What You Need to Know About the Pesticides Harming Connecticut’s Birds, Bees, Wildlife & People

The most widely used insecticides in the U.S., called neonicotinoids, or “neonics,” are deadly to birds, caterpillars, bees, and butterflies. In hundreds of studies, scientists link neonics to the sharp declines in populations of insects, including bees listed as threatened and endangered. Research also shows neonics harm the heart and brain development of children exposed in the womb, and in adults, lowers testosterone levels and links neonic exposure to liver cancer.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) approaching a blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica). Photo Credit: Glenn Barger

In an effort to educate Connecticut residents about the danger of neonics, Highstead and the Hudson to Housatonic  RCP partner organization, the Pollinator Pathway initiative, co-sponsored a conference on March 11 to educate people about neonics’ danger and environmental harm. The conference, attended by 180 people, was co-led by The Connecticut Audubon Society, Rivers Alliance, and the Connecticut Coalition for Pesticide Reform. 

Neonics have quickly swept one-fourth of the global market since their launch in 1991. Imidacloprid was the first commercially available neonic used to control grubs in turfgrass and is used in hundreds of other products, including insect sprays, seed treatments, soil drenches, tree injections, and ointments to control fleas in dogs and cats. 

Neonics & Human Health

In a 2022 study of 171 pregnant women in the U.S., more than 95% had neonics in their bodies. Neonics behave like endocrine-disrupting compounds, said conference presenter Kathy Nolan, MD, senior research director at Catskill Mountainkeeper and president of the Physicians for Social Responsibility’s New York chapter. Research shows neonics harm the heart and brain development and increase the risk of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in children exposed to it in utero. During a 10-year period ending in 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency received more than 1,600 reports of people and pets poisoned with the neonic used to kill grubs, with symptoms including muscle tremors, difficulty breathing, and memory loss.

Drinking water contamination exposes people and pets to neonics, given that conventional water treatment generally fails to remove neonics, Nolan said. Neonics are soluble in water, so people ingest them when eating food treated with neonics, she said. Almost 90% of drinking water contains neonics unless it has been charcoal filtered. The pesticide remains in the environment for up to 15 years, hollowing out ecosystems with its toxicity, Nolan said. 

Neonics are synthetic nicotine compounds, and studies show they cause similar harm as nicotine, said conference presenter John F. Tooker, professor and extension specialist, Department of Entomology at Penn State University.

Maternal nicotine use disrupts developing fetus’ neurotransmitters, leading to birth defects and congenital abnormalities such as cleft lips and brain damage, Nolan said. “The developing embryo and fetus [exposed to neonics] cannot adapt. The miracle of normal development requires cell-to-cell communications.” 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says half of Americans are exposed to neonics on any given day. Neonics exposure has been linked to: birth defects in the heart and brain; autism-like symptoms; decreased sperm quantity and quality; decreased testosterone; and altered insulin regulation and changes in fat metabolism, Nolan said. 

American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis).

While scientists say more research needs to be done on neonics’ effects on humans, scientists look at how neonics affect other mammals for insights. For example, hunters noticed jaw deformities and genital abnormalities in deer that scientists believe come from exposure to neonics. Researchers in South Dakota did a study giving deer increasing amounts of neonics in their water. While even the control group wasn’t intentionally given neonics, the deer had neonics in their blood. “We don’t know where they’re getting their neonics,” Nolan said. As neonic exposure increased, offspring decreased in size, survival rate, and overall health, and the number of abnormalities increased. “There seemed to be bioaccumulation,” Nolan said.  

Neonics Banned in Europe

Based on the risk assessment by the European Food Safety Authority in 2018, the European Union has prohibited all outdoor use of three types of neonics with a few exceptions, mainly due to their risks to non-target organisms, especially pollinators, an Environment International article reports. One square foot of grass treated with neonics at U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-approved levels contains enough neonics to kill 1 million bees, reports the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Yet, the EPA recently affirmed its designation of coated seeds as “treated articles,” which exempts them from pesticide regulation, reports the Xerces Society.

Bumble bee on coneflower (Echinacea).

Neonics get into the streams and rivers through runoff “and kill the building blocks of all our ecosystems. They don’t stay in one place. They can be taken up into a plant,” said Louise Washer, co-founder of the Pollinator Pathway and president of the Norwalk River Watershed Association in an interview. Neonics kill aquatic insects that serve as food for frogs, fish, bats, bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, she said. When plants take up neonics, the pesticide is transported to all the tissues, including the leaves, flowers, roots, stems, pollen and nectar, which makes them deadly for caterpillars, the birds that eat the caterpillars, and bees. 

The increase in neonic use has led to reductions in bird biodiversity, particularly grassland birds and birds that eat insects, with the average annual population reduction rates at 4% and 3%, respectively, reports a 2020 paper in Nature Sustainability. When calculating population declines on future population growth, grassland bird populations are shrinking by 12% and insect-eating birds by 5%. Just one seed coated with neonics is enough to kill a songbird, she said. 

Because 95% of the neonics end up in the soil and water, bees sipping from puddles where neonics have been used will die, said conference presenter Louis Robert, retired agronomist and grain crop specialist for the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries of the Province of Quebec. Publicly funded research published in Plos One in 2020 showed no increase in crop yield from insecticide-coated seeds in 84 field crop trials, Robert said. 

