Collaborative Conservation: The Story Behind the Nation’s Newest Wildlife Refuge

©. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

How a small preserve north of New York City kickstarted a multi-state conservation effort.

By Stuart F. Gruskin, Chief Conservation and External Affairs Officer at The Nature Conservancy in New York

When I was a kid growing up in the suburbs of New York City, it was common to see New England cottontail rabbits hopping around. Over time, due to habitat loss the species – our region’s only native rabbit – has sharply declined, becoming close to being endangered. This caught the attention of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and just last month, the country’s 556th national wildlife refuge, Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge, was unveiled. A couple of hours north of New York City, the new refuge is dedicated to conserving young forest and shrubland essential to many types of wildlife, including threatened species like the iconic New England cottontail.

I’m proud that The Nature Conservancy played a part in establishing this refuge, by contributing the first property needed for the new refuge to legally be established. Our historic Nellie Hill Preserve, a 144-acre parcel in Dutchess County, is the first land acquisition of many in this ambitious project. Eventually, Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge will span six states (CT, MA, ME, NH, NY and RI) and conserve up to 15,000 acres of important habitat that’s quickly vanishing due to both human development and the course of time (i.e. young forest eventually becomes mature forest). This is a uniquely effective approach to conservation – instead of a large, contiguous area, this refuge consists of a network of ecologically significant focus areas within a very large, 250,000 acre landscape, and is designed to ensure that there is sufficient habitat within the footprint of the refuge to support the cottontail rabbit as well as many other species that rely on shrublands.

Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge

© Mark King/The Nature Conservancy

As a general proposition, any new national wildlife refuge is cause for celebration, but Great Thicket National Refuge is a truly special achievement. It required a strong collaborative effort among the federal government, the six states, and importantly, the local communities that will benefit. By donating an existing preserve to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Conservancy kick started the process of securing the habitat that will make this refuge a success.

This is also a great example of leveraging traditional conservation to achieve a larger outcome. When we acquired the Nellie Hill property 25 years ago, it was originally grazing land for cows. We discovered that there were rare and threatened plant species needing protection. The property itself included rocky cliffs, sloping meadows, oakwood forests, and limestone woodlands. With the help of volunteers, the Conservancy managed the landscape through a suite of strategies, including prescribed burns and invasive species control. We also built and maintained a network of trails to encourage public use of Nellie Hill. In the years since, Nellie Hill has become a haven for both wildlife and people.

By any standard, Nellie Hill was successful conservation. The opportunity to magnify its impact, and rethink the conservation benefits by including it in the Great Thicket, however, is a great example of how reimagining strategies and methods can enhance conservation outcomes. Nellie Hill is now part of a multi-state, large scale, comprehensive effort to achieve natural resource conservation goals that simultaneously yield community benefits – like many conservation initiatives, a true win-win.

Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge

© Mark King/The Nature Conservancy

At The Nature Conservancy, we’re often thinking about the urgency of natural resource conservation today. Finding new ways to amplify the impacts of prior actions, as happened, is one way of meeting that challenge. We know that natural spaces protect the plant and wildlife species that live there, can help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in a climate changing world, and can also directly help people by providing recreational opportunities, supporting local economies and property values, and enhancing quality of life. And let’s not forget that the refuge created here is not just for cottontail rabbits, but also serves as a refuge for people, providing a place to go where the intangible and profound benefits of visiting a natural place can be enjoyed.

We cannot expect that any level of government – local, state, or federal – will be able to ensure on their own that both people and nature thrive. Finding opportunities for partnership is something that we all need to do much more often. Future success for all of us, including the New England cottontail, will depend on collaborations like Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge.