On a sunny Saturday afternoon in early summer, Angela Panaccione was doing the same thing many people across the Northeast were doing: getting ready to host a cookout. But in addition to potato salad, baked beans, and coleslaw, Panaccione was serving her burgers with a side of science.
“If you want to walk over there, I can show you why this area is so important,” she said, gesturing toward her car as we sat at a picnic table in a clearing at the Midura Conservation Area in Palmer, Mass. Panaccione, who is the conservation agent for the town of Palmer, led me over to a large glossy map of the town taped to the passenger side of her vehicle, and pulled out a Sharpie.
“Everything in this area is ecologically significant, not only locally but regionally,” said Panaccione, as she traced a line around a group of about dozen parcels on the town’s eastern boundary.
“These are the parcels we own so far — totalling about 230 acres — and these are the parcels that are currently for sale,” she said, indicating three properties adjacent to the Midura conservation land. “All of this land up here is protected by Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife (the 1,250-acre Palmer Wildlife Management Area), and right here is the King’s Brook road-stream crossing that we are trying to upgrade,” she said.
Panaccione’s car was parked next to a large white tent shading a couple dozen folding chairs and three tables laden with the usual cookout accoutrement — ketchup, mustard, relish, buns, paper plates, binders full of maps and deeds — for a special event: The Palmer Conservation Commission was hosting a picnic for landowners neighboring the conservation area.
“It’s not a bunch of shop talk, just food, conversation, and folks getting together so they can make a connection between this project and what the end result would mean for their community,” said Sarah Brodeur, the chair of the Palmer Conservation Commission.
The idea for the picnic was to raise awareness among neighbors about how they can play a part in this effort — whether through measures like conservation restrictions or just expressing support — and why it’s in their interest to do so. “It comes from my whole ‘Think regionally, protect locally’ philosophy,” said Panaccione.
Since taking on the job of conservation agent five years ago, that mantra has driven her to consult every resource at her disposal to help make the case for expanding existing protections around King’s Brook. Resources including Connect the Connecticut, a conservation design developed by a team of partners using the best available science and information from the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC).
“King’s Brook is one of the main cold-water tributaries to the Quaboag River, which flows into the Chicopee River, and then into the Connecticut,” Panaccione explained, adding, “It’s also a tributary that is mostly undisturbed.”
Combined with datasets from Mass Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy, Connect the Connecticut has helped to reinforce the value of the Midura Conservation Area for habitat, connectivity, cold-water fisheries resources, and climate resilience, and to identify opportunities to support these functions for the benefit of both wildlife and residents. Benefits that are often compatible, as explained by Palmer resident Amber Hastings, who strolled over to the picnic with her husband, dog, and three-month old son.
“I’ve had two horses for most of my life, so when we were looking for a house, we wanted to find a place that would provide the space we need to enjoy them,” she said. “Buying 20, 30, or 40 acres isn’t always a reality for first-time homeowners, so this was the perfect situation. We have all these beautiful trails to enjoy right across the street.”
For wildlife, the entire conservation area is a sort of “trail” to help them move safely across the landscape. “This whole section of Palmer, and Brimfield too, is designated as a flow corridor by The Nature Conservancy, effectively allowing migration for wildlife from southern New England to northern New England,” said Brodeur. “The King’s Brook corridor sits right in the middle of that.”
Hastings attested to the fact that wildlife seem to appreciate the space as much as she does. “When we take the horses out on the trails up and over the mountain, we come across all kinds of animals: deer, little orange newts in the spring,” adding, “We even had a moose in our front yard last year. I’m sure he was passing through Midura.”
Panaccione and her colleagues want to be sure areas like this continue to provide essential open space for both wildlife and people in the face of threats from environmental and land-use changes.
“Not just here, but across the whole Connecticut River watershed, if local people aren’t involved in working to get these connections, then we aren’t going to get it all connected,” she said.
Learn more about how Panaccione has used data from Connect the Connecticut to advance her work in Palmer at http://connecttheconnecticut.org/town-of-palmer/