Monarch Caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) on milkweed leaf.

Strength in Numbers

The Connecticut state legislature’s Environmental Committee is considering a bill, SB 190, in which the pesticide reform coalition seeks to limit the use of neonics on trees and shrubs except when there is an environmental emergency, such as an invasive insect pest, and neonics are deemed the only way to address it.  Similar efforts that have passed in Maine, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, and, New York and are underway in Vermont and Massachusetts.

Washer worked with other environmentally minded organizations to form the coalition to educate the public and legislators about neonics’ environmental and public health harms.  To learn from others in nearby states that have passed restrictions, Washer reached out to Daniel Raichel, director of pollinators & pesticides at the NRDC. Raichel helped lead the charge in New York state to ban neonics. 

Neonics do not stay on the grubs they’re intended to kill and end up in drinking and groundwater. The percentage of neonics found in drinking and groundwater in the U.S. varies from study to study, with amounts ranging from about 63% to 96% of drinking water samples conducted from 2017 to 2021. Testing of the Norwalk River found 30 pesticides, 19 of which are harmful to aquatic life, including the neonic imidacloprid used to kill grubs, Washer said. The USDA began pesticide monitoring of raw intake and finished drinking water in 2001 and ended the program in 2013 due to financial constraints. 

Neonics end up in our food, environment, and bodies multiple ways – through the spray application on lawns and ornamental landscaping, on agricultural plants, and through neonic-coated seeds. Unless they’re organic, the seeds planted to grow corn in Connecticut are coated with neonics. More than 800 million corn seeds are planted each year; the plant only takes up 1-5% of the poison, while 95% ends up in the soil and water, Tooker said. Multiple studies, including a 2020 Cornell University study, concluded that neonic treated corn, soy, and wheat seeds provide “no overall net income benefits” to farmers. 

“We’re hollowing out the whole ecosystem of the river so we don’t have a few brown patches on lawns?” Washer said. “There’s really no argument for neonics.”

Category: News

Topics: , , , ,

Making the Case for Forests as a Natural Climate Solution

At their November 3, 2021, meeting, Northeast Forest Network (NFN) members expressed unanimous support for promoting all five separate but complementary pathways for increasing the climate benefit of New England’s Forests described in the then soon-to-be-released report, New England’s Climate Imperative: Our Forests as a Natural Climate Solution (Meyer et al. 2022). Network members learned New England forests already absorb 14% of CO2 emissions. That number could increase to 21% of current emissions by 2050 by adopting these five pathways: avoided deforestation, wildland reserves, improved forest management, mass timber construction, and urban and suburban forests.

Later in 2023, after the public release of the Forests as a Natural Climate Solution report, Highstead worked with marketing consultant Water Words That Work and one of the report’s principal co-authors, Kavita Kapur Macleod, to develop a set of talking points that would help NFN members advance calls to action involving one or more pathways. The talking points within refer to the potential impacts of each of the five pathways, not only for the region as a whole but also by state (unavailable in the 2022 report). Furthermore, this set of talking points uses more accessible language and units of measure, including cars removed from the road, than were described in the Climate Imperative report. For the full breakdown of the calculations used for these talking points, please click here to view the spreadsheet.

NFN members hope the talking points and calculations spreadsheet will help anyone seeking to make a more compelling case for why we need to keep forests as forests, designate more wildland reserves, normalize climate-informed forest management, build more buildings with wood, and better care for and protect our urban and suburban trees and forests from development.

Category: News

Topics: , , , , ,

How Maine West is Connecting More People with Nature

A few years ago, a regional coalition of groups within the Maine West partnerships – including land trusts, watershed associations, and healthy community and education groups – met to develop a shared conservation and recreation plan for a 27-town region in western Maine. They shared a goal of giving more people the chance to enjoy the health benefits of time spent outdoors in nature, especially those not already participating in outdoor recreation, says Mike Wilson, senior program director for the Northern Forest Center, which facilitates the Maine West initiative. The participants also set a goal to expand community support for local conservation by attracting people who don’t see themselves as the outdoorsy type. They hoped to welcome new people to benefit from time with others on trails, rivers, lakes, and open spaces. 

Maine West partnered with a local program for adults to create “wellness walks” – group hikes for people 50+. Photo Credit: Maine West

At first, they offered a hiking challenge to give people the opportunity to “give back when you go outside.” The Second Nature Adventure Challenge promised to donate money to local food pantries if people from the region recorded a certain number of outdoor activities over a set period. The Second Nature Challenge helped secure funding for local food pantries and later for after-school youth programs, but organizers found that most of the participants were people who were already recreating outdoors. 

“We weren’t seeing a real increase in nontraditional folk,” Wilson says. So, they shifted gears. “We started digging further and connected with local organizations who were working directly with underrepresented populations.”

They found partners willing to take the lead and created three new programs: one designed to get people 50 and older out for “wellness walks,” a second for at-risk high school students, and a third for people in recovery from substance use disorder.  With funding from the Betterment Fund and a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Community Development Initiative grant, they partnered with three different established groups.

“The strategy we’ve hit upon is going to the groups already working with these populations,” Wilson says. Potential participants wonder whether they can trust this experience to be safe and fun, and they want to know who is sponsoring the event since they’re not likely to engage with an organization they don’t know. 

