The Connecticut Council on Environmental Quality’s annual report came out on Friday, filled with interesting observations, insights and information. It can easily be the basis of an agenda for Connecticut’s conservationists.
The Council correctly sees land use as the factor that has the biggest effect on the state’s environmental quality; it also recognizes that improved development patterns must go hand-in-hand with more land preservation to truly conserve Connecticut’s resources.
If the state’s towns and cities concentrate development in already-built up areas, and if there’s a greater use of so-called green infrastructure, important upland habitats will remain undisturbed and the pollution that has damaged habitat in rivers and Long Island Sound will be reduced.
“The pace and pattern of land development will determine the future of Connecticut’s air, water and life. A sudden spurt in sprawl would yield more water pollution, more air pollution, more invasive species and a host of other negative outcomes,” the report says.
One important consequence of sprawl-type development is the expansion of invasive species: “Research shows … that invasive exotic species follow low-density housing development throughout New England. Invasive species pose the single biggest threat to Connecticut’s natural ecosystems …”
It’s noteworthy, then, that recent data show more population growth in urban areas than in the suburbs and rural areas, the CEQ reports, and Connecticut residents drove fewer miles in each of the last three years, after 25 years of increasing mileage. It’s possible that urban areas are being revived and that there might be a hiatus on spawl development.
Meanwhile, the state’s land conservation program has stagnated. The CEQ reports that in 2011 the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection preserved a grand total of 575 acres, an amount of land that might be looked on with pride by a small land trust. State grants led to the protection of an additional 1,600 acres.
The report concludes: “This pace is not nearly sufficient to reach the state’s goals.”
Just as worrisome is that no one really knows how much land is being preserved by local governments and private organizations. The CEQ report notes that a bill passed this year, Public Act 12-152, may ultimately lead to a much better understanding of the amount and the kinds of lands that have been preserved, and of the unprotected lands that are both high quality and vulnerable. (Connecticut Audubon Society supported Public Act 12-152; many of its provisions originated in our annual Connecticut State of the Birds reports.)
One place that will need more attention is the state’s interior forests, where the best forest habitat is concentrated. The report says, “After a century of growth and relative stability, Connecticut’s forests — especially the most valuable core forests — have been shrinking for two decades. “
Between 1985 and 2006, the number of acres of core forest in Connecticut dropped from about 1.25 million to about 800,000, according to a graph included in the CEQ report.
So for discussion purposes, here are items that might constitute part of a conservation agenda based on the Council on Environmental Quality’s report:
- Support policies that lead to the concentration of development in already-developed areas, near workplaces and transportation, to prevent sprawl from overtaking what’s left of the undeveloped land. Over the long run, the state and local governments can protect more land through land use than through other methods.
- Preserve more land. Even with better land use policies and development patterns, the best way to protect critical habitat is to preserve it forever, through purchases and conservation easements involving the state, local governments and private conservation organizations.
- Provide better training for local wetlands regulators. Land use decisions are made locally, in particular decisions on the development of wetlands. Wetlands protection is notably better in communities where volunteer members of Inland Wetlands Commissions have received the training required by state law.
“State law requires every municipal wetlands agency to have at least one member or staff person complete DEEP’s comprehensive wetlands training program, but many municipalities do not comply with this requirement. A thorough statistical analysis found that cities and towns that possessed at least one trained member or staff person allowed less wetlands disturbance than cities and towns that were not in compliance with the training requirement.”
- Protect core forests. The report notes, accurately, “Forests that are fragmented or divided by roads and buildings serve some forest purposes but are not fully-functioning forest ecosystems. Fragmented forests are known to provide substandard habitat for many species of wildlife and, in many cases, less opportunity for hunting and other types of recreation.”
- Begin working on a coordinated statewide response to invasive species and the damage they have done.
There is much more in the report, about air quality, water pollution, Long Island Sound and other environmental indicators, all of which is worth reading.
We look forward to the release later in the year of Part II of the report, which make recommendations for how the state can improve its environmental performance, based on the information in last week’s report.
You can find the report on the CEQ website, here. – Tom Andersen, director of communications and community outreach