Land trust plans to acquire thousands more acres

Other than those dedicated to helping the sick or disadvantaged, I can't think of many charitable organizations around here pursuing a more noble cause than the Avalonia Land Conservancy.

The land trust, once called Mashantucket, or, in native language, much wooded land, before the modern success and new prominence of the Mashantucket Pequots necessitated a name change, is dedicated to just that, ensuring that there is still much wooded land here in southeastern Connecticut.

In fact the land trust, which is approaching its 50th anniversary next year, has preserved some 3,500 acres of land, much of it wooded and some not, including many handsome meadows, marshes and swamps.

The land it has preserved and protected forever, some owned outright and some with conservation easements, includes some of the most popular hiking trails in the region, making them a recreation resource.

I am glad to report, after speaking with President Dennis Main of Bozrah, who has been in office a year, that Avalonia is growing stronger, with fresh new national accreditation, plans to expand its board and an ambitious acquisition program to spend $7.5 million and add another 2,000 acres of land to its portfolio over the next five years.

I tracked Main down to ask about the new acquisitions after reading of the plans in Avalonia's spring newsletter.

He told me that 2,000 acres could be a conservative number, since that is the total of properties the land trust already has identified and is in active negotiations to purchase.

More likely will surface in the coming years, Main said.

The land trust president said most of the parcels being considered now cannot be publicly identified because of the need to keep purchase negotiations confidential.

The land trust has announced, though, specific plans to buy a 409-acre parcel that lies partially in the towns of Preston, Griswold and North Stonington, the largest purchase of its kind by the organization.

The land trust, now one of the largest in the state, is pledged to preservation in southeastern Connecticut, a territory map that essentially includes all of the towns that are part of the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments.

Most Avalonia properties are well marked, and, once you get used to looking for them, you may notice their discreet green and white signs on many undeveloped parcels you pass around the region.

The acquisitions being contemplated in the new capital plan will come from a mixture of outright donations, grants and fundraising, Main said.

The land trust has so far not been warned about dwindling grant money because of the state's financial problems, he said, adding that some grant money is federal and some state money already has been pledged to land acquisition.

Land donations to the land trust are common, Main said, made sometimes for tax breaks and other times because a family has enjoyed open space they owned over the years and would like it to remain that way in perpetuity.

Main said the land trust is especially proud of having earned accreditation in February from the national Land Trust Alliance, proving its adherence to best practices in land preservation. It is one of 1,363 accredited land trusts across the country.

The expanded board will include a range of volunteers with knowledge and backgrounds in land acquisition and management, including a retired judge, a surveyor, real estate brokers, attorneys and naturalists.

The organization currently has $20 million in assets.

Main said acquisitions often begin with a land donation and from there other pieces may be added. There is a checklist followed and factors like the threat of development and use of land by wildlife are considered.

Right now the land trust appears on track to come close to doubling in the next five years the amount of land it has preserved in the last 50 years.

There will be a lot to celebrate at its anniversary party next year.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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