For the past two years, Maine West has successfully run the three targeted programs. The Senior Wellness Walks address one of the barriers to hiking in the woods – fear of walking alone. A local group already working with seniors agreed to coordinate group walks, inviting older adults to get outside and walk as a group. Participants were given safety whistles, purchased through grant funds. The walks serve another purpose besides providing exercise and time in nature – a chance for adults to socialize. In May 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General declared loneliness in America a public health epidemic, and leaders of the senior wellness walks reported participants forming friendships that kept them coming back. 

Falcon camp participants – kids who normally don’t spend much time in nature – hiked up a mountain as part of a two-week camping trip. Photo Credit: Maine West

For the youth program, called Falcon Camp, organizers teamed up with a regional school district that had high school teachers with the skills and inclination to take the lead on a program. There were two teachers, one who was the school’s physical education teacher and ran an outing club, who had relationships with the school administrators and students. 

“We made it easy for the school. We had an idea and the money and a connection to two people in the school,” he says. Maine West coordinators just needed the administration to agree and recruit students. 

The school identified a dozen students dealing with some personal challenges who would benefit from an outside activity. Students were given a golden ticket and told they were selected to be part of a special two-week summer camp experience that provided training and experiences canoeing, hiking, and mountain biking. They’d be given skills training and supported by teachers at their school whom they knew. The school provided transportation and meals, and Maine West paid for the rest.

With funding from the Betterment Fund and a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Rural Community Development Initiative grant, Maine West provided a free camping trip to at-risk high school students. Photo Credit: Maine West

Some of the kids had never spent a night away from home or paddled a canoe, Wilson says. The organizers faced pushback from some parents relating to whether they could trust that their kids would be safe and the logistics of the trip. 

“The first year was very challenging,” he says. “You can’t just put the word out that we’re going to have a bike-skills training for kids and expect this particular cohort of kids to show up. It’s much more hands-on.”

In the end, eight to 10 teenagers participated in each of the past two years and had a rewarding experience – learning to mountain bike, paddle a canoe, hike, camp, cook outdoors, and look out for each other. Since the trip, the teachers and administrators have seen marked behavior improvements in some of the kids; some are more willing to engage and make connections with other kids in the school, he says. 

With the third group, Maine West staff partnered with groups working with people in recovery. Through the first two years, organizers learned it’s crucial to provide peer support to participants. This person should be someone who has been in recovery themselves and has experience working with this population, Wilson says. You can’t assume that just getting people out into the woods is all that’s necessary for people to have a good time and feel refreshed from the experience, he says. Grant funds were used to give the adults equipment like backpacks and fishing poles to enable them to continue to participate in outdoor activities on their own. Participants fished, hiked, and learned archery. 

Adults in recovery participated in a variety of outdoor activities, including skiing, paddling, fishing, and archery through a grant-funded Maine West initiative. Photo Credit: Maine West

“It’s hard to know what’s going to come up. It’s important you have people there who have skills to support individuals and the conversations that come up,” he says. “It’s really just a pure experience. It’s a way for people to get together with others who are managing similar issues, to get out in nature, exercise, and have support if it’s needed.”

Allie Burke, executive director of the River Valley Health Communities Coalition in Rumford, Maine, works with all the populations involved and has been a key part of helping develop the Maine West program.

 “We often talk about ‘wrap-around services’ like housing, food, transportation, and employment, but those don’t address the value of connecting with others and time in nature,” she says. “When we see people engaged in the outing programs, you see a happiness and a peppiness. It’s another kind of wrap-around service that is going to benefit people in the long term.” 

For Wilson, one of the big takeaways from the last two years is that the process of conserving land and building trails doesn’t guarantee that the whole community is going to participate and benefit from being outdoors.  “If you build it, they still might not come,” Wilson says. “If people are not already participating in outdoor recreation, that means there are barriers,” he says. “Until we build the right relationships and collaborations, we won’t be able to understand and overcome those barriers, and we won’t expand participation in recreation to benefit our whole community.” 

Category: News

Topics: , , ,

Maine Mountain Collaborative’s Transaction Fund Seeds Land Conservation

The Maine Mountain Collaborative (MMC), founded in 2014, is a Regional Conservation Partnership (RCP) with a mission to accelerate land conservation in the Maine Appalachian Mountain Corridor. Highstead recently sat down with Bryan Wentzell, executive director of MMC, to learn more about how the collaborative is achieving this goal through its innovative transaction fund. 

Photo Credit: Giant Giants, used by permission given to Maine Mountain Collaborative

The MMC’s Transaction Fund, established in 2017, aimed to incentivize landowners to donate some of their land’s value while receiving funding for the development rights of their forestland. Through a $100,000 grant from the Jessie B. Cox Charitable Trust’s RCP Land and Easement Donation Program and an anonymous donor’s additional funds, the transaction fund awarded small grants ($15,000) to land conservation partners to cover transaction costs such as surveys, appraisals, and legal fees when the landowner donated at least 50% of the property’s value. 

Since then, the transaction fund has grown and its objectives have shifted. “The original transaction fund was a great program, but it wasn’t enough of an incentive,” Wentzell says. “MMC found that the real value of the transaction fund was giving land trusts that initial money to get projects off the ground.” 

