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    Saturday, May 27, 2023

    Griswold’s Dutka Nature Preserve expands wildlife habitat, offers more recreational space

    From left, Avalonia Past President and Stewardship Chairperson Kim Barber Bradley, Avalonia Director of Development and Programs Terri Eickel, Donor Family Member Tom Dutka, Avalonia President Dennis Main, Avalonia Griswold Town Committee Chairman Richard Conant and Family Donor Mary Dutka. This sign is situated at the Dutka Nature Preserve parking area located at the corner of Dukta Lane and Bethel Road in Griswold.(Photo courtesy of Dennis Main)

    Enjoy communing with nature while hiking, bird watching, photographing wildlife, walking your dog (on a 6-foot leash), bicycling, snow shoeing and cross-country skiing at Griswold’s Dutka Nature Preserve — named after the family that donated most of the land and sold a small portion well below market value.

    Discover hilltops, forests, vernal pools, wetlands, flat farmland and a running spring, interspersed with stone walls and a bridge – home to deer, possums, foxes, beavers, skunks and an occasional mountain lion, coyote and bear. Birds range from wild turkeys and eagles to tanagers, hummingbirds and owls.

    This almost 150-acre preserve includes a 62.76 acre bargain-sale purchase on Bethel Road from the Dutka Family in February for $112,500, half of the land’s appraised $225,000 value. It was acquired “through the generosity of grants from Avalonia donors, the Summer Hill and Edward and Mary Lord Foundations,” stated Avalonia Land Conservancy, Inc. President Dennis Main in an email.

    Speaking on behalf of herself and her siblings, donor Mary Dutka said during a telephone interview that their parents were immigrant farmers and lived off the land.

    “My father had poultry; he sold eggs. Of course, he had cows and he did his own milking.”

    Throughout the Depression and World War II, she said her mother and father cared for their family of seven.

    “I don’t think either of them would have wanted this property divided into anything else,” Dutka said.

    “If no one in the next generation wanted to farm or continue to keep it as it was,” Dutka said her siblings agreed the property should be donated to a land trust.

    “Open space plays an incredibly important part in wildlife, wildlife habitat, and protecting drinking water, in filtering pollutants, buffering rising sea levels and storm surges and sequestering carbon that is creating climate change,” said Avalonia Director of Development and Programs Terri Eickel during a telephone interview. “Open space has tremendous positive impact on public health and the environment, as well as the increased opportunity to get outside and breathe fresh air and get good exercise.

    “Emotional, mental, physical and neurological benefits of participating in outdoor activities have been scientifically and medically documented for a very, very long time. And so it’s important for the state and all of its partners, like private land trusts, to do as much as we can to support that.”

    Main said during a telephone interview that as temperatures rise due to global warming, cities will be particularly “hard hit” and it’s going to affect people’s health – especially those who are coping with lower wages, lower health standards and fewer resources available to them.

    “The more open and less shaded it is, the more you’re going to get that concentration of heat.”

    “The first order of business (for the newly-acquired parcel) will be a more in-depth assessment of the current habitat and conservation values,” he said. “We will also need to complete boundary signage installation and development of a management plan that will now incorporate the entire preserve. Management plans are dictated to be completed within 12 months and will be necessary in particular with this preserve which includes farmland soils that are actively being cultivated.”

    He added that trails and public access will follow the development of the management plans, as will consideration of active farming usage.

    “Since this latest acquisition includes waterfront access, Avalonia Griswold Town Committee Chairman Richard Conant said during a telephone interview that they’re “looking to have a nature trail that goes from west of Bethel Road all the way through all the Dutka parcels that have come to us that are now contiguous and controlled by Avalonia,” to an overlook on Pachaug Pond.

    Dutka Land Preserve trails can be accessed at the corner of Dutka Lane and Bethel Road in Griswold, where there is parking for four vehicles.

    Main said he is proud to be part of land preservation.

    “We need development, but there has to be a mix and a balance,” which is why Avalonia Land Conservancy, Inc. subscribes “to the state’s Green Plan (Connecticut Comprehensive Open Space Acquisition Strategy), that calls for 21 percent of the state’s lands to be conserved by 2023.”

    “As development increases in Connecticut, wildlife is increasingly getting forced out of their habitats,” Eickel said, which is why conserving land is so important. “That is a reason that we’re seeing species decline and that has a significant negative impact on our ecosystem as a whole.”

    “Part of the reason for Avalonia’s strategic conservation plan is to create contiguous wildlife corridors, so they can exist and hunt and eat and breathe and whatnot, in spaces that allow them freedom of motion.”

    Because there are ground-nesting birds, Eickel said Avalonia asks people to leash their dogs. “Even just one negative experience” of a dog disturbing a nest, “can cause the birds to abandon their babies permanently and (then) the babies don’t make it. And when you’re talking about threatened or endangered species, of which we have some on our different preserves, that has a significant impact.”

    Avalonia also asks people to clean up after their dogs and take refuse home, instead of leaving it on the side of the trail.

    Avalonia Griswold Town Committee Member Eric Lindquist’s home borders the preserve, so he simply steps outside to enjoy its beauty. “It has always been that way, but I am beyond grateful to the Dutka family for choosing to permanently preserve their land and all of its natural beauty that I have come to love and appreciate.”

    He said in an email that he is passionate about preserving land.

    “I have always been interested in land use planning, which includes the strategic conservation of land to balance the need for housing or economic development. Connecticut’s remaining forest and farm land is becoming increasingly fragmented and at increasing risk of development. We are on the cusp of a generational shift: as the last living members of old farm families like the Dutkas pass on, large tracts of what used to be longtime family farms are being split up and sold to developers, usually for housing subdivisions.

    “Before long, small agricultural towns become dense suburbs that lose their sense of identity and with it, the rustic New England village charm that so many of us identify with. We need more landowners like Mary Dutka, and we need more public resources dedicated to preserving open space.”

    Avalonia Land Conservancy, Inc., a nonprofit organization, has preserved land in most of the towns in southern New London County, including North Stonington, Stonington, Groton, Ledyard, Griswold, Norwich, Preston and Montville, Conant said.

    “Avalonia is in some ways like a business and has all those aspects of” identifying land for acquisition, raising funds, stewarding land, controlling invasive species (and) maintaining nature trails. “There are a million opportunities. We certainly welcome all volunteers with open arms.”

    Positions range from “working on field projects at the town committee level to working in administration or working for development — helping us with fundraising.”

    Mary Dutka said she has wonderful memories growing up playing on the land and doing chores and it is a gratifying feeling knowing her family’s land will be left in its natural state.

    The Dukta Land Preserve is part of the Discover Avalonia series. To contact Avalonia Land Conservancy, Inc. or to learn more about educational/recreational activities or volunteering, go to Avolonia.org.

    Jan Tormay, a longtime Norwich resident, lives in Westerly.

    The newly-acquired property expands the Dutka Nature Preserve to almost 150 acres, offering more habitats for wildlife to roam and people to enjoy.(Photo courtesy of Dennis Main)
    The newly-acquired property expands the Dutka Nature Preserve to almost 150 acres, offering more habitats for wildlife to roam and people to enjoy.(Photo courtesy of Dennis Main)
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