Family Property in CT Added to Great Thicket NWR

By Bridget McDonald in Medium: Conserving the Nature of the Northeast

When Mabel and Walter McIntosh passed away, in 1973 and 1982 respectively, they bequeathed more than 100 acres of land to their descendants. The landscape of forests and fields, featuring rocky outcroppings, winding forest roads, and a series of ponds, was cherished by their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, who all played, explored, and camped on the property in childhood, and beyond.

New England cottontail in habitat

The Great Thicket National Wildlife helps New England cottontails and a host of other species that need young forest and shrubland habitat./Meagan Racey

But their granddaughter Marge J. McIntosh said the family inherited something even more meaningful from Walter and Mabel. A conservation ethic.

In June, Marge and her brother Bill closed on the sale of their family’s property to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, contributing the first piece of land in Connecticut for the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge. The property was acquired with funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, created in 1965 and permanently funded through a landmark bill signed into law on August 4, 2020.

Established in 2016, Great Thicket is something of an avant-garde refuge. Rather than protecting land in a single location, the Service aims to acquire up to 15,000 acres of shrubland and young forest habitat from willing landowners across focal areas in New York and New England. [In these focus areas, biologists and conservationists are conserving, creating, and refreshing habitat to help the New England cottontail, a rare regional rabbit.]

The 78-acre McIntosh property lies at the edge of the Pachaug-Ledyard focus area in eastern Connecticut.

“This land is an important piece in a broader conservation mosaic,” said refuge manager Richard Potvin. Because it’s adjacent to lands protected by the state and other organizations, it connects to thousands of acres already in conservation.

“The Connecticut Audubon Society is thrilled to welcome Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge to the state,” said executive director Patrick Comins. “The refuge will contribute early successional habitat for wildlife in this area, and strengthen our conservation community.”

For the McIntoshes, it’s a realization of a long-term vision for the land.

“It’s so wonderful that this happened,” Marge said of the sale, adding, “Especially because it was a complete stroke of luck.”

Although conservation had always been the family’s plan, serendipity made it possible.

A Refuge

It was August 1941 when Walter and Mabel first visited North Stonington, Connecticut, on vacation from their home in Trenton, New Jersey. They stayed at a farmhouse six miles from the village, and after three weeks, decided to set down roots. On the day they were planning to head home to Trenton, they started looking for a place of their own to spend summers and eventually retire. They found it the next day: a 125-acre property with a 150-year old farm house in bad repair.

Over the years, Walter, a former civil engineer, redesigned the property. He renovated the farmhouse. He laid out dirt roads, and actively managed the forests. He and Mabel gardened and raised sheep.

Soon after they retired to the farm in 1951, Walter began to design with wildlife in mind, initiating a project to dam an old cranberry bog to create a five-acre wetland with support from a state cost-share program.

“It was no more than five feet deep, but it was enough to provide open water for migrating waterfowl,” said Bill McIntosh. “It was his intention to do something with conservation from the start.”

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Map drawn by Marge's mother Marge to show visitors where to find important features on the property.

That intention shaped how his descendants experienced the land. “When I was very young, I remember wood duck boxes out in the pond, and herons and ducks all over the place,” Bill said.

His sister Marge shared fond memories of pitching her tent at a campsite with a stone fireplace built by her grandfather at the pond’s edge.

For both of them, their grandparents’ land was a refuge.

“Our dad worked for IBM and we moved all over the place. We had no anchor,” Bill said. “But because my grandparents were always in North Stonington, it became a sort of home base.”

In the 1970s, Bill and Marge’s parents, also named Bill and Marge, retired to the farm and picked up the torch, caring for and curating the property.

“Mom took the original survey her father-in-law had done in the 1940s and illustrated it with anecdotal information, like where lady slippers grew in the spring,” Marge said. Her mom would share the map with visitors, including members of the local flower club, to encourage them to seek out the landscape’s hidden treasures.

For her part, Marge searched out young chestnut trees on the property, monitoring them and reporting progress to the state, in hopes of discovering one that managed to resist the blight.

The chestnuts never lasted, but the family’s commitment to conservation flourished. Just as Walter and Mabel planted these seeds in Marge and Bill, they did so in their children.

“It was clear to us that this is what our parents wanted,” Bill said of conserving the land. “We were determined to do it.”

