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Thinking Bigger

Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge is putting landscape-scale thinking into practice in the Connecticut River watershed.
Thinking Bigger

A meadow in the Fort River Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge; Hadley, MA

Originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Aug. 7, 2013

When it comes to conservation of land and wildlife, the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge is unique among its counterparts. So much so, that it has become a model for landscape conservation within the National Refuge System.

Across the country, 550 national wildlife refuges are spread out over all 50 states, including four in Massachusetts. Altogether, the National Refuge System is comprised of 150 million acres of protected land and water.

While many of these refuges are designed to protect pockets of critical core habitats, the Conte Refuge was designed to protect species and habitat throughout the entire Connecticut River watershed. 

"The Conte Refuge stands out as unique among the others, as it is the only refuge in the country that is based on a whole watershed approach," said Kim Lutz, director of the Connecticut River Program at the Nature Conservancy.

Originating in Canada, the 410-mile Connecticut River flows through New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut, crossing a variety of diverse ecosystems before reaching Long Island Sound. Fed by 38 major rivers, the 7.2-million acre watershed is the largest in New England, supporting 396 communities and 2.4 million people.

"The Silvio Conte Refuge is the third-largest refuge in our 13-state Northeast region, and it is also the most spread out and the most diverse," said Andrew French, project leader of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

By working with over 40 conservation partners like the Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Lands and the Kestrel Trust, the Conte Refuge has been able to protect 35,912 acres within the four-state area in a manner that connects other existing private and public protected lands.

"We are really part of an existing 1.8 million-acre conservation patchwork, or mosaic, within the watershed," French said. "With land acquisition authority that we have, we try to facilitate connectivity in a strategic manner." French likened the approach to putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

"You pick up differently sized pieces of land here and there, and some are harder to find or to fit into the bigger picture. But you keep at it, and over time you can put the whole puzzle together," he said.

To date, roughly 250,000 acres have been protected in the watershed, including the almost 36,000 that make up the Conte Refuge.

"Much can be done when federal and state government work collaboratively with both local and national land trusts that are devoted to conservation," said former U.S. Rep. John Olver of Amherst, a strong refuge advocate. "The various agencies work hand in glove, each one knows what the other one is doing and they are all in contact with Andrew French."


Several types of wetlands, forests and grasslands exist within the boundaries of the watershed. These ecosystems are home to an estimated 59 types of mammals, 250 types of birds, 142 species of fish, 22 types of reptiles, 23 types of amphibians, 1,500 types invertebrates, and over 3,000 forms of plant life.

By protecting and maintaining robust and resilient ecosystems, French says the refuge will be better positioned to handle devastating events like the effects of climate change, particularly changes related to migration patterns, and the warming of the river itself.

"Over the long haul we want to create a situation where there is at least some opportunity for adaptations," French said.


"A lot of people think that having a refuge in their community will raise their taxes but these refuges are not a burden to the taxpayer at all," Lutz said.

Funding for the refuge comes from the Land and Water Conservation Fund that utilizes fees collected from companies drilling offshore for oil and gas.

According to Lutz, the refuge system not only benefits wildlife and ecosystems, it contributes to local economies.

"Every time a refuge is open to the public, that area sees an economic benefit from people coming in to do hiking, bird watching, fishing and photography," Lutz said. "People spend millions of dollars on these activities which in turn brings money into the community," she said.


Part of the mission of the Conte Refuge is to provide educational opportunities to the public.

"There are thousands of people who live in the area who don’t get to go out and experience the watershed," Lutz said. "That is why the education side of conservation is so important," she said.

In the fall of 2010, the Conte Refuge launched a mobile visitor center known as the Watershed On Wheels, or WOW Express. It allows people to study plants and animals from habitats found in the Connecticut River Watershed. An additional trailer unit contains several educational kiosks and interactive displays.

"A big part of our program is educational outreach," French said.

Another educational project created by refuge staff is the Conte Corner. Recently opened at the Springfield Science Museum, the Conte Corner features interpretive displays geared towards educating the public on the value of conserving the Connecticut River Watershed.

As diversity within a refuge strengthens the entire ecosystem, a variety of partners working on behalf of the refuge system, enhances their advocacy power.

"There is a lot more power in our collective voice," Lutz said. "When we advocate together, we become more than the sum of our parts."

French said he hopes that the Conte Refuge will continue to grow.

"The first property that became part of the refuge was Third Island, a 3.8-acre island in Deerfield that was donated to the refuge by the Connecticut River Watershed Council in 1997.

Now, 13 years later, we have almost 36,000 acres of protected lands," French said.

Some of the latest acquisitions to the refuge include an 80-acre parcel along the Dead Branch of the Westfield River in Chesterfield, 12 acres of farmland and grassland in Hadley and 125 acres in Becket that will become part of the Westfield River Division of the refuge, conserving more than 1,000 feet of riparian habitat along the West Branch of the Westfield River.

French has a way of measuring progress in the refuge.

"A good day for me," he said, "is when I get an email from Tom Geser, our realty specialist, that says ‘We closed!’ That is when I can send out an email to our friends and partners that says ‘We Grew!’


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