Biocitizen’s comments on the USFWS’s Silvio Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan

I do get excited about maps like this one, which shows new areas in Chesterfield and Westhampton the USFWS is proposing for conservation.

Here are the comments I sent USFWS, supporting “CCP Alternative C”:

Dear US Fish and Wildlife Service,

As a resident of Westhampton, Massachusetts, and director of the Westhampton-based 501(c)3 Biocitizen School of Environmental Philosophy, I am writing to express my overall support for Alternative C, especially because it expands the conservation of the Dead Branch Brook watershed.

As attested by its current Open Space Plan, my town fully supports increasing the amount of conservation land in this area:

“Located in the northwest corner of town, the Dead Branch is a cold, shady, rushing river with dramatic rock outcrops that flows into the Westfield River drainage. Bordered by hemlock and a mix of deciduous trees, the river provides habitat for native brook trout, Atlantic salmon and several other species of fish. It also supports one species of rare dragonfly and is the only location in town where freshwater mussels are known to occur. Along its marshy borders are a few plants that are unusual in town, including pickerelweed, sweet gale and in one small area, pitcher plants, leatherleaf, sundews and other species characteristic of bogs. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) developed the Westfield River Highlands Program in 2003 to join community efforts to protect and responsibly manage the watershed’s forests and rivers. TNC is actively talking with Westhampton landowners in the Dead Branch watershed, and portions of the Connecticut River Watershed as well about protecting their land.”

Thanks to its multiple resource values, the Dead Branch watershed is an incredible educational resource Biocitizen uses to teach environmental philosophy. We use its natural resources to teach principles of ecology and natural history, and its human traces to teach cultural history; together, these perspectives yield a deep understanding about what nature is, and how we inhabit it. The fact that 1) it is easily accessible from Northampton, and 2) linked to the East Branch of the Westfield River lands being conserved by the Army Corps, MA DEP, national and local land trusts, and private property owners, makes the Dead Branch our students’ and our teachers’ favorite “outdoor classroom” in Western MA. We cover the five ecoregions of mid-Connecticut River basin and Southeastern Berkshires and there is no place as beautiful, interesting and exciting—not even close.

Alternative C deserves to be enacted, moreover, because it will usher all the stakeholders listed above, plus their communities, into conceiving and implementing an integrated plan of management for both the Dead Branch and East Branch of the Westfield River watersheds. These stakeholders know how special the Dead Branch is, and how it is geologically and ecologically united with the Wild and Scenic East Branch; but there is not as much communication and coordination between them as there should be, primarily because of the fragmented character of the many conservation lands and actions. Selection of Alternative C will bring unity to these fragments, and allow the many stakeholders to unite their efforts.

Finally, the Biocitizen School uses the middle Connecticut River, between Holyoke and Turner’s Falls dams to teach the biocultural history of human-induced anadromous fish extinction. Before 2012, we taught a variation of this, stressing the means by which agencies and corporations were “saving” the anadromous fish, but the USFWS announcement of end of the Atlantic Salmon program shocked students and teachers alike, and caused everybody to look closer at the records of success at Holyoke and Turner’s Falls dams. The records show the future of Ct River anadromous fish species is grim. I have participated in the hearings process for the relicensing of the FirstLight-owned hydroelectric facilities in Northfield and Turner’s Falls, and I am not optimistic FERC will do much more than require minor mitigations of FirstLight’s impacts. Moreover, the fact remains that the Holyoke and Turner’s Falls dams are never going to be removed in our lifetimes, and, in that amount of passing time, several more anadromous species will probably become extinct.

Alternative C should be implemented because it protects upland wetlands, forests and riparian corridors that feed and sustain the Dead Branch watershed’s cold water fisheries. As part of the larger plan to save the CT River’s anadromous fish, the USFWS and partners can introduce fish passages on the Westfield River, where there are presently none, and improve the ones that already exist. Since the Westfield debouches downriver of Holyoke, opening up the entire Westfield watershed with its three healthy rivers for anadromous fish will provide them the large, high-quality habitat they have been cut off from for over a century. There will be great support for improving the Westfield’s fisheries, and Alternative C will make such support possible.

Thank you for considering my comments,

Kurt Heidinger
Director, Biocitizen School