At Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, partnerships key to conservation efforts

Last modified: Friday, March 13, 2015

Forging working partnerships with landowners, state and federal agencies and private and nonprofit groups plays a critical role in the success of most conservation efforts.

Assessing potential projects and rounding up the right players is a key part of the job for Artie McCollum, private lands biologist at the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, which has its headquarters at 103 East Plumtree Road in Sunderland.

“We have so few people working for us, that we really rely on partnering with other organizations,” McCollum said. They include the Environmental Protection Agency, Nature Conservancy, Kestrel Land Trust, Natural Resources Conservation Service and American Rivers.

The refuge also partners with many private landowners who may want to sell property to a conservation organization, or may desire to improve their land to support healthy habitat for wildlife.

By connecting with other organizations, expertise, funding, permitting processes and staffing can be pooled.

An example of a project that was accomplished through successful partnerships is the removal of the Kinne Brook Dam in Chester in 2014. The dam was built in 1941 on private land to create a bass pond.

Funds from the Natural Resources Conservation Service Environmental Quality Incentives Program were used for this project.

“We were one of several partners to work on that project,” said Andrew French, the project leader at the Conte Refuge.

Kinne Brook is a tributary of the Middle Branch of the Westfield River, and is designated as a high quality coldwater stream by the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game.

By removing the 30-foot long, 6-foot high dam, this project improved aquatic habitat and connectivity to over 15 miles of streams flowing into the Middle Branch of the Westfield River.

“When the dam was there, it not only blocked the passage of aquatic species, but it also caused the still water that sat behind the dam to heat up,” McCollum said.

Removal of the dam has improved the habitat for coldwater fish species such as Eastern brook trout, Atlantic salmon, American eel, and sea lamprey.

McCollum said that the owners of the property had contacted him about removing the dam after their land was flooded by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

“The landowners were already on board with removing the dam and with the goal of improving aquatic habitat,” McCollum said.

To complete this project, the Conte Refuge partnered with organizations including American Rivers, the Department of Fish & Game, the Connecticut River Watershed Council, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Orvis, Trout Unlimited, the Trout & Salmon Foundation, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Wild & Scenic Westfield River Committee and Westfield State University.

McCollum, 34, lives in Amherst with his wife Katie Lazdowski and their 3-year-old son. He has a bachelor of science degree from Ohio State University, and a master of science degree from the University of Maine.

Prior to joining the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011, McCollum served as an environmental consultant with the Peace Corps in Mali, West Africa.

Accessible technology

McCollum said that he makes use of Google Earth, a virtual map providing satellite imagery which allows users to zoom in for a close look at streets, buildings and terrain. With this tool, McCollum can locate dams in the region that may have outlived their usefulness and are now just obstacles that impede passage of aquatic species, hinder habitat connectivity, and prevent the natural establishment of robust and healthy ecosystems.

“You are able to see a lot from a satellite,” he said.

“Once a dam is identified, our job is to find out if we know the landowner or if we may have partners that already know the landowner,” McCollum said.

If a landowner is interested in improving stream quality and wildlife habitat, McCollum then assesses the dam and the area, to see if it would be a worthwhile project.

If so, he will begin to call on partners who may be interested in the project, and or who have expertise that pertains to the particular job. McCollum then determines the next steps in the process.

Aside from adding people and expertise, encouraging partnerships also streamlines the progress of conservation projects in the region.

“We like to know what our various partners are working on, partially so we don’t duplicate their work, but also because we may be able to help them reach their goals,” McCollum said.

Fort River trail

McCollum has been involved for the last three years with the creation of the Fort River Birding and Nature Trail off Moody Bridge Road in Hadley.

French said that the most of the trail is on 12 acres of land that was first secured from the Niedbala family by the Kestrel Trust with the plan to later add the property to the refuge.

“That land was purchased in the nick of time. They acquired the property when we were unable to, as we were juggling other things,” French said. “It would not have happened if it weren’t for the Kestrel Trust.”

Opened in October, the trail is a 1.2 mile loop that travels through multiple habitat types, including grasslands and shrub lands, mixed forest, and wetlands.

The 5-foot-wide trail complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and allows two wheelchairs to pass one another.

The trail is made of gravel and fine rock enclosed in borders of pressure-treated lumber, called “trail ties.” They form a 2-inch lip around the trail, which assists those who are visually impaired and use cane for navigation.

There are seven different viewing decks spaced along the trail and eight elevated boardwalks. The trail is built on the surface of the ground, so no digging was required.

In addition to building the trail, McCollum said that workers on the project also removed invasive aquatic plants, such as water chestnuts. This work will help in restoring the wetland complex.

Partners in building the trail included the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which donated pressure-treated lumber valued at $250,000; the Fish and Wildlife Service; the Youth Conservation Corps, a program of the National Park Service; the Student Conservation Association; AmeriCorps; members of Stavros Center for Independent Living who provided feedback on trail development; and adult community volunteers.

“When you gather a group of stakeholders and we put our heads together, there is quite a lot that we can do,” French said. “The success of this project is without a doubt because of our partnerships.”

McCollum provided oversight and logistical management in the creation of the trail from start to finish.

When completed, the refuge received a Paul Winske Award from the Stavros Center for Independent Living. The award is given to businesses, organizations and individuals working to improve access for persons with disabilities.

Joshua Rose, of Amherst, is a member of the Hampshire Bird Club who has spent many hours on and near the refuge participating in yearly bird counts.

“I had been back there before they began working on the trail. It used to be an old riding trail that was part of a stable,” Rose said. “Now, with the trail, the boardwalks and observation decks, the transformation has been amazing.”

“We restored those wetlands and vernal pools, bringing back habitat for things like wood frogs, toads, salamanders and other wetland species,” French said. “I am really looking forward to going down there this year and hearing the peepers.”

Rose said that since the improvements, he has seen “a major uptick of people using the trail.”

Connections forged with environmental professionals during the building of the trail inspired some of the younger volunteers them to go on to college and study biology and other fields in the environmental sciences.

“We keep in touch with them, and it is nice to see them go on to different jobs in the environmental field,” McCollum said. “It feels good that we could provide a stepping-stone for them.”

French said that he sees McCollum’s job as “liaison between stakeholders.”

“Really, I like to think of it more as a partnership position, one that works with private landowners but also with all of our other partners,” French added.


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