What’s most effective about the original transaction fund, he says, is that it’s an accessible, “early-in” type of funding that allows land trusts to pay for upfront costs like surveys and appraisals that push the project forward, without requiring a contract or option with the seller. This better prepares applicants to pursue further grants or public funding, and removes barriers that often slow land conservation. 

“If you’re a land trust and you know there’s a pool of money that you can get $15-$75K from pretty quickly, that’s super helpful for them,” he says. “It’s not a long process or a tough application.” MMC partners can also apply for grants from a second pool of funding with more requirements, but larger potential funding. 

In the spirit of removing barriers, MMC purposefully designed the transaction fund application process to be as accessible as possible. “I’ve tried to do philanthropy in the way that I’d want it to be done if I was the one asking for it,” Wentzell says. “You have to put yourself in the applicant’s shoes, rather than the foundation’s shoes.” 

For MMC, this means monthly grant team meetings so applicants can be approved for funding in a matter of weeks after applying, rather than months. The grant committee is made up of conservation experts in the area, which also speeds up the process. Being familiar with a lot of the grantees who are working in the 5-million-acre region, the team can look at a project and quickly tell if it makes sense. “The philanthropy is getting pushed out to the practitioners, so decisions are being made more on the ground rather than by people a few steps back,” he says.

Streamlining application requirements relates to what Wentzell calls “Trust-Based Philanthropy.” “We don’t have to make it more complicated than it needs to be,” says Wentzell. “We have these amazing conservation professionals, and we need to trust them to do their jobs.” He adds, “We’re greatly appreciative of the funders who have supported the program, and I hear that appreciation from the groups who utilize these grants.”

Photo Credit: Giant Giants, used by permission given to Maine Mountain Collaborative

The transaction fund wouldn’t be possible without funders, however, and when asked how MMC can continue getting grants for the fund, Wentzell pointed out two key factors. The first is the transaction fund’s inherent appeal to foundations that want to have as much “bang for their buck” as possible. In this region, the typical land acquisition cost for larger projects could be tens of millions of dollars; with the transaction fund, funders can leverage dozens of projects for a relatively small cost ($100,000 – $250,000). The transaction fund allows them to spread their impact more widely. 

The second factor in gaining funders is that MMC has established relationships with foundations. Foundations can see that the transaction fund is an effective program, with an impressive track record: In just six years, the fund has helped conserve 167,000 acres of land through the distribution of $522,000 in small grants.

Money attracts more money, and often projects that have received a transaction fund grant from MMC end up receiving larger grants further down the line from other funders. Wentzell stresses that while MMC may help facilitate some of these relationships, it’s really the direct relationships between projects and these funders that make the difference. “I want the collaborative members to directly have the relationships and communications with these funders,” he says. “There’s no need for me to get in the middle of that.”

Additionally, MMC’s work has inspired other RCPs in the region to start their own transaction funds. The takeaway message that Wentzell has for these RCPs and any others is this: “It’s really important for an RCP, especially for someone who is in the coordinator or leadership role, to ask themselves: ‘Where does the RCP add value to its members and our collective work?’ It can’t just exist for its own sake. I think the transaction fund is a tangible example of a way RCPs can add value.”

Category: News

Topics: , , , ,

Northeast Bird Habitat Conservation Initiative Mapping Tool Webinar

The Northeast Bird Habitat Conservation Initiative Mapping Tool is an easy-to-use, interactive tool designed to help Regional Conservation Partnerships, Land Trusts, and practitioners use bird data to support activities such as habitat management and stewardship plan development, land prioritization and acquisition, and landowner and community engagement, all through the lens of bird conservation.

During this webinar, we’ll provide an overview of the tool’s data and layers, explore the tool’s functions, and showcase ways the tool is serving land conservation professionals. The tool showcases eBird Status & Trends (S&T) data for 43 priority bird species in five habitat types (forest, grassland, shrub/scrub/young forest, wetland/marsh, and coastal/shoreline). The target species were selected based on their high-priority status or climate vulnerability.

The tool was created in partnership with the Northeast Bird Habitat Conservation Initiative (NBHCI), a conservation collaborative of the Cornell Lab’s Land Trust Bird Conservation Initiative and a cooperative effort between the Regional Conservation Partnership Network, Audubon groups, Highstead, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The NBHCI Mapping Tool provides data for 13 states in the Northeast: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.

For more information about the mapping tool, the NBHCI, or the webinar, contact co-coordinators: Katie Blake ( and Sara Barker (

Category: Events

Topics: , , ,

Highstead Joins Regional Project to Increase Native Seed Supply 

Native plant seedlings in plug trays, grown in Highstead’s greenhouse, getting acclimated to the outdoors.

Between the founding of the Pollinator Pathway in 2017, popular entomologist Doug Tallamy’s Homegrown National Park movement, and the rapid growth of reforestation, coastline rehabilitation, urban street planting, and regenerative agriculture, demand for native plants has exploded. Chronic commercial shortages of local “ecotype” seeds, native plants’ offspring possessing genes specific to our Ecoregion 59, posed the greatest barrier to commercial growers’ ability to purchase local ecotypes of native seeds locally, according to a study in the Native Plants Journal Spring 2022 edition. At the root of this native plant and native seed shortage is a dearth of locally adapted seed from sustainably managed sources.

