Carolina to the state line: The green heart of the Pawcatuck watershed

Kayakers paddle last month along a switch back in the Pawcatuck River near the border between the Burlingame Management Area in Charlestown, R.I., and Westerly's Grills Preserve. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Kayakers paddle last month along a switch back in the Pawcatuck River near the border between the Burlingame Management Area in Charlestown, R.I., and Westerly's Grills Preserve. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Spanning 75 feet at a leafy bend on the Pawcatuck River, the Polly Coon Bridge joins two trails, two preserved forests, two Rhode Island towns and two groups that came together around a common purpose.

In 2013, the prefabricated aluminum footbridge came to rest on stone abutments that remained from a span used by an 1800s granite quarry. A $100,000 state and federal grant to the Westerly and Hopkinton land trusts paid for the bridge.

Now hikers, starting at the 600-acre Grills Wildlife Sanctuary on the Hopkinton side or the 550-acre Grills Preserve on the Westerly side, hear their footsteps reverberate over the river as it flows on its sinuous way west to the Connecticut-Rhode Island border.

“It’s fun to connect the two trail systems,” Kelly Presley, executive director of the Westerly Land Trust, said earlier this month as she stood beside the bridge with Marci Redinger and Christine Anderson of the Hopkinton Land Trust. “Now we have ‘Grills to Grills’ hikes on Rhode Island Land Trust Day in August. This is a beautiful stretch of the river.”

The two preserves, sold at “bargain sale” prices to the trusts by the owners of the now-shuttered Bradford Dyeing Association — a former fabric dyeing plant nearby — connect to a larger whole. They are part of a network of more than 40,000 acres of protected lands in the 300-square-mile watershed of the Wood and Pawcatuck rivers. 

The watershed — all the land area that drains into the two rivers — extends through 14 towns, as far east as South Kingstown, R.I., and as far west as Stonington, North Stonington, Voluntown and Sterling in Connecticut.

“Everything that’s supposed to be here is here in the river and its watershed,” said Tim Mooney, manager for the Francis C. Carter Preserve in Charlestown, a 1,100-acre Nature Conservancy property. “The conservancy owns about 9,000 acres in Rhode Island, most of it in the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed.”

Midway along its 38-mile trek from its headwaters in South Kingstown to its mouth at Little Narragansett Bay, the Pawcatuck passes through the most heavily treed section of the watershed.

Not only are the 13 miles from the village of Carolina to the state border lightly developed, but so, too, are the lands surrounding the Pawcatuck’s main tributary, the Wood River.

This is the green heart of the watershed, an area covered throughout with large woodland tracts that might seem incongruous in two small states in the middle of the heavily populated Northeast.

“You can paddle sections of the river for miles without seeing any signs of civilization,” said Jim Cole of Charlestown, a paddling guide author and group leader who has been traversing the Pawcatuck by canoe and kayak since the 1980s. “I just love being out on the river. When I start to get stressed, out I go. It’s very relaxing.”

With 70 percent of the lands surrounding the two rivers covered with private, state and nonprofit group-owned forests, conservation advocates are now seeking formal recognition and inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, a National Park Service program.

Led by the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association, the effort to gain Wild and Scenic status has received initial approvals in Congress and will begin in earnest this fall with a three-year study of the watershed.

The study will consider 34 miles of the Pawcatuck, 21 miles of the Wood River and 35 miles of three other tributaries.

The study committee will include key representatives from all 14 towns, said Jamie Fosburgh, the National Park Service team leader for the Wild and Scenic program for New England.

“To me," he said, "the number one benefit will be pulling together the communities and state and local partners and getting them all on the same page. The partnerships that are formed become the basis of what the vision and the management plan will be moving forward.”

The watershed association wants the Wild and Scenic designation in order to bring new resources and appreciation for the unique enclave of the Pawcatuck and its environment.

“The Wood River has the highest biodiversity of any river in New England, and the whole watershed has good habitat for brook trout, and high scenic and recreational values,” said Denise Poyer, the association's program director. “When we started this, we went to all the towns and asked for their support to do the study, because we wanted to make sure we had all the towns on board.”

Main questions from town representatives, she said, were whether the Wild and Scenic designation would bring with it requirements for new land-use regulations and restrictions. That, she told them, will be up to the towns.

“The towns may decide to add more protections, but I don’t foresee that happening,” she said.

What the designation will do, she said, is improve access to grants and other resources to develop a management plan to enhance the values that already exist.

“I’m very excited about the management plan aspect of this,” she said.

