Nature Conservancy 'Patrols' R.I.’s Borderlands

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

A swath of land straddling the Rhode Island-Connecticut border from Long Island Sound to the Massachusetts line shows up on nighttime satellite imagery as a noticeable dark spot amid the eastern seaboard’s bright lights.

Nestled in the thick of this largely rural region referred to as the “Borderlands” — the largest patch of mostly undeveloped land between Boston and Washington, D.C. — is Exeter.

This town of about 7,000 people, which sits prominently in the Wood-Pawcatuck watershed, plays a key role in how this sensitive region will be developed in the future. About 65 percent of the land in this watershed remains undeveloped, and contains some of the most ecologically important lands in the Northeast, including unfragmented forests and pristine watersheds.

“The Wood-Pawcatuck watershed is unique and Exeter has authority over a big part of that watershed,” said Kevin Essington, director of government relations and communications for the Rhode Island chapter of The Nature Conservancy. “The decisions they make will impact that watershed for good or ill — so far it’s been for the good.”

The Nature Conservancy has been working since 2001 to conserve 136,000 acres of largely intact forest along the Ocean State-Nutmeg State border. The effort expanded seven years ago when the Rhode Island chapter of the international agency created the Borderlands Project to build greater awareness for the region’s natural resources, explore the shared threats and opportunities that the region faces and foster a culture of learning and collaboration.

The Borderlands is home to some 200,000 people and within an hour’s drive of more than 3 million others. About 40 percent of the Borderlands is protected by two large forest preserves — the Pachaug State Forest in Connecticut and the Arcadia Management Area in Rhode Island.

Some of New England’s cleanest watersheds, including the Wood-Pawcatuck, can be found in the Borderlands, supporting native brook trout, alewife and herring, and providing much of Rhode Island and Connecticut’s water supply.

The project that bears its name is working with the 20-odd municipalities to adjust to growth pressures without losing their distinctive character. Those behind the project are helping the communities develop 21st-century solutions to issues such as affordable housing, sprawl, economic sustainability and environmental conservation.

“We’re trying to present conservation and economic development in complementary ways,” Essington said. “We’re providing assistance in planning and helping build capacity so better decisions are made. We heard a unified cry for assistance.”

In 2008, The Nature Conservancy — in partnership with the Orton Family Foundation, The Rhode Island Foundation and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and with support from private donors — launched the project’s Village Innovation Pilot, to help two border towns balance the challenge of absorbing new growth with safeguarding the features that make their communities great places to live.

The effort has provided assistance to Exeter and Killingly, Conn. — two of 20 towns invited to submit proposals to be part of the pilot program — in developing a shared vision for the future. Data has been gathered through interviews, an online survey and public workshops.

In Exeter, development of a shared vision for the town’s future remains as a challenge, but most residents, while not opposed to growth and change, are unwilling to sacrifice the rural character and lifestyle that originally drew them to live there, according to Essington.

The program has determined that the buildable undeveloped land in Exeter could accommodate about 5,000 homes, which would more than double the number there now.

Residents and town officials have identified four to six areas, including along Route 2, that could best accommodate development.

Originally slated as an 18-month program, the Village Innovation Pilot will likely take three years to complete, Essington said.