To address this bottleneck in New England, the Native Plant Trust and the Ecological Health Network, with partners including Highstead, Botanic Garden of Smith CollegeEco59,  Norcross Wildlife Foundation, and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut, launched the Northeast Seed Network in March 2023 to grow native plants in seed-producing gardens called seed-increase plots. These seeds will be used in ecological restoration projects and by nurseries to grow plants for sale.

Highstead’s Grounds and Facilities Coordinator, Jesse Hubbard, harvesting native seeds on Highstead’s property.

Climate change is causing “mega-disturbances” that create the need for ecological restoration. Pesticide use and habitat loss contributed to drastic declines in European honeybees and native insects and birds. To address these challenges, the past five years have seen growth in large-scale agroforestry and regenerative agriculture, blue-green floodwater infrastructure (a nature-friendly method of managing urban flood risk), and public policy requirements to plant natives on public lands.

Major climate-related events, including massive wildfires, droughts, flooding, extreme temperatures, tornadoes, and other severe weather events reinforce the need to strengthen the nation’s supply of native seed for ecological restoration, according to the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. In a summary of the report, An Assessment of Native Seed Needs and the Capacity for Their Supply: Final Report (2023) the authors write, “Millions of acres of public and private land in the United States are at risk of losing the native plant communities that are central to the integrity of ecosystems. As plant communities decline, the biodiversity they embody is also being rapidly lost, along with a wealth of ecosystem goods and services important to society.”

Native plants from a specific “ecoregion” – large areas of similar climate where ecosystems recur in predictable patterns – are essential for biodiversity. For example, native insects that nourish native birds require native host plants on which to lay their eggs. An ecoregion contains many distinctive habitats characterized by natural landforms, climate, species, and ecological communities.

Northeast Seed Network

In 2020, when Native Plant Trust  (NPT) staff assessed its seed production needs for the future, the staff identified a strong uptick in the need for plants and genetically diverse native seeds to grow them. Through discussions with other regional organizations about seed scarcity and how to fill gaps in the supply chain, others expressed an overwhelming preference for local “ecotype” native seeds. In 2022, NPT gathered stakeholders for a virtual symposium to devise a strategy to expand native seed supply in the Northeast. This catalyzed a regionwide initiative to address the need for a coordinated seed-increase program, education, training, and support, and engagement with stakeholders who use native seed.

Native Iris seeds after they’ve been harvested. 

NPT and its partners formed the Northeast Seed Network, which is structured with a hub and spoke design, with the NPT serving as the hub and playing a coordinating role across the region. Smaller collaborations work locally. They’re building a network across all the key seed and plant material supply chain players to increase the accessibility of genetically diverse, source-identified wild seeds and plants for the northeastern U.S. ecoregions.

Collaborations and partnerships are essential to meeting the Northeast Seed Network’s goals, says Uli Lorimer, director of horticulture with the Native Plant Trust. “It’s a pretty huge task. There’s no single organization that is suited to tackling it alone.”

Unlike in other parts of the country, the Northeast has a relatively small percentage of federal land, he says. The Northeast has a patchwork of many more small stakeholders, such as state and municipal parks, land trusts, and private landowners, he says, which makes collaboration necessary.

“Having Highstead be part of this work is helpful because of its proven track record with Regional Conservation Partnerships. Highstead has a lot of experience with working with different partners and stakeholders and achieving a greater mission than even one organization can hope to achieve,” Lorimer says. “They know how to build these kinds of networks. Highstead has the experience of interfacing with state agencies and nonprofit groups.”

The Ecotype Project

At the local scale in southwest Connecticut, native seed work is being done by a smaller collaboration called the Ecotype Project. Highstead serves as a lead partner along with The Hickories Farm, Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut, and local farmers and nurseries. Each partner plays a niche role in the development of the native seed supply chain.

Highstead’s role is in identifying, collecting, and experimenting with growing techniques. As one of the partner organizations, Highstead staff harvests seed sustainably from local, naturally occurring populations, cleans and stratifies them, and grows plugs that can then be distributed to local farmers. 

At Highstead, staff works with their land trust partners to identify naturally occurring populations of native plants that are suitable for seed collecting. Sites are recorded and plants are monitored to determine when the seed is ripe and ready to harvest. After harvesting, the seeds are cleaned, labeled, and stored in a refrigerator for stratification, then planted in seed trays containing 72 plugs, and grown in the greenhouse. The staff at Highstead keeps detailed records and shares that information with growers, helping them understand how to grow new and unfamiliar crops.

Farmers plant the plugs out in their fields as seed-increase plots, where seeds can be harvested in the future to meet the needs of land trusts, nurseries, government agencies, and universities involved in landscape restoration or native plants. As the network grows, seeds and plants increasingly become available. Currently, seeds are available by mail through, and people in the landscape trade may purchase plants wholesale through Planters’ Choice Nursery in Newtown, Connecticut.

Category: News

Topics: , , , , , , ,

Reunited, and It Felt So…Inspiring!

