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State Says It Won't Reach "Ambitious" Land Preservation Goal

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In the coming months, DEEP will release a revised strategy for preserving open space.

A conservation goal set more than a decade ago points to an ambitious target: preserving 21 percent of Connecticut's land as open space by 2023. Funding has now lagged, the state said, and it won't reach that goal. 

About 670,000 acres of open space need to be conserved to meet the target. To put that into context, it's an area that in total acreage would be bigger than Litchfield County, the largest county in the state.

"We're not going to reach the 21 percent goal by 2023," said Graham Stevens, with the land management office at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Stevens said the goal is broken down between the DEEP and conservation partners like towns, land trusts, and water utilities. That means DEEP is on the hook for preserving about 320,000 acres -- a land area about the size of Windham county.

"I think it was a very large stretch goal. Before that deadline of 2023 was set up, the conservation efforts in Connecticut were very low," Stevens said. "For the few years after the goal was set, there was large investments by all parties." But in recent years, Stevens said a lot of that funding dried up.

"Is it vital that we reach that number of acres protected by 2023? I don't think that's the most important thing that we do," Stevens said. "I think the most important thing that we do is identify the lands of highest conservation and recreation value and ensure they're protected."

In the coming months, DEEP will be releasing a revised strategy for preserving open space. It's called the "Green Plan," and rather than preserving isolated pockets of forest all over -- Stevens said its approach will be conserving targeted areas of land in an effort to weave together bigger greenways.

It's a tactic Stevens said will be valuable for things like protecting waterways, building resiliency, and mitigating climate change.

And what about that 2023 goal?

Even though it seems out of reach, Stevens said he doesn't want to change it.

"I don't know that taking that date and pushing it off sends the right message," Stevens said. "Changing that date may send the wrong message to the community that's been working so hard to protect open space."  

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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