The year 1972 was the age of the Volkswagen Beetle; the premieres of The Godfather and M*A*S*H; Watergate; Apollo moon landing; Vietnam; and women were finally allowed to compete in the Boston Marathon and/or become FBI agents. Some things do change. But it was also the year that the Stamford Land Conservation Trust (SLCT; stamfordland.org) was founded with the mission to preserve things just as they were. For five decades, its mission to preserve and protect open land has endured and now spans 57 preserves, from one acre to 164 acres, totaling more than 450 acres in Stamford.
“They all contribute to preserving open space,” says the organization’s president, Harry Day. Two of them—the 149-acre Helen Altschul Preserve and the twenty-six-acre Birch Meadow Preserve—represent almost 40 percent of its preserved properties. “They are exceptionally beautiful, with sloping wooded terrain and trails for visitors. The properties have pond and wetland areas and are home to a variety of animals, including deer, coyotes, foxes, amphibians, and aquatic and terrestrial birds. The Helen Altschul Preserve lies entirely within the Mianus River Greenway Watershed and is of key importance in water protection and availability.”
The way he speaks of the land reveals his attachment to it. He couldn’t hide his enthusiasm if he wanted to. Day has worked with the nonprofit for nearly twenty years, starting when then-president Percy Langstaff brought him on to help save ninety-three of the 100 acres of the Libby Holman property from development. “I have been dedicated to the Trust ever since,” Day says. “I have long been dedicated to saving open space. Half of my business career was as a creator and builder of golf courses with my brother—many of which are now well-known—on beautiful properties that otherwise would have been densely developed with housing.”
Now as president, he’s leading efforts to win over the public, as SLCT receives no annual governmental support. Most of their properties have been donated. The largest property, the Helen Altschul Preserve, was acquired in 2010 through mutual agreement between the Land Trust and the Nature Conservancy located in Middletown. It connects a total of 245 acres of preserved natural open space, so it’s important. “Some expenses were necessary,” he says of the $3 million needed. “Otherwise, the properties would have been sold for development. That amount, while challenging, is less than the value of the properties.”
SPACE AND TIME
Fundraising, of course, doesn’t just happen. People, especially those in Stamford, need to understand the value of SLCT’s mission—the why of it. Harry says it’s about saving the land so people can use it—to walk it—and to try the educational programs. “Our programs invite people to come, learn and enjoy,” he says. “Our properties are saved forever and will never be developed. More and more, even people who live downtown now realize that beautiful quiet nature is just minutes away. During the past two years, our properties have served as a refuge from Covid as we have had record numbers of visitors.”
The more involved people get—experiencing the trails and its restorative calm—the more they appreciate what open space offers. “Our preserves make me proud of what we do. Many of them are exceptionally interesting and fun to visit,” he explains. “Some of our preserves are not visited often, but they serve a valid purpose nevertheless; others are providing great enjoyment for our citizens who visit, take long walks, see animals and birds, look in the ponds and learn about nature. For different reasons, I like each and every one of them.”
Making sure the land is ready for that use, SLCT relies on a small staff and volunteers—and always grateful for more. “We can always use more financial support. Sometimes our properties wait too long to be taken care of as we would like,” he says. “We also encourage Stamford citizens to get involved—donate, volunteer, spread the word or even just follow along on our social media pages.”
SHARE THE SPACE
The preserves and hiking trails invite us to get out into nature—and, of course, eventually interact with wildlife. Only two preserves—Helen Altschul and Birch Meadow—have trail systems; while a few of the others are open to the public, they are rarely visited except by neighbors. Either way, John Stone, treasurer for SLCT Board of Directors, shares some tips for nature newbies on what to do/not to do.
1 // Keep watch. “Stay on the trail, with your dog leashed and children in sight. This prevents hazards from topographic features (steep terrain) and prevents incursion into the territory of any wildlife that might get defensive.”
2 // Check for ticks. “Protect your family and pets against ticks that frequently carry Lyme disease. Staying on the trail and out of the underbrush takes care of much of this, but visitors should also check themselves for ticks promptly after their visit. More on this at Lyme Disease Prevention—Global Lyme Alliance at globallymealliance.org/about-lyme/prevention.
3 // Respect animals. “As for wildlife encounters, we do have predators in our preserves, but virtually none of them prey on people and they will generally avoid you. While I’ve never heard of this happening, if you encounter a large predator, such as a coyote or bear, that does not retreat on its own, just reverse direction slowly (to avoid convincing them that you’re prey) and return to your home or car.”
4 // Protect against bugs. “In the mid to late summer there can be quite a few mosquitoes, so the use of repellent is advised in those periods.”
While the nonprofit depends on donations, memberships, volunteers and stewards (see more at stamfordland.org), another way to show your appreciation is to enjoy the land and share any photos you take. Here is an overview of the nonprofit’s properties.
Helen Altschul Preserve
164 acres, acquired from The Nature Conservancy, which had acquired it from the Altschul family in 1977. It has ruins of farm buildings and mills. See songbirds, waterfowl, white tailed deer, coyotes, red and gray foxes, raccoons, frogs, turtles, salamanders and snakes along trails for hiking, horseback riding, research and photography.
9.5 acres, acquired in 1996-97. The bulk (8.14 acres) was purchased in 1952 by a family who brought in animals, including African crowned cranes and English fallow deer. A second donation (1.42 acres) is attached to the original section. It’s home for deer, foxes, owls, hawks and more. Not open to the public.
Birch Meadow Preserve
25.5 acres, bumps up, partially, against Lake Windermere. It is open to the public, with trails, but must enter through an easement at the end of Gun Club Road. Charge your phone for photos, because the land is home to deer, birds, coyotes, amphibians and more.
The Wallenberg Preserve
A mix of wooded land and seasonal wetlands (vernal pools), the preserve is valuable to amphibians, who enjoy it relatively predator-free. The Isaac family donation made this possible.
Squirrel Run Preserve
Coming in at thirteen acres and the cutest name in SLCT’s portfolio, this preserve does not have a trail system. If you visit, park on Ridgecrest Road and walk to a gated entrance on Riverbank Road (look for sign). The property was donated in 1972 by The Nature Conservancy and became part of SLCT in 1991.
Grass Island Preserve
At 300-by-125-feet long, this little tract of land is found in the middle of Stamford Harbor. It’s home to ground-nesting birds, and marine life enjoy its shallows. George D. and John C. Wrightson donated it in 1972.