Highlights from the 2023 RCP Network Gathering

From the keynote panel and 17 workshops to the conversations over lunch and coffee, some 320 people from two countries, 16 states, and 27 Regional Conservation Partnerships (RCPs) gathered for the first time in four years at UMass Amherst on November 9 for the 14th annual RCP Network Gathering.

Katie Blake, Conservationist at Highstead. Photo Credit: Jeff Thiebauth

In her opening remarks, Highstead Conservationist Katie Blake said we must embrace complexity and acknowledge that no single sector or discipline holds all the answers – that it’s “only through authentically and deeply working together across sectors that we can bring about positive and equitable change for both nature and all people.”

The keynote panel discussion, moderated by Highstead Director of Conservation Bill Labich, was based on advancing lessons learned from previous years’ Gatherings. He asked panelists, “Why are we talking about integration, coordination, and collaboration around issues like climate change, biodiversity, and land justice? And, what does integrated, climate resilient, and just land use look like? We know that land conservation is part of a more complex land system that includes land ownership, land-use planning, regulation, and development built on a system that has been unjust for hundreds of years, but how do we and how do networks of conservation partners begin to tackle this?”

Solutions to these challenges exist in our own backyards, said Keynote Panelist Forrest King-Cortes, director of community-centered conservation for the Land Trust Alliance. Success is based on “our willingness to show up as allies and support the work already being done,” he said. “Our ability to partner with others depends upon our investment in DEI [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion] in ourselves and our organizations, especially trusted relationship building. We can’t hope to build new partnerships and engage communities without leaning in and doing the pre-work.”

RCP Network Gathering Keynote Panel: Onika Abraham Lee, Sacha Spector, Forrest King-Cortes, and Moderator, Bill Labich

It’s not about bringing more diverse people to the table, he said. It’s about making space at the table, welcoming the expertise of others, and being willing to listen and receive that perspective. Slow, authentic relationship building is essential to building trust, said King-Cortes, a champion for the conservation movement elevating more leaders of color, LGBTQIA+ people, and people with disabilities to make communities more inclusive and welcoming.

It’s essential to integrate the meaning of partnership and develop deep, sustained relationships so people can learn from each other, said Keynote Panelist Onika Abraham Lee, executive director of the Blue Sky Funders Forum and former leader of Farm School NYC for adult students in sustainable agriculture and food sovereignty.

Christopher Carr, Co-Founder of Black Land Ownership

True partnership is “when the larger partners go out into the community and sit alongside networks and organizations that exist, see what is bubbling up. Take into account what work is already being done,” Abraham Lee sugested. “How can you go to their table? How can you lift up what is being said within those communities? Channel money and power into those efforts.”

RCPs are in an ideal position to do this work because they comprise multiple groups across a region and have local connections vital to addressing these cross-sector challenges, said Keynote Panelist Sasha Spector, director of the Doris Duke Foundation’s grant making on climate change, land conservation and stewardship, and inclusive conservation. “RCPs can think bigger and interact with individual actors on the ground,” he said. Getting to a master plan approach to solving these complex problems, he said, is “only going to happen from the bottom up.”

Following the keynote panel, participants spent the remainder of the day attending workshops delivered by their peers, learning how organizations are implementing the values of DEI through their initiatives, hearing from network leaders about their efforts to embrace complexity at a regional scale, and gaining new knowledge and skills to support their conservation work more effectively. Participants also got a chance to meet with RCP leaders in their state during a poster session held throughout the day.

Mikael Cejtin, Coordinator, Staying Connected Initiative

Attendees left fired up with both concrete tools and inspiration from speakers and presenters. People acknowledged the loneliness of the pandemic isolation, expressed joy at seeing old friends, and left with a sense of affirmation for and rededication to their work.

Category: Events

Topics: , , , ,

Forest Scientists and Environmentalists Gather in NH for Eastern Old Growth Forest Conference

In late September of 2023, Highstead’s Senior Ecologist Ed Faison presented at the Eastern Old Growth Forest Conference in Moultonborough, New Hampshire. Hosted by the University of New Hampshire Extension, this was the first conference of its kind since 2004 and convened leading forest scientists, environmentalists, and advocates of old forests from across the eastern United States for a three-day conference. More than 250 people attended.

Old growth forests were once the predominant forest condition but have been reduced to a tiny fraction (<0.5%) of our forests today by centuries of intensive timber harvesting and agricultural clearing. These old forests have outsized importance in terms of carbon storage and climate mitigation, biodiversity, and as a source of inspiration for people. Plenary speakers included environmentalist and author Bill McKibben, forest scientist Suzanne Simard, old growth expert Bob Leverett, and former Highstead Board Chair David Foster, ecologist and author.

The topic of wildlands was well represented at the conference. In his plenary speech, David made a strong case for protecting more wildlands, which are the old growth forests of the future. Trinity College Professor Susan Masino spoke about the importance of wildlands in her talk on forests and human well-being.

Ed spoke about the ecological resilience of wildland forests, presenting results from his recent paper, as well as data from other recent research on wild forests in the eastern United States. Ed noted that the capacity for resilience in forests is largely a function of the complex arrangements and diversity of the trees, both of which tend to increase over time in forests that are protected from management. In the words of ecologist and co-presenter Liz Thompson, “Nature knows how to manage forests, and has done so for millennia. We simply need to allow that to happen in many more places, across the region.”

