Environmental watchdog group says state needs better data

Connecticut’s environmental watchdog panel says the state does not know how much open space or wildlife habitat it has and is relying on outdated data to make critical decisions about preservation or development.

The state Council on Environmental Quality, in a draft of its legislative proposals for next year, says the Department of Environmental Protection is off by tens of thousands of acres in estimates of open space totals and how far the state is toward its preservation goal.

The open space acreage figures are crucial to how the state distributes bonding funds to help municipalities buy land.

“The DEP’s estimates of its own land are pretty accurate,” said Karl Wagener, executive director of the CEQ, in an interview last week. “The DEP does have a good grip on what it owns.”

But when it comes to municipal parks and preserves, non-profit-owned preserves, and land protected by land trusts and through easements, the estimates that the DEP puts out are off by tens of thousands of acres, he said.

At the hearing in Hartford on the draft proposals, several advocacy groups went on record backing the goal of creating a more complete database. “Creating a volunteer recording system for land trusts is really vital,” said Sandy Breslin, director of governmental affairs for Audubon Connecticut, the state office of National Audubon.

Breslin then asked the CEQ to add another database idea to its report: “We call for a statewide natural resources inventory.” She said after the hearing that when it comes out during hearings for a developer’s proposal that the land involved, for instance, is habitat for a rare bird, there is no time for officials to react.

There are state databases of habitats for endangered and “special concern” species, but not for a wide range of species and areas, Breslin said. That makes it very hard for officials in small towns to know what they are dealing with when a development proposal comes in.

The DEP established five years ago that Connecticut has 12 threatened wildlife habitats. More than half of those include wet areas like marshes and bogs. The DEP also made a list of 25 threats to the key habitats.

“If you’re trying to build a highway site, or a wind project, how do you do it without destroying habitat?” Breslin  said. “It usually comes up at a time when the clock is ticking. We have pockets of that information, but we don’t have the depth of information.”

Similarly, the state doesn’t have a good handle on preserved land, Wagener said. When Gov. M. Jodi Rell announced the release of $10.4 million in new state grants to help cities and towns buy open space, she put the amount preserved so far at 488,822 acres–well short of the goal of 673,210 acres by 2023.

Wagener said that figure, based on DEP data, probably underestimates the amount of preserved open space by a significant amount because it doesn’t include some preserved acreage not owned by the state.

About a decade ago, the DEP started going to town halls, one by one, to improve the calculation of open space totals. That project, known as POSM for Protected Open Space Mapping, has included newer protected acreages from 148 out of 169 towns as of last summer.

CEQ reviewed some of that data last year and concluded it did not accurately reflect the total amount of preserved land, Wagener said.

“When it’s done it will be out of date,” he said. “We’ll have better numbers than we have now, but what we need is some sort of simple system,” which would allow continuous adding of land acquisition to a central list.

He added, “We used to use those figures in our own report on the state’s environment, but if you go to our annual report for the past year you’ll see we quit reporting on how much we have preserved.”

The DEP acknowledged that habitat databases could improve and that accurate information is “critical to protecting natural resources today and in planning for the future,” said Dennis Schain, the department’s spokesman.

He added, “DEP has been working to improve our databases and the availability of information on both of these topics. We are also interested in ideas others may have on how to best capture and make available in the most useful form information on open space and listed species.”

Despite the confusion about how much open space is actually preserved in the state, the CEQ said open space preservation efforts still are behind schedule. It recommends in the report that the state act more quickly to buy land. They suggest $20 million next year to help towns buy open space of about 11,000 per year.

The CEQ’s draft proposals also include:

  • State bonding of $130 million to continue improving water quality in Long Island Sound, which has a large dead zone at its western end in the summer.
  • Farmland preservation funds of $10 million so that the state can help farmers keep their farms by paying them to declare the land farmland, never to be sold. The CEQ says the state should preserve 2,000 farm acres each year in this way. Last year the total was 1,400 acres, which was double the previous year.
  • A state clean up contaminated drinking water wells, consolidating drinking water programs in one agency and use federal Superfund dollars.
  • Allowing owners of smaller tracts of land (under 25 acres) to declare it wildlife habitat and get a lower tax rate.
  • Requiring drivers of all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes to register them with the state.
  • Amending a state statute to require that everyone who could see a proposed cell tower from their homes be given notice of the proposal.
  • A ban on outdoor wood furnaces.
  • Requiring better training for volunteer wetlands board members in towns.