My Turn: Big step ahead for watershed, but one looming step back

A bald eagle sits perched on the roots of a fallen tree in late day sun on the Connecticut River in Gill.

A bald eagle sits perched on the roots of a fallen tree in late day sun on the Connecticut River in Gill. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By MARKELLE SMITH and RAE ETTENGER

Published: 02-08-2024 9:29 PM

This July, in the Connecticut River watershed, from northern Vermont and New Hampshire downstream to western Massachusetts, heavy rains brought intense flooding that swelled rivers, turned backyards into ponds, and ravaged agricultural fields. Residents of the watershed are familiar with some flooding, but as the planet continues to warm and extreme weather events become more intense and frequent, communities are looking for long-term solutions for the events of July 2023.

Thanks to the leadership of U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, there is a reason that residents can be hopeful that the Connecticut River watershed will be stewarded and restored for generations to come. The two have introduced legislation in Congress to enhance partnerships and coordination among nonprofits, community members, tribal organizations, and state and federal agencies to increase climate resilience, protect wildlife habitat, and promote access to outdoor recreation in the watershed for all.

The Connecticut River Watershed Partnership Act, when passed, will allow this watershed to join a prestigious group of ecologically and economically significant others, including the Delaware River and Chesapeake Bay watersheds, that have been protected by federal legislation rooted in regional partnerships. Led by the Connecticut River Watershed Partnership, a coalition of watershed-based partner organizations formerly known as the Friends of Conte will create a dedicated funding stream that supports non-regulatory conservation, restoration, education, and recreation efforts in the watershed.

The Connecticut River watershed, which spans 7.2 million acres and shares a boundary with the Conte Refuge, was established in 1991 and is the largest multistate national wildlife refuge bounded by a watershed. The Connecticut River, New England’s longest and most culturally significant water body, drains 11,000 square miles that are home to 2.4 million residents, as well as hundreds of plant and animal species, many of which are priorities for state and/or federal protection.

The Conte Refuge is protected in part thanks to the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF); a keystone piece of federal conservation legislation that has protected outdoor treasures in every state in the country. In Massachusetts and the Connecticut River watershed, the fund has played a critical role funding the conservation of places we value for recreation and other benefits nature provides.

Such gains in land conservation would not be possible without our LWCF champions in Congress, like Sen. Shaheen and Rep. McGovern. Though the recently passed Great American Outdoors Act has permanently secured $900 million annually for LWCF projects, federal conservation funding remains in peril as Congress threatens to pass a $100 million rescission of LWCF.

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While proponents argue that these funds are “left over” or “unspent,” there are many existing LWCF project needs across the Connecticut River watershed that could use the funds now, especially as the region faces extreme weather, so that argument doesn’t hold much water here in Massachusetts.

Read on to see a few examples of projects in the Connecticut River watershed that could be funded by the proposed $100 million rescission of LWCF dollars and with passage of the Connecticut River Watershed Partnership Act.

LWCF would provide funding to purchase land from willing landowners in these two areas of Massachusetts:

■In Hadley, the major body of water flowing through this primarily agricultural community is the Fort River. The Fort River drains a 35,830-acre watershed and is the longest free-flowing tributary to the Connecticut River in Massachusetts. There are various habitat types in this sub-watershed, including hardwood, floodplain and grasslands. The Fort River Division of the Conte Refuge consists of 295 conserved acres that are ideal for outdoor recreation, including hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, and a one-mile-long, fully accessible natural trail.

■In Chesterfield, the Dead Branch Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge currently consists of 100 acres. This division is primarily made up of northern hardwood forest that is home to native wildlife such as the wood thrush, Canadian warbler, and ruffed grouse. Dead Branch Brook contains some of the best habitat for threatened freshwater mussels in the commonwealth, and its cold, clean waters are a result of the extensive forests that buffer this tributary to the Connecticut River.

These examples in the Connecticut River watershed are just a few of the thousands of projects across the country waiting for funds that would be left uncompleted if Congress passes the proposed $100 million rescission of Land and Water Conservation funds. We are deeply thankful to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren for joining Sen. Shaheen’s letter opposing any rollback of LWCF funds.

We encourage every member of Congress to work with Senate leadership to ensure this rescission of LWCF funds does not become law. We are fortunate to have congressional champions of conservation throughout the entire Connecticut River watershed, who understand that both land conservation through LWCF and complementary restoration, stewardship and management investments through watershed-wide partnership legislation are vital to the health of this incredible resource.

McGovern experienced the positive impacts of outdoor recreation at a recent event along the banks of the river in Hadley celebrating his leadership in introducing the Connecticut River Watershed Partnership Act. McGovern remarked that the time spent by the Connecticut River was “a rejuvenating shot in the arm” after spending the week in Washington, D.C.

The largest river in New England provides clean drinking water and recreation opportunities to millions of urban and rural residents while also providing solutions to the climate and biodiversity crisis, so we need to give back in return. We encourage all Massachusetts’ members of Congress to co-sponsor the Connecticut River Watershed Partnership Act to enhance and restore the ecosystems, economy and communities of the watershed for generations to come.

Markelle Smith is the director of the Connecticut River Watershed Partnership and Rae Ettenger is the New England conservation policy specialist at the Appalachian Mountain Club.