Category: Events

Topics: , , , ,

How the MassConn RCP Leveraged $2.4M to Conserve 1,000 Acres

The MassConn Sustainable Forest Partnership received a $2.4 million Forest Legacy Program grant in 2021 to protect 1,000+ acres of privately owned forest in Central Massachusetts. Two of the conservationists behind the effort say the work takes planning, patience, persistence, and guts. 

Morneau Farm property in Southbridge and Dudley, Massachusetts. Photo Credit: Opacum Land Trust

The U.S. Forest Service, in partnership with state agencies, administers the Forest Legacy Program (FLP) to encourage the protection of privately owned forests through conservation easements or land purchases. Ed Hood, former coordinator, MassConn Sustainable Forestry Partnership, and Amy Connery, chief operating officer of Opacum Land Trust, the organization that is implementing the project, shared what they learned from the multi-year process to preserve 1,011  acres in Massachusetts. Conserving this land was a significant step forward in achieving the goals of MassConn, a Regional Conservation Partnership that involves land trusts, municipalities, private landowners, non-profit organizations, government agencies, and foundations from 38 towns in South Central Massachusetts and Northeastern Connecticut. 

Robert F. and Jeanne R. Para Family land in Southbridge, Massachusetts. Photo Credit: Opacum Land Trust

Prior to the arrival of Hood, now executive director, Norcross Wildlife Foundation, the MassConn partnership was instrumental in conserving 1,495 acres of forest in Northeastern Connecticut through the Forest Legacy Program in 2015 and 2016. Hood’s predecessors at MassConn also laid the groundwork for its current Forest Legacy Project, Emerald Forest Borderlands, by using strategic mapping to select four large focus areas in Massachusetts, identifying priority parcels based on their conservation value, biodiversity, ecological diversity, and presence of native species. 

The team spent a year working on the grant application, and although they knew there were no guarantees, they figured that even if they weren’t successful the first year, their effort wouldn’t be wasted, Hood says. “You want to go big. We were being bold. We figured, ‘Let’s charge ahead.’” At the time, Opacum had two other large grants it was working on: one was a great success and the other wasn’t, he says. “You have to take risks.” While conservationists can’t anticipate every challenge they’ll face, they can rely on past experiences and seek guidance from partners or peers if faced with a dilemma for which they can’t find a solution, he said.

A crucial aspect of private land conservation is finding interested landowners and working with them to conserve their land through a conservation easement. This requires building relationships and trust with landowners. After identifying parcels to target, the Opacum team made initial contact through a letter mailed to owners of large properties, inviting landowners into an initial conversation about conserving their land. 

This first step alone is unlikely to yield a strong response from landowners, so the letters are followed up with an introduction from their forester. “One of the key ways to make connections is through foresters. ”Connery says. In this case, landowners with at least 25 acres and a forest management plan with a forester qualify for a lower real estate tax rate in Massachusetts and Connecticut. “Forest managers develop credibility with landowners, so they are much more likely to talk with someone from a land trust if a forester makes the introduction,” she says. 

Para Family land in Southbridge, Massachusetts. Photo Credit: Pete Westover, Conservation Works LLC.

Connery also advises letting private landowners know they should expect the sale of conservation easements to be a multi-year process. If the landowner perceives it’s a transactional relationship, they’ll more likely walk away when a delay or challenge inevitably comes up along the way, Hood and Connery say. Each landowner is different, and it’s important to listen to their stories: Sometimes buried in a story that may seem extraneous is a clue about the family’s connection to the land and their motivation for preservation. It’s best, they say, to build relationships with the landowners so trust can develop naturally. Laney Wilder, current executive director for Opacum Land Trust who works directly with the landowners to implement this program, sets reminders to check in with them once a month. Keep landowners in the loop on the progress of their land in the program, and if you have no news, tell them that. 

Touring a habitat management site. Photo Credit: Opacum Land Trust

One of the challenges conservationists face relates to the disconnect between landowners’ expectations of the monetary value of conservation easements and the requirements of funders relating to the land’s assessed value. “Try to remember wanting as much as we can get is a universal trait that we share when we’re selling something of value to us,” Connery says. “Try to be reasonable and direct and listen to people. Everyone is interested in conservation at some level, but they need to be compensated for it to make sense for them and their families.” 

Para Family land in Southbridge, Massachusetts. Photo Credit: Opacum Land Trust

The FLP can fund up to 75% of the value of the conservation easement, so Connery and her partners leveraged the federal dollars to obtain private foundation funds to contribute toward the costs associated with purchasing easements, garnering another $220,000 in foundation grants. These additional funds will help to cover required due diligence costs that have increased substantially since they applied for the grant (such as surveys, title exams, and appraisals), acquisition costs (the value of many of these parcels has also gone up), and the administrative costs to manage the project. While the FLP allows landowners to sell easements at full value, Opacum Land Trust requires all landowners to sell their easements for a maximum of 75% of their value to meet the 25% match. 

How does Opacum, a nonprofit with a small staff wearing many hats manage both the personal and practical aspects crucial to this complex process? Spreadsheets for keeping track of landowner interactions, their priorities, and the stages of the transaction. And partners from within their RCP, MassConn such as state agencies and other conservation groups. Opacum also leveraged the power of an informal network of landowners in the area, called woodland ambassadors, to find landowner candidates interested in conserving their land in the region. Further, they used Bluesky grant funds MassConn received to support the labor necessary to write such a complex grant proposal. 

