23 Jan
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Carter Preserve and the Railroad: Concern, not Panic

A map of the proposed railway line. Courtesy charlestowncitizens.org.

The map tells a disturbing story: a proposed railway change slicing The Nature Conservancy’s Carter Preserve in Richmond in half, effectively eliminating it as a recreation area. The Federal Railway Administration (FRA) has proposed the change as part of a controversial plan to shave time from the Northeast Corridor commuter rail system. As it stands, the proposal will affect conservation areas, Narragansett Tribal land, historical farms and a host of other properties. Tim Mooney, marketing and communications manager for the Conservancy, says the 1100-acre parcel that comprises Carter Preserve is one of the most popular hiking destinations in South County, if not the state. “Part of what made this parcel desirable to the Conservancy was the fact that it was a large single parcel of land south of the rail line.”

The proposal came as a surprise to many, appearing at the height of the holiday season. “In mid-December, I got an email from Ruth Platner of the Charlestown Citizens Alliance saying, ‘We were going over this proposal and guess what we found?’” None of the landowners directly affected by the proposal were notified. Word spread mainly through social media. “We were shocked,” said Mooney. “We simply had no idea that this was happening. TNC is very supportive of expanding and improving railroad service as a strategy as a way to reduce carbon emissions. But rerouting through our second largest preserve is a terrible idea.”

New habitat, new conservation

The Francis Carter Preserve has been in existence for 15 years. A 2014 land acquisition of 271 acres not only added to the space, but it also allowed TNC to conserve a unique habitat. “Part of our purchase included a 35 acre former potato field. By the time we acquired it, the field had gone to grassland and was on its way to returning to forest.” However, in surveying the land, TNC made a surprise discovery: the Grasshopper Sparrow was nesting in the area. As far as Mooney could tell, this was the only place on the mainland where the bird nested, and the finding prompted TNC to approach the new parcel from a different perspective. “We began to go from a species specific approach (focusing on preserving one species at a time) to one of conserving a broader range of animals found in a unique habitat.” The decision was made to conserve the segment as one of the largest thicket parcels in the state. The habitat is a mixture of grasslands, scrub shrubs, and small trees that is home to animals that avoid forests and need the more open habitat to survive. “It’s a great place where people come to hike and where we can talk to people about the area and explain why it matters.”

The $271,000 property purchase, funded by the Champlin Foundation, was augmented by an additional $65,000 from TNC and Champlin on upgrades to the preserve. Renovations on the former potato field included the removal of 2,000 feet of chain link fence, which required heavy equipment to dig out and cart away. The original field was doubled in size, and new signage was created, along with construction of a canoe launch and parking area. Two miles of hiking trails would take visitors through the new parcel. “We’re poised to take a great preserve and make it a terrific one,” Mooney said.

To panic or not to panic?

While property owners like The Nature Conservancy have a lot at stake, Mooney says it’s not time to panic just yet. “We’re at the beginning of the process. It’s premature to take a defensive posture.” He says that the proposal only considered state and federal open space because of what the FRA claimed was inconsistent mapping of private and municipal conservation land. TNC is currently formulating comments to the FRA as a way of informing the process. “We are heartened by the response from the community and the overwhelming concern for open space. We take the FRA at its word that this is a long way from becoming a reality. If the overall project goes forward and begins to move to the parcel level, we will have further comment on the issue. While we’re on the ball in terms of keeping an eye on things, our response right now is informative.”

Citizens wishing to comment on the proposal originally had until January 31 to submit their remarks. Sen. Jack Reed has announced that the comment period has been extended “by a few weeks”, although no succeeding deadline has been announced. “We encourage everyone to participate in the process,” Mooney says. “While the FRA is not required to respond, there is a mechanism to receive comments, and people should take advantage of that.” Emailed comments may be sent to info@necfuture.com .

Mooney points out that moving from a proposal phase to an action phase may be years away, or may never happen at all, but he will stay involved, come what may. “I’ve been involved with Francis Carter Preserve for nine years, and I’m as invested in the parcel as much as anyone else on the face of the earth.”

Note: Charlestown Citizens Alliance has extensive information, including maps of the proposed changes, on their web page. Although their main concern is Charlestown, the information collected there may be beneficial to others interested in learning more and taking action. See their page here.

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