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A half-century of saving the land

Members of the Conservation Commission met on the Monday night before Thanksgiving. They are, from left: (front row) Geri Clark, Beth Yanity, office administrator Nancy McDaniel, (back row) Kitsey Snow, Carroll Brewster, Susan Baker, Dr. Ben Oko, Dave Cronin, and Alan Pilch. —Macklin Reid

Green are Ridgefield’s hills and valleys. The town is a suburb of 25,000 people where a walk in the woods can immerse a parched soul in the balm of birdcall and dappled sunlight, and lead a keen observer to encounters with New England wildlife small and large, winged and feathered, furred and footed, scaled and scurrying.

And that, perhaps more than anything, is the legacy of 50 years of unglamorous work by the Ridgefield Conservation Commission — lobbying and raising funds for open space acquisitions, finding and cajoling donors of land and money, managing and maintaining tracts large and small, cutting trails and building bridges, working with Scouts and hikers and politicians, commenting on development plans, making the occasional fuss.

“I’m proud of the open space,” said Edith Meffley, who served on the Conservation Commission more than 40 of its 50 years. “It took a lot of getting along with people, kind of persuading people. Open space is valuable for many reasons.”

She said the land matters — “be it waterways, or ridgetops, or preservation of tracts of land that abutted other tracts and have been useful for providing space for animals and birds, and providing space for trails everyone might be able to enjoy,” Ms. Meffley said.

An introduction to a catalog of open spaces on the Conservation Commission section of the town website, Ridgefieldct.org, says, “Ridgefield has approximately 5,200 acres of open space under various jurisdictions. This represents 23% of the town’s total area. By comparison, New York City’s expansive Central Park is about 800 acres.”

It lists 32 open space tracts under town or state management and open to hiking.

The Ridgefield Press in 1975 described the formation of the commission, and its work. “As Ridgefielders watched the land quickly becoming covered with new houses and roads, they became concerned,” The Press said.

That concern led to the creation in 1962 of the seven-member appointed commission — often all women in its first decades.

“One of the few government agencies that asks for gifts of money (its budget is less than $1,000), the commission has acquired or pressed for the town’s acquisition of hundreds of acres of open space,” The Press said in 1975. “Many refuges are used by the schools for nature studies. All are available for the enjoyment of any resident.”

Of today’s $127-million town budget, $34,000 goes to the commission, used mostly to pay a few part-time employees.

A town ordinance accepted at a town meeting on June 29, 1962, created the commission, whose members are appointed by the chief executive officer for staggered three-year terms They serve without salary.

The first commissioners were all women, which created a bit of a stir at the 1962 Town Meeting. The first members were Mrs. Julia Woodford, Mrs. Rosemary Hayes, Mrs. Elizabeth Velte, Mrs. Joseph Cashman, Mrs. Mary Luke, Mrs. Helen Lewis, and Mrs. Robert Cullerton.

“There was some expression of ‘shock and surprise’ when the first selectman appointed no men to the commission, and one man termed the appointment ‘ridiculous,’” The Press reported.

The Conservation Commission today has nine members, four women and four men, with one seat vacant.

“Things have changed an awful lot,” said Ms. Meffley, who put her tenure on the commission from 1965 to 2006.

“It was so much easier then. Somehow we used to take the zoning enforcement officer, Gardener Taft, out and we’d pack a lunch,” she said.

Today commissioners take care not to get five members together socially, which would create a quorum of the commission — and an illegal public meeting.

Talk to people in Ridgefield’s conservation community, and many will agree that the preservation of thousands of acres of open space is the commission’s shining achievement.

“I believe the most important work that the all-volunteer commission does for the town and its residents is to help the town achieve its goal of 30% permanently protected open space,” said Terry McManus, who recently ended a year serving on the commission but continues her eight years of volunteer work as one of the commission’s open space rangers.

“The volunteer commissioners over the years and continuing today focus on creating a meaningful open space system that provides for contiguous open space, protects important natural resources and protects the character of the town that is so important to town residents,” Ms. McManus said.

“Ridgefield has an amazing network of open space land available to the public. It is the result of the commission’s targeted acquisition of open space through the subdivision process, land donations, and Open Space Conservation Fund purchases. This acquisition plan has resulted in a linking of open space that is impressive and an inspiration to other towns.”

Current Conservation Commission member Ben Oko continues the work of adding open space lands.

“We’re very proud of all the open space that we have, and that we care about, and that we look after,” Dr. Oko said, “and the trails and the opportunities for recreation that they provide — places to walk, ride your horse, ride your bike.

“As seen in our recently released Natural Resource Inventory, we have a wonderful diversity of habitat, and species — a wonderful and rich, environmentally diverse community — because of the land that’s been preserved over the years.”

He added, “We hold an annual fund drive to raise money to purchase open space. And, in fact, that fund-raiser is about to commence.”

Open spaces are often used for the “passive recreation” of walks and hikes, but they are also used for more formal activities.

The Discovery Center organizes a wide variety of programs on open spaces, ranging from educational hikes for kids to the annual “Ghosts of Ridgefield” history lesson.

The Scouts offer a hiking merit badge. A trail run sponsored by Tri-Ridgefield drew 100 runners in September.

“I have known homeschool parents who use open spaces for their science lessons,” Ms. McManus said. “People hike and walk their dogs. In some open spaces, people do mountain biking.”

The Conservation Commission has a volunteer force of “open space rangers” who care for properties, often ones near their homes. Commissioners Dave Cronin and Kitsey Snow head the rangers, drawn from a list of 73 volunteers with an active group of about 30.

“What we’d like each of them to do is walk their property twice a year, spring and fall, or after big storms, which may mean they only have to be there two or three times,” Mr. Cronin said. “Some of the properties are pretty small. It may only take half an hour.

“We don’t ask a lot of them. We really want them to walk the property and tell us of problems. Some of them do maintenance, like painting blazes, picking up tree branches. Generally we don’t have them do chain saw work.”

Some rangers are more diligent — by choice, they enjoy it. Ms. McManus described her work as an open space ranger at the 63-acre Florida Refuge, a task she shares with Sid and Jill Kelley — who, she notes, had long been at it when she joined them eight years ago. (Jill Kelley is a former commission chairman.)

“Jill and I go out for two hours every couple of weeks and walk a different part of the refuge,” she said. “We bring along large and small clippers, staple gun, trash bags, paints (blue and yellow) and paint brushes, hammer and nails, screws.

“We pick up brush, clear limbs when we can, repaint blazes, re-staple or replace chicken wire on some of the bridges, reattach signs to posts or trees, remove litter that may have blown into the refuge, etc.,” she said.

“We take note of wildflowers growing, plants, the health of trees, birds, animals, invasive plants, etc., so we can eventually update any descriptions published about the refuge and so that issues (like invasives) can be addressed by the commission.

“Since the storms of the past year, we have had to address a lot of downed trees across trails.”

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