What would Connery tell other RCPs interested in the Forest Legacy Program? “Just do it. It’s worth it,” she says. “You’ve got great networks and peers being able to help. Don’t be afraid to take a leap.”  Large grants or funding sources like the FLP are critical to meeting land conservation goals. “Without funding of this level, we would never have been able to take on this large, multi-parcel conservation project.” 

Category: News

Topics: , , , ,

Q&A with 2023 Conservation Interns Reveals Passion, Curiosity, and Innovation

The autumn season always ushers in much excitement and activity at Highstead. Fall foliage begins to blanket Highstead’s grounds as we enter the final stretch of planning and preparing for the RCP Network Gathering. Our team welcomes the change and transition the season brings, as it marks the beginning of the Fall Internship Program. Since 2004, Highstead has maintained its goal of committing to the future of conservation by investing in aspiring conservationists, students, and recent graduates and cultivating an environment of curiosity, ambition, and growth. The program provides opportunities for each intern to pursue their professional development goals, through hands-on conservation experience.

Bringing in a wave of fresh energy, innovation, and diverse thinking, Highstead’s 2023 Fall Conservation Communications and Events Interns, Renee Comings and Katie Vartenigian, sat down for a Q&A to share a bit about their backgrounds, goals for the internship, aspirations, and more. 

Renee Comings (She/Her)

Tell us a little about your background.

I was born and raised in Rockaway, New Jersey and went to Ithaca College in upstate New York, where I graduated with a BS in Cinema in 2020.

What drew you to Highstead’s Internship Program and what do you hope to gain from your time here?

I want to use my skills in digital media and marketing to deliver relevant and important information to people who need it. I care deeply about the environment and working to mitigate climate change, and the internship at Highstead is a great opportunity to act on my values in a way that truly makes a difference.

What skills and experiences do you hope to bring to the Highstead team?

Interestingly enough, I originally wanted to be a film director in Hollywood, but two months before I was supposed to graduate, COVID hit New York and a lot of my plans were put on a shelf. The pandemic was a time of hostile division, and it felt like political communication issues were actively pulling the humanity of our country apart at the seams. I knew there had to be a better way to represent data and research; a way that transcends differences and bias. So I shifted my plans and began to build my career in the direction of science communications. I spent about two years creating videos and content for Cornell University, before I started working as a communications professional at a medical non-profit. I gained a lot of experience using social media to market public health campaigns and writing educational material. 

My marketing experience, eye for video development and writing, and my endless empathy are the traits I’m bringing to Highstead. It will be really rewarding to contribute my skills to this team, connecting environmentalists together at the RCP Network Gathering and delivering impactful messages to those who are actively working toward land conservation in New England.

Tell us about some of your passions and hobbies.

Outside of work, I love to forage for natural edibles, watch movies with friends, lift weights, play music in my band, “Mushroom House,” and cook healthy, delicious meals. 

Do you have any future goals or aspirations you’re working toward right now?

I would love to continue to contribute toward environmental goals and the mitigation of climate change. And aside from work, I cannot wait to get married and start a family. I look forward to teaching my children about the wonders and beauty of our natural world. 

Katie Vartenigian (She/Her)

Tell us a little about your background.

I was born and raised in Glastonbury, Connecticut, so I’m a Connecticut local! I graduated from the University of Maryland, where I got a degree in biology. After college I started doing seasonal conservation work to gain some field experience, heading off first to join a backcountry trail crew in the Eastern Sierra Nevadas. The next summer I returned to California to do a season of spotted owl research for University of Wisconsin – Madison, then spent the fall working on an organic farm in Oregon. This past summer I did a season with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service down in Chincoteague, Virginia, working with endangered shorebirds, sea turtles, and anything else wildlife-related on the refuge. In between seasonal jobs I’ve been bartending/waiting tables to save as much money as possible, and traveling to see friends. 

What drew you to Highstead’s Internship Program and what do you hope to gain from your time here?

Highstead’s Internship Program sounded like a good fit for me because I was looking to develop some of my communication skills in the conservation industry. I’ve gained a lot of awesome experience with the hands-on part of conservation, but that’s only half of it – a lot of the important work conservationists do is in the office. Highstead really wants to foster our growth, and has been a new challenge for me that I know I’ll gain a lot from. 

What skills and experiences do you hope to bring to the Highstead team?

I’ve had some pretty varied work experiences, which I think helps me to understand the interests and needs of a lot of the different stakeholders that make up RCPs. I also love writing, which is definitely a useful skill in a job like this that requires a lot of writing and communication skills!

Tell us about some of your passions and hobbies.

I enjoy creative writing, reading, birding, lots of little craft projects, seeing live music, and spending time with friends and family.

Do you have any future goals or aspirations you’re working toward right now?

In general, I’m interested in land management. I could see myself working on a refuge or with conservation easements – helping to steward and maintain the land, engage the local community in nature, and protect a part of New England, my home. But I’m not too worried about having it figured out down to the letter. I feel like I’m headed in the right direction, and Highstead is part of that! 

Category: News