Thursday, March 31, 2005

Peach Island: Conserving Land for Wildlife and People?

At Southern Connecticut State University the other night, much of the discussion after my talk was about how hard it is to physically get to the Sound. Most of the waterfront is privately owned and most of the "public" beaches are owned by shorefront towns that have restrictive access policies (these beaches are technically open to everyone but the costs and the process of getting passes makes it not worth the trouble). The feeling in the class -- and it's a feeling I share -- was that the difficulty of getting to the Sound prevents a stronger constituency for the Sound from growing.

Today's news is that the amount of public land on the Sound has grown by 2.6 acres, which is small but not insignificant. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acquired Peach Island, in Norwalk Harbor, from private the Norwalk Seaport Association yesterday, for $600,000, thus delivering the association from the temptation to sell it to a developer. The Trust for Public Land brokered the deal.

Peach Island will become part of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge. Will the public be allowed on? "If we find some public use is compatible with the wildlife, then we will allow that use," said Sara Williams, a wildlife biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, according to the Stamford Advocate.

There are a couple of issues here. Obviously a national wildlife refuge exists for wildlife, and there are clearly times when wildlife and people are incompatible. The section of the McKinney Refuge at Milford Point, for example, is fenced off for a good part of the year so piping plovers, a federally threatened species, can nest without being stepped on by humans. And the fact that Peach Island is an island means that nobody is going to set foot on it who hasn't already gotten access to the Sound somewhere else, so the acquisition won't increase public access.

But the Trust for Public Land's motto is "Conserving Land for People," and in this case I presume they mean more than the handful of Norwalk waterfront residents who no longer will have to worry about looking at a big new house on Peach Island.

So I hope they open up the island, and allow kayakers and outboards to pull up to its shores, if only in late summer, fall and winter if it turns out to be an important nesting site. It would be a shame if bird watchers, fishermen, people who simply wanted to walk around the island looking for shells were kept off this new piece of public property year-round.

Here's the Advocate story. Warning: It contains numerous press release quotes that were never actually said by anyone (trust me here -- I do that sort of thing for a living).


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