Conte Corner- Friends of Conte

Friends of Conte
Watershed Partnerships at Work

Story and Photo by Markelle Smith and Kristen Sykes

Each spring when the light returns and the crocuses bloom is an important time for the Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge: the Congressional Appropriations process. The Connecticut River watershed is fortunate to have a congressional delegation that for many years has consistently supported funding and increased resources for critical conservation work in the watershed. The work to bring this about is done by a plethora of organizations and agencies throughout the five-state region that cover everything from restoring river flows by removing dams to purchasing land for habitat protection.

Many of these groups are members of the Friends of Conte, a coalition of partners formed in 2005 that represents more than seventy public and private organizations and individuals based throughout the Connecticut River watershed. Over the past eighteen years the Friends of Conte has been led by a rotating group of partners, always with the goal of forging mutually beneficial relationships to strengthen the health of the Connecticut River watershed and the communities served by it. Friends of Conte bring needed resources, financial and otherwise, to the Watershed in many ways, and we’d like to share some of these “tools in the toolkit.”
The start of spring means it’s time for Friends of Conte to work with our champions in Congress on a “Dear Colleague” letter. A Dear Colleague letter is official correspondence sent by a member, committee, or officer of the United States House of Representatives or United States Senate to all other congressional offices. This year the Dear Colleague letter is being led by Senator Richard Blumenthal (CT) and Congresswoman Annie Kuster (NH) and asks for robust funding for the Conte Refuge from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. These letters demonstrate broad support for the land protection work of the Refuge and its nongovernmental organization partners based in the watershed, and they let agencies and appropriators know that if the Conte Refuge receives funding, we have many worthy projects lined up to make good use of those dollars!

An important source of such projects is the Friends of Conte’s annual “Look Book.” For many years we’ve compiled a list of land acquisition projects in each of the watershed states that are done in partnership with the Conte Refuge. Over the past couple of years, we’ve also included restoration and trail projects located anywhere in the watershed. The Look Book demonstrates the large number of worthwhile project opportunities for appropriated funding and has been an excellent way to demonstrate the power of partnerships in getting work done at the watershed scale. This year’s Look Book contains forty-seven restoration projects totaling $9.25 million dollars and fifty-one land acquisition projects totaling slightly more than $27 million dollars! (The Look Book has been recognized as a highly effective model for demonstrating the needs of National Wildlife Refuges and is being adopted by other partnerships across the country.)

The Conte Refuge has benefited greatly from the Congressional Appropriations process. Since the formation of the Friends of Conte in 2005, $33.5 million dollars has been secured from the Land and Water Conservation Fund for key projects throughout the watershed. While you may not have realized it, it’s very likely that you’ve visited at least one place in the watershed that was protected thanks to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Some of these memorable and iconic places include the Fort River Division of the Conte Refuge located in Hadley, Massachusetts, that boasts a universal access trail enjoyed by double its usual number of visitors during the pandemic. Further north, the Refuge owns and manages the 6,500-acre Pondicherry Division, the first important bird area in the state of New Hampshire with an extensive trail system that allows for hiking, biking, wheelchairs, and strollers, all with spectacular views of the White Mountains.

This spring the Friends of Conte are embarking on a new congressional adventure with the introduction of the Connecticut River Watershed Partnership Act (CRWPA). This proposed legislation is modeled on other successful partnerships enabled by federal legislation, including the Chesapeake WILD act (2020) and the Delaware River Basin Conservation Act (2015). The CRWPA will create a dedicated funding stream to leverage state, local, and private investment to support nonregulatory conservation, restoration, education, and recreation efforts in the watershed. Led by the Friends of Conte, this effort is endorsed by a broad coalition of public and private organizations throughout New England who support the goals of enhanced coordination among federal agencies and state, regional, tribal, and local public and private partners. The Friends of Conte and its partners hope to bring more resources and focus to: enhanced interagency coordination at all levels of government; the promotion of public/private partnerships; and underserved communities throughout the Watershed.

So a couple of things you might keep in mind as you take a hike, paddle, or go birdwatching this summer in the Connecticut River watershed—first, the place you are enjoying may have been protected or restored thanks to money appropriated by Congress, and second, it was likely conserved due to the efforts of partner organizations and agencies working hand-in-hand in the watershed.

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