Fosburgh said that for the watershed to qualify for Wild and Scenic status, the study will have to verify that it meets the qualifying criteria as having “outstandingly remarkable” assets. Those can be ecological, historical, cultural, scenic and recreational features, in any combination.

For the Wood-Pawcatuck, he said, the amount of conserved land will certainly be one of the assets highlighted, “but the historic and cultural values we know will be very important, too,” he said.

“These rivers were very important to the Native Americans, and to American history, with the mills and the mill villages,” he said.

Also significant, he said, is that because of the region’s location in the middle of the heavily developed Northeast, it offers outdoor recreation opportunities for paddlers, fishermen, hikers and others that are rare for a place within just a couple of hours’ drive of intensely urbanized areas.

Peter Georg, a retired airline pilot from Niantic, discovered the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed about a dozen years ago when he bought a canoe. After he sold his sailboat, he wanted to find a new way to get back out on the water.

“I find myself drawn to the area,” he said, after a recent morning paddle on the Pawcatuck with his wife, Judith. “If I have a free afternoon, I’ll put in at the Alton dam and go up my favorite stretch on the Wood River. It’s very secluded. The words that come to mind are peaceful and tranquil.”

He believes that if the watershed achieves Wild and Scenic designation, there will be more appreciation that it is a special place that should be preserved.

If the study concludes the watershed meets the criteria, all 14 towns then would have to approve a request to their congressional representatives to introduce a bill to make the designation official.

If approved, it would be the first watershed in Rhode Island to join the Wild and Scenic Rivers program, the 12th in New England, and the first in the six-state region that would cross into two states, Fosburgh said.

To understand how the designation might impact the Wood-Pawcatuck, supporters and others have only to look 30 miles west to the Eightmile River in Lyme, Salem and East Haddam.

That watershed was dubbed “Wild and Scenic” in 2008, after the study concluded it has “outstandingly remarkable” geological, cultural, historical and hydrological assets and high water quality; provides wildlife habitat for endangered species; and is uniquely intact as a watershed ecosystem.

“Certainly, there is a level of pride that comes with the designation,” said Patricia Young, program director for the Eightmile River Wild and Scenic Coordinating Committee. “The fact that this takes an act of Congress does set you apart. It becomes a focal point for the communities.”

Some tangible benefits come, too, she said. The watershed has been able to tap federal grants for projects and staffing.

In addition, Wild and Scenic watersheds have a say before permits can be issued for any federal projects, including dams, bridges and roads, Young said.

“It gives us a seat at the table,” she said.

j.benson@theday.com

Twitter: @BensonJudy

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Pawcatuck River: From the source to the sea

Kedincker Island, in Grills Preserve in Westerly, is seen at center at a portion of the Pawcatuck River that forms the border between Westerly and Hopkinton, R.I. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Kedincker Island, in Grills Preserve in Westerly, is seen at center at a portion of the Pawcatuck River that forms the border between Westerly and Hopkinton, R.I. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Watershed protectors

Some of the largest protected parcels in the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed:

Arcadia Management Area (state of Rhode Island): 14,757 acres, Exeter

Braim Farm (Hopkinton Land Trust): 1,000 acres, Hopkinton 

Burlingame State Park (state of Rhode Island): 1,776 acres, Charlestown

Canonchet Preserves (Nature Conservancy and Hopkinton Land Trust): 750 acres, Hopkinton

Carolina Management Area (state of Rhode Island): 2,170 acres, Richmond

Cuttyhunk Brook Preserve (Nature Conservancy): 800 acres, Exeter and West Greenwich

Francis C. Carter Preserve (Nature Conservancy): 1,100 acres, Charlestown

Great Swamp (state of Rhode Island): 3,588 acres, South Kingstown

Grills Preserve (Westerly Land Trust): 550 acres, Westerly

Grills Wildlife Sanctuary (Hopkinton Land Trust): 600 acres, Hopkinton

Pachaug State Forest (portion) (state of Connecticut): 24,000 acres, North Stonington and Voluntown and four other towns outside watershed

Rockville Management Area (state of Rhode Island): 989 acres, Hopkinton

Tillinghast Pond Management Area (Nature Conservancy): 2,054 acres, West Greenwich

Tillinghast Pond Management Area (state of Rhode Island): 1,576 acres, West Greenwich

Wickaboxet Management Area (state of Rhode Island): 516 acres, West Greenwich

Woody Hill Management Area (state of Rhode Island): 736 acres, Westerly

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