on the Colorado River earlier this month, my son, Tom, and I gazed at red rock cliffs gleaming against an azure, near cloudless sky. The rustle of aspen and cottonwoods in a gentle breeze mingled with the rush of...

Utah Rocks: Adventures Among The Arches And The Rapids (Part I)

You know how it feels when you witness something so astonishingly exquisite and surreal it literally takes your breath away, and all you can do is gasp in amazement?