Exploring The Last Green Valley: Sprague Land Preserve an extraordinary place

Exploring The Last Green Valley: Sprague Land Preserve an extraordinary place

With the recent warm temperatures and snow melt, my thoughts are turning to springtime forest rambles.

This spring, I have my sights on a very special place located in Sprague and Franklin.

The first time I experienced the Sprague Land Preserve was with Lou Dzialo. I was interested in organizing a hike for Last Green Valley members so I made some inquiries about seeing the preserve beforehand.

Lou lived nearby and knew it as well as anyone from the community. It was a warm, late February day when we met up at the entrance to the property. Thankfully, the melting snow didn’t prevent his four-wheel drive truck from traversing the property’s long dirt road and off we went deep into the preserve.

By truck and foot, Lou showed me the entire property all the way down to the Shetucket River. The wet snow gave up secrets from the preceding night, with numerous deer and rabbit tracks, usually seen with coyote, bobcat and fox tracks nearby.

Along the river bank, we followed otter tracks as they led us up the snow-covered slope on the western shore of Scotland Dam.

At the crest of the slope we found a long narrow depression in the snow where an otter had slid on its belly down into the river. In vain I scanned the river with my binoculars, hoping to spot the otter rollicking in the water.

Three months later, on a glorious spring day, I returned to the preserve with 30 members of The Last Green Valley and our hosts from the Sprague Conservation Commission and the Friends of the Shetucket River Valley.

By day’s end I came to truly appreciate the Sprague Land Preserve as one of the most extraordinary places in The Last Green Valley.

Not only does it have exceptional and diverse natural habitat, but, perhaps most importantly, this property brought together two communities in a shared goal of permanently protecting the land for generations to come.

Recently, I spoke with several people who were involved from the very beginning of the Sprague Land Preserve to learn more about the history of the property.

From Don Boushee, chairman of the Sprague Conservation Commission, I learned that the preserve currently totals 625 acres and is formed by three separate properties that were acquired between 2004 and 2016.

The Mukluk preserve, Watson property and lastly the Robinson property were all purchased through a combination of town-approved referendum funds, state preservation funds and private funding.

Don helped me understand that the three core properties provide a diverse landscape including forested upland woods, wetlands and riparian habitat, streams and the Shetucket River, as well as farm fields and meadows. Wildlife abounds in the preserve and an excellent trail system makes the land easily accessible.

The Mukluk property included a 17-acre plot that for several decades had been used as a shooting range. As a result, the plot was severely contaminated with arsenic and lead, requiring a clean-up and action plan funded by the Environmental Protection Agency. The clean-up is nearing completion and that part of the preserve will be open to the public in the near future.

I spoke with Cathy Osten, first selectman for the Town of Sprague and state senator for the Connecticut 19th Senatorial District. I came away from our conversation with a clearer understanding that her initial leadership helped shape public interest in preserving land, and the eventual acquisition of the Mukluk property set in motion the acquisition and protection of the other properties.

Cathy aptly referred to the Sprague Land Preserve as “the little engine that could” as people came together from diverse backgrounds to collectively advance a shared goal of preservation. The preserve — now a local asset to enjoy for future generations, “would not be there but for the people from these quintessential small New England towns” that took on various roles to help move the process forward, one step at a time.

Importantly, Cathy also helped organize interested folks from Sprague, Franklin and other nearby towns to form the Friends of the Shetucket River Valley, a private nonprofit organization with a mission to identify and protect open space in the Shetucket River Valley for the future enjoyment of the public, and the preservation of key habitat for fish and wildlife.

I spoke with Sue Allen-Konow from Franklin, the treasurer and grant-writer for Friends of the Shetucket River Valley. She informed me that FSRV does not own land, but actively works to raise funds to help preserve land in the river valley by working with local conservation commissions and other like-minded organizations engaged in preservation of local natural resources.

She is passionate about the Sprague Land Preserve as a keystone landscape within a 3,000-acre wildlife corridor. The work of FSRV continues as its looks to add more property contiguous to the preserve either through conservation easements or purchase.

To find out more about Friends of the Shetucket River Valley and how you can get involved, check out its website at shetucket.org.

The entrance to the Sprague Land Preserve is located on Holton Road in Franklin. I highly recommend it for hiking and outdoor enjoyment.

Information on the preserve can be found at the Town of Sprague website and Sprague Conservation Commission page. There you’ll find helpful reminders such as:

  • Drive your car all the way down the dirt road (7/10 mile) and park near the cabin where there’s room. Parking on the road means that other cars can’t pass you.
  • Obey the signs that say to keep out of certain areas where we are cleaning up the lead pellets from years of hunting. You will know these areas immediately by the cheery orange and yellow fencing (no, we don’t like it either, but it does the trick.)
  • ATVs and motorbikes are prohibited. The area is patrolled and violators will be prosecuted.
  • Please respect this lovely resource and take out anything you bring into the woods.
  • The preserve is closed at sunset except to fishermen. Currently, the gate will be locked at sunset.
  • Take note of seasonal hunting provisions in the preserve and dress/hike accordingly.

The trail map can be downloaded by going to the link on the Conservation Commission web page: ctsprague.org/resources/sprague preserve gps map.pdf.

When I think about large tracts of contiguous land protected from development that serve as important wildlife corridors with diverse habitats, and that are open and available to the public, I usually think of our state parks and forests that were established decades ago.

But today it is the smaller and local organizations, conservation commissions and land trusts that are stepping up to preserve important blocks of landscape.

Over the past 10 years the folks in Sprague and Franklin have come together in a monumental effort to establish the Sprague Land Preserve for our enjoyment today and for generations to come.

In the months ahead as I explore again the trails and take in the beauty of the preserve, I’ll be giving silent thanks to the many people that made it possible.

I hope you’ll join me as we explore the special places here in The Last Green Valley. We can follow the example of those who made the Sprague Land Preserve possible.

Together let us care for and pass it on to the future stewards of this beautiful place we call home.

Bill Reid is chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.

The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the preceding article. The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.