Restoring Rare Connecticut River Floodplain Habitat

The Connecticut River is the longest river in New England. It flows 406 miles through four states and discharges into Long Island Sound. (TNC)

The Connecticut River is the longest river in New England. It flows 406 miles through four states and discharges into Long Island Sound. (TNC)

Three-year project will create the largest non-fragmented area of natural floodplain in the Connecticut River basin

By ecoRI News staff

LONGMEADOW, Mass. — Large-scale restoration of natural floodplain features and native plants will begin soon on land along the Connecticut River, including 223 acres recently transferred to The Nature Conservancy (TNC) by the trustees of the former Fannie Stebbins Memorial Wildlife Refuge.

Easily visible from Interstate 91 in the suburbs of Springfield, the land is part of one of the most sizeable natural and largely protected floodplain areas in the Connecticut River watershed. In addition to the land-based restoration efforts, 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 snowmelt, spring rains and, increasingly, severe storms that cause the Connecticut River and its tributaries to overflow. These areas 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 TNC’s Connecticut River Program. “The Fannie Stebbins land presents a remarkable opportunity to protect and restore a portion of that habitat.”

TNC 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 TNC 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 on this section — the first such 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.

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

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 ’40s. 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.

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.