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    Thursday, August 18, 2022

    A look back at Groton's first Earth Day 50 years ago

    Haley Farm State Park on May 15, 2012. That year, Bluff Point State Park and Coastal Reserve and Haley Farm State Park saw 425,000 visitors, and the town received $325,000 in payments in lieu of taxes from the state, according to Sidney Van Zandt, vice president of Groton Open Space Association and one of the organizers of Groton's first Earth Day 50 years ago. (Tim Cook/The Day, file)

    Groton — Fifty years ago on Wednesday, people in southeastern Connecticut set out on kayaks and canoes to arrive at the University of Connecticut’s Avery Point campus, where they joined more attendees gathered for an Earth Day event.

    People participated in activities and learned about ecology, pollution and ways to help the environment, including advocating for better public transportation, avoiding the harmful insecticide DDT and buying recyclable packages, according to The Day’s archives.

    Groton Open Space Association members started out on a walk in the morning from the Robert E. Fitch High School through Haley Farm to Palmer Cove. They traveled by boat to the end of Groton Long Point, where they were towed by a lobster boat to Pine Island, according to the article.

    The tugboat Turmoil took students to Pine Island for a nature walk with Robert Dewire, the assistant director of the Thames Science Center in New London, the article noted.

    Described as “a massive, enthusiastic observation of Earth Day,” the event at Avery Point drew about 800 people from many generations. It was part of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, with events taking place across the world.

    One of the organizers of the Groton event, Sidney Van Zandt, vice president and a founder of the Groton Open Space Association, which was formed in 1967 to save the Haley Farm, said people were taking action at a time when developers would fill land without considering the environment, and rivers and Long Island Sound were being polluted.

    Van Zandt, who shared her perspective and research in a phone interview and written piece submitted to The Day, said Earth Day in Groton started even before the April 22, 1970, event — when committed individuals began fundraising to save the Haley Farm from being developed into duplex housing.

    "Sidney Van Zandt and Charles and Priscilla Pratt accepted the challenge to raise the Town's $50,000 portion" of the land's purchase price, GOSA's website states. "The Connecticut Forest & Park Association and the Connecticut Conservation Association, a forerunner of the Dennison Pequotsepos Nature Center served as nonprofit fiscal sponsors to manage the funds."

    Van Zandt said people across town worked to save Haley Farm, with events, potlucks, fundraisers, cookouts and even a rock concert organized around the community.

    The state used the $50,000 — worth about $360,000 today — from local fundraising efforts toward its purchase of 200 acres in 1970, according to a GOSA's 50 years brochure.

    Building on that momentum and other environmental battles, the Environmental Education Committee, a new group under Van Zandt and the late David McKain, a professor at Avery Point, spearheaded organizing the first Earth Day event in Groton, Van Zandt wrote. Kids, individuals and groups, from garden clubs to the Groton Oyster Commission and Conservation Commission, came together.

    “We just made everybody come together and they did,” she said.

    Van Zandt and the story of Haley Farm appeared in Life Magazine in 1970 as one of the environmental “Battles Won” across the country, according to GOSA’s brochure.

    Meeting on equal footing

    The Environmental Education Committee, which met weekly at Avery Point, continued to serve as a place where people of all ages and backgrounds could convene, she said.

    “People could turn to the Environmental Education Committee and meet on an equal footing,” she said.

    Van Zandt said kids could come in and say “this is what I think we should do,” and the committee would respond: “OK, we’ll help you do it.” When people offered ideas, the committee would say, “OK, let’s go and do it.”

    Teachers compiled a teaching guide to ecology that was distributed to school systems to provide environmental education at a time when it was not yet being taught in schools, she said.

    Van Zandt recalls speaking to schoolchildren and asking them to identify shells from the beach and know the difference between scallop, mussel and clam shells, for example. She also brought in stuffed birds to teach about difference species.

    The committee encouraged children to go outdoors and look at their natural surroundings, such as observing a marsh and what it does and understanding why it’s important. One young man said “There’s too much to do out here even to go to school,” Van Zandt recalled.

    Among the efforts, Groton students started a recycling program that became so successful, the town eventually took it over, she said.

    Through the committee, people discussed what needed to be changed and how to make a difference: “We were there as a resource that people could then move from and work on to try and get legislators to do good things,” she said.

    Van Zandt and others went to Hartford to advocate for regulations to protect wetlands, clean air and clean water.

    Making a difference

    Van Zandt also looked back at the threats of development that Bluff Point faced over the years, including a proposed highway and an amusement park. 

    Van Zandt, who served as co-chair of the Bluff Point Advisory Council, said she often thinks of those threats when she goes to Bluff Point State Park. She noted that in 2012, Bluff Point State Park and Coastal Reserve and Haley Farm State Park saw 425,000 visitors, and the town received $325,000 in payments in lieu of taxes from the state.

    Van Zandt said GOSA, which was named the best all-volunteer land trust by the National Land Trust in 2017, is raising funds for the Sheep Farm South property.

    Small work parties have been cleaning up properties while social distancing, even though GOSA’s annual Earth Day events have been canceled due to the pandemic, GOSA President Joan Smith said.

    When asked about the legacy of the first Earth Day, Smith said there is such a “buy-in” today on the importance of saving land and protecting water and air, and there has been “a groundswell of support among the community.”

    But she said it’s important to be vigilant so those gains aren’t lost and also to keep looking forward. She noted that there is concern that open spaces will be used up, some environmental regulations will be rolled back, and state and federal funding for parks is dropping. She added that it’s also time to go to the next level when recycling, to reduce and reuse things more.

    Looking back at the local efforts, Van Zandt noted that “all these battles and fundraisers were accomplished by a huge number of folks over the years.”

    “People said — every age, no matter what their background — ‘I can make a difference,’” she added.

    k.drelich@theday.com 

    Haley Farm State Park on May 15, 2012. That year, Bluff Point State Park and Coastal Reserve and Haley Farm State Park saw 425,000 visitors, and the town received $325,000 in payments in lieu of taxes from the state, according to Sidney Van Zandt, vice president of Groton Open Space Association and one of the organizers of Groton's first Earth Day 50 years ago. (Tim Cook/The Day, file)
    Late Groton Open Space Association founders Charlie and Priscilla Pratt designed this brochure for the GOSA's "Save the Haley Farm" fundraising. (Courtesy of GOSA)

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