AP NEWS

New bridge welcomes hikers into Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve

April 9, 2019

East Lyme — Until recently, hiking through the 457-acre Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve abutting Niantic River first required crossing one of two narrow wood planks extending over running water.

“They were often slippery. And we’ve had a couple rain events where the planks had washed away,” said Gregory Decker, president of the Friends of the Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve, a coalition that oversees and maintains the site. “This was our main entrance and our gateway to the preserve. We knew we needed to change that.”

Now, visitors will find a 45-foot cedar bridge — deemed the Clark Pond Bridge — welcoming them into the preserve. Arching over the waterway that separates the parking lot from the preserve, the bridge not only allows visitors safe entry into the forest but also offers beautiful views of Clark Pond while offsetting erosion from foot traffic.

“It’s like curb appeal,” Decker said. “If you go by someone’s house and the front of it looks nice and is kept, it must mean they take care of the inside.”

Built out over three days last fall but planned over the last couple years, the bridge is the latest completed part of efforts to conserve and maintain the preserve over recent years — the second phase of a three-part plan that includes filtering polluted runoff water before it flows into the abutting Clark Pond, as well as conserving a dwindling tree species known as Pitch Pines.

It is also a sign to the public, according to Kris Lambert, member and former president of the group, that her coalition still is pursuing its original mission to obtain the 236 acres of undeveloped land abutting the preserve.

That land, currently owned by Landmark Development, presently is earmarked for 840 apartment units — plans that have raised environmental and development concerns with town officials, as well as those looking to protect Oswegatchie Hills, since it was proposed to the town nearly two decades ago.

“The Hills are a treasure and we want to sustain the momentum for our mission,” Lambert said. “We are absolutely still pursuing our original mission.”

Lambert could not detail on the record how her group is pursuing that mission.

Having formed in 2001, Friends of the Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve came together after Landmark Development initially proposed building on land abutting what is now the preserve. Officially established in 2007, the preserve is owned in part by the town and by the East Lyme Land Trust. Both work with the Friends group to maintain the preserve, Decker said.

Decker described the Hills as an “environmental gem,” a unique and precious natural resource that should be preserved.

“You’ve got your beaches and everyone loves McCook’s and Hole-in-the-Wall. And you’ve got the boardwalk, where you can exercise and still be on the bay. But then three-quarters of a mile inland, you’ve got a terrain unlike Rocky Neck,” he said. “The Hills are not flat. It’s very hilly terrain. It’s unique terrain. It’s untouched and it’s got beautiful ecosystems.”

Since beginning to plan the bridge in 2017, Lambert has raised 15,000 was donated in materials. Some of those materials included the granite steps installed leading up to the bridge, as well as “low-impact” foundation blocks used to support it, Decker said.

Once money and town permits were in order, Decker said he and two other Friends members built out the bridge, which was delivered in pieces from Montana-based Cedar Bridge Shop, over the course of three days last fall.

“We really thought of everything,” Decker said Monday, displaying plaques he will install on the bridge this week, as well as a memorial stone.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the opening of the bridge will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Oswegatchie Nature Preserve entrance located at Memorial Park Drive, East Lyme. Following the ceremony, guided hikes will be offered.

“You can tell we are very passionate about this,” Lambert said. “And we are showing the public, through our efforts, that we are still here, and we are intending to care for the land and committed to protecting Oswegatchie Hills.”

m.biekert@theday.com