They needed to be. It took almost a decade to make it happen.

The Rabbit Hole

After their parents passed — Bill in 2003 and Marge in 2010 — Marge and Bill began to pursue the idea of conserving the family land. Although North Stonington would always have an important place in family memories, it was no longer the gathering place it had once been. Marge now lives on 40 acres in Vermont, and Bill lives in the mountains outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Their own children and grandchildren are dispersed throughout the country.

So Marge attended a conference in Vermont about conserving land, and started making inquiries with land trusts in Connecticut. But none of the prospects were quite right. Nobody could guarantee that the land would be preserved in perpetuity. Year after year, she found herself at dead ends.

By 2017, Marge and Bill were resigned to sell the property on the open market. On a Thursday evening in March, Marge called a realtor in Connecticut to arrange a meeting early the following week. The realtor happened to mention that she had just gotten a contract on a nearby property that was going to be conserved. Although the realtor couldn’t reveal any details about the property before the closing, Marge wondered to herself if a local land trust had purchased it, and started looking around online for clues. On the website of the Avalonia Land Conservancy, something caught her eye.

“There’s this little, tiny postage-stamp sized thing that says: ‘Is your land in this area?’” Marge recalled. She clicked on it, and her heart jumped. “I thought it was, but I wasn’t sure.” She called Bill in New Mexico for a second opinion. He thought it was too.

The website explained that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was interested in acquiring land in the area for the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge, and said willing landowners could contact Beth Goldstein, a realty specialist for the agency.

The next morning, Marge gave Beth a call. “I explained that I was trying to figure out if our land was in that area, and she said, ‘Well, we’ve had a lot of inquiries, but I’ll let you know.’”

An hour later, Beth called back. “Not only is your land in that area, but it’s an acquisition priority for New England cottontail,” she said.

Marge insisted they should meet soon. She had an appointment with a realtor on Sunday.

On Monday morning, Marge met Beth and two colleagues at her grandparents’ land, and showed them the landscape that generations of her family had nurtured, and been nurtured by.

New Chapter

Now as part of the refuge, the land will help nurture a number of at-risk and priority species, including the New England cottontail, American woodcock, monarch butterfly, golden-winged warbler and spotted turtle. The alarming disappearance of the region’s only native rabbit inspired an ongoing initiative to restore populations and habitat in New England and eastern New York. About 13,000 acres of habitat have been created since 2011, and biologists estimate there are around 13,000 rabbits.

monarch on New England aster

Many kinds of wildlife, including monarch butterflies, find habitat on Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge./Greg Thompson

“Although we have not found New England cottontail on the McIntosh property, it’s close to known New England cottontail colonies,” said refuge manager Potvin. “It provides a travel corridor that rabbits can migrate through, helping to prevent isolation.”

The impoundment created by Walter in the 1940s adds value too. It provides a year-round water source for rabbits and other mammals, and riparian habitat for migrating waterfowl, just as he envisioned.

“My grandparents would be thrilled,” Bill said. “This is exactly what they would have wanted.”

Even though it will no longer be the family’s land, it will fulfill the family’s conservation vision.

“Now there will be somebody looking at it. Now there will be somebody caring for it,” Marge said. “Because it’s with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it means it will truly be conserved forever.”

As with the people of the Pequot and Mohegan Tribes whose ancestral homelands include the North Stonington area, and the colonial-era settlers who established a farm on the property in the late 1700s, the McIntosh family will always be part of the story of this land. Some of them literally.

On a high hill on the property, Walter built a gazebo on a stone foundation — a perch overlooking the landscape. He included a niche in the stonework for urns that would contain his and Mabel’s ashes when they passed.

When Bill and Marge passed, their children extended the stone ledge and added urns with their ashes as well.

“My grandparents and parents will always be there,” Marge said.

Preserved in perpetuity, with their land.

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View the article with a map and historic photos.

This strategic land acquisition reflects ongoing efforts by the Service and partners to change the trajectory for species at risk of becoming threatened or endangered, like the New England cottontail, by working together to protect habitat while there’s still time.

To learn more about Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge, go to https://www.fws.gov/northeast/refuges/planning/lpp/greatthicketLPP.html, or contact Beth Goldstein at beth_goldstein@fws.gov.