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Restoration of Rare CT River Floodplain Habitat Set to Begin

LONGMEADOW, MA – Large-scale restoration of natural floodplain features and native plants will begin soon on land along the Connecticut River in Longmeadow, including 223 acres recently transferred to the Nature Conservancy by the trustees of the former Fannie Stebbins Memorial Wildlife Refuge.

Easily visible from I-91 in the suburbs of Springfield, the land is part of one of the most sizable natural and largely protected floodplain areas in the Connecticut River watershed. In addition to the restoration activities on the land recently transferred to the Conservancy, restoration work also will take place on part of the adjoining Silvio O. Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge and Town of Longmeadow lands.

Floodplains are natural water‐storage areas for the snow melt, spring rains and—increasingly—severe storms that cause the Connecticut River and its tributaries to overflow their banks. They also act as natural filters, trapping sediment, nutrients and pollutants before they reach rivers and coastal seas, thereby improving water quality.

“Floodplains once covered wide stretches along the Connecticut River and its tributaries, but today, they’re only a fraction of this important ecosystem,” said Kim Lutz, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Connecticut River Program. “The Fannie Stebbins land presents a remarkable opportunity to protect and restore a portion of that habitat.”

The Conservancy and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service are leading the three-year restoration project, which will include reduction of forest fragmentation by returning seven old fields to floodplain forest; control of invasive plants; and restoration of natural hydrological features.

Work on the 223-acre Conservancy section is being completed with funding from the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

This spring, the NRCS purchased a permanent Wetlands Reserve Easement (WRE) on this section—the first WRE easement in Massachusetts on the mainstem of the Connecticut River.

“The benefits of restoring, enhancing and protecting critical wetlands cannot be overstated,” said Christine Clarke, Massachusetts State Conservationist for NRCS. “USDA is committed to restoring and protecting vital, sensitive wetlands, like those at the Fannie Stebbins Memorial Wildlife Refuge. Wetland Reserve Easements, part of the Agricultural Conservation Easement program authorized under the 2014 Farm Bill, allow landowners to successfully restore, enhance and protect habitat for wildlife, reduce damage from flooding, recharge groundwater and provide outdoor recreational and educational opportunities.”

After the easement purchase, fee ownership of the land—plus another 21 acres—was donated to the Conservancy.

This land was previously part of the Fannie Stebbins Memorial Wildlife Refuge owned and managed by a Board of Trustees elected by the Allen Bird Club, whose members had the foresight to acquire the land in multiple, separate parcels beginning more than 60 years ago.

The refuge was named for Fannie Stebbins, a nationally-recognized biologist and educator who was head of Science and Nature Studies in the Springfield School System in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1972, the National Park Service designated the Stebbins Refuge a National Environmental Education Landmark. Massachusetts Audubon has recognized it as an Important Bird Area, as hospitable lodging for migrating birds.

In keeping with the Stebbins trustees’ wishes, the land is planned to eventually become part of the Conte Refuge, after the three-year restoration project.

The former Stebbins Refuge has long offered—and will continue to offer—public access and opportunities for environmental education, photography, hiking and wildlife observation.

“Speaking on behalf of the Board of Directors of Fannie Stebbins Wildlife Refuge, we rejoice that the cooperation among all the interested parties of this land, known locally for 60 years as ‘Fannie Stebbins,’ has resulted in the securing of this grant from NRCS for the restoration of this floodplain forest,” said Kate Leary, president of the Friends of the Fannie Stebbins Wildlife Refuge, Inc. “The natural hydrology will be restored, allowing the water to flow naturally again. Invasive exotic plants that invaded here after 1945 and threaten the rich biodiversity will be controlled. Native species will be restored, many of them being plants upon which both the year-round wildlife and migrating birds depend. It is a gift for all who love and have loved this land and the purpose it serves in nature.”

During the three-year restoration project, activities will include mowing, herbiciding and plowing the fields to prepare for tree planting; targeted use of herbicide in forested areas to control invasive plants; and the use of heavy equipment to remove a berm. Temporary closures over portions of the area will occur for public safety when work is underway.