More funding sought for Connecticut River refuge

Connecticut’s two senators joined fellow Democratic senators from the three other states in the Connecticut River watershed in asking the U.S. Department of the Interior on Wednesday to make the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge a higher priority for funding.

The refuge, which spans 36,000 acres in the watershed in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, also includes three divisions in Connecticut. The Deadman’s Swamp Unit covers 31 acres of wetlands in Cromwell, the Salmon River Division includes 425 acres in Haddam Neck, and the Roger Tory Peterson Unit comprises 56 acres in Old Lyme and 26 acres at Whalebone Cove in Lyme.

Laura Maloney, spokesman for Sen. Chris Murphy’s office, said the request being led by Murphy was made in the hopes of influencing the final federal budget proposal expected to be released by the Trump administration in the next few days. About $2 million is allotted for the entire Conte refute in the current fiscal budget, much lower than the $5.3 million President Barack Obama sought in a budget request for fiscal 2017, Maloney said.

The request for more funding in fiscal 2018 was made in a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke from Murphy and the state’s other senator, Richard Blumenthal, along with Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders of Vermont; Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire; and Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey of Massachusetts. In the letter, the senators emphasized that the Conte refuge is important to the environment and recreational opportunities in the New England states, and that the refuge can use federal investment to leverage other funding.

The senators said “robust federal support is needed” for upkeep and improvements of the refuge.

The Conte refuge is currently given a “low ranking” on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s project priority list that is “mismatched relative to the merits of its backlogged projects and the extraordinary multiplier effect of federal investment in the refuge,” the letter states. Fish & Wildlife Serve staff and nongovernmental partner groups in the Friends of Conte have identified $14 million in projects that need funding at the refuge, the senators wrote.

They added that many local, state and federal partnerships in the watershed have been able to bring in nonfederal funding for projects. Private land trusts throughout the watershed have helped refuge staff to identify properties and work with landowners toward federal ownership, they said.

“These land trusts have also added a combined total of 350,000 acres to the conservation estate basin-wide, providing recreational opportunities to the more than 2.3 million people who live in the basin and another 70 million who live within a day’s drive of these properties,” the senators wrote.

j.benson@theday.com

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