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NEWTs from the Field: Stewardship program meets at Grasse River Wilderness Preserve

The regional Stewardship Team of Northeast Wilderness Trust (NEWT) gathered recently at a New York preserve to do boundary marking and learn more about both the land and local denizens who call this forever-wild place their home. The Stewardship team includes Sophie Ehrhardt, Vermont Land Steward; Joe Falconeiri, Southern New England Land Steward; Hannah Epstein, Stewardship Director; Becky Clough, Northern New England Land Steward; and New York Land Steward, Jannelle Jones.

They gathered at the Grasse River Wilderness Preserve in New York, which is 1,433 acres of former timberlands with diverse water features. The Preserve includes more than 250 acres of wetlands, more than 7 miles of streams, and 20 freshwater ponds. Many of these unique water features, which add diversity to this northern hardwood forest, are influenced by beaver activity.

“We acquired the Grasse River Wilderness Preserve in the fall of 2022 and needed to get boundary marking done after the survey was completed this spring,” Becky said.

The Stewardship team pauses from posting boundary signage

Conservation area boundary signs let the public know the Wilderness Trust safeguards the land and that there are special rules for visitors. The public is always welcome to explore and hunting is allowed on most of Northeast Wilderness Trust’s land by permission. Boundary marking on a preserve as large as the Grasse River Wilderness Preserve presented a great opportunity to bring the Stewardship Team together. “We had not yet been together in person as our team has recently grown and we are spread across four states,” Hannah said.

A lot of the Land Stewards’ work is done individually and includes monitoring conservation easements, boundary marking, maintaining signage and footpaths, managing the hunting-by-permission program, and interacting with the local human community. Stewards get to know neighbors and visitors to the preserves and have opportunities to share NEWT’s mission to give wild nature the freedom to flourish. On forever-wild lands, people take a step back and natural processes unfold freely. The wildlands safeguarded by Northeast Wilderness Trust—encompassing over 79,000 acres—are fully protected from future development, timber harvesting, and other human activities.

“At times, we are able to participate in events and local community conservation work.” Janelle said.  During their visit last month, the team met a lot of neighbors who spoke not only about their connection to the land, but they also expressed their appreciation that NEWT created a place in their backyards for nature to recover and rewild. “Stewardship is all about connections: creating our own personal connection to the land and making sure we do everything in our power to ensure that those who don’t have a human voice have a chance to live their best life,” Janelle said. “Our job as stewards is not all about creating physical barriers or limiting usage. It’s about breaking down barriers and connecting with people so we can all work together to help the natural world be a strong part of the community.”

Joe added that “it is always good to learn about a local area, to become acquainted with the lay of the land while also meeting people.” A large part of stewardship is the interaction with the local community while knowing the land.  “Being able to meet and talk directly with abutting neighbors is crucial to the stewardship process—and protecting wilderness—and I think that was accomplished on this trip. Doing it together as a team was special,” he said.

The team also installed Northeast Wilderness Trust’s custom handcrafted sign for Grasse River Wilderness Preserve that Joe creates for Northeast Wilderness Preserves and Sanctuaries. Signage sometimes also includes maps to help facilitate public access if there are footpaths. “Completing a boundary sign assignment is always an important accomplishment. It is a small, yet major way of saying that new boundaries are set for natural processes to flow freely. It is always an honor to set that standard on any of the Wilderness Trust preserves. Now at Grasse River Wilderness Preserve we begin the official work of sound stewardship and forever-wild conservation,” said Joe.

While on the Preserve, the staff shared some special moments and gained more insight into the beauty and importance of the land. For Hannah, it was “getting out to some areas of this Preserve that are pretty far out, places no one on staff had been to before. In one area we had to navigate around beaver ponds, which was a fun challenge. It was interesting to see the more remote parts of the preserve and it became apparent to us that the beaver activity is quite prominent and special,” she said.

Beavers, wetlands, and remote terrain aren’t the only things that make a visit to the Grasse River Wilderness Preserve so special. The team enjoyed a gigantic waterfall that the river goes over, found signs of bear, navigated natural tall granite ledges that drop 30 feet like a knife’s edge into ponds and bogs below, and enjoyed views as far as the eye can see. Part of the river has eastern pearl shell mussels, which are threatened in New York and a rare find. The variety of ledges and outcrops on the land provide niches that many species can benefit from.

“The Grasse River Wilderness Preserve is expansive and its connectivity to the Adirondack Park can be immediately felt. It instantly exuded wildness and wilderness to me like no other preserve,” Joe said. The Preserve is located in the Algonquin to Adirondacks (A2A) Corridor which has been formally recognized as a conservation priority by the A2A Collaborative. “Wilderness is about the physical features and the commitment we make to a place; it’s also about the feeling and opportunity when experiencing it. The Grasse River Wilderness Preserve gives people a chance to experience wild Nature without traveling far into the Adirondack Park, and it might help people form a deeper connection with the Nature in their own backyards,” Janelle said.

The Grasse River Wilderness Preserve is open to the public to explore on foot and for hunting by permission. While no trails are maintained, the former logging roads help guide visitors through the preserve. The property can be accessed from the Downerville State Forest to the north and Degrasse State Forest to the south. Be sure to sign up for the Northeast Wilderness Trust’s Wild Times Enewsletter to stay informed about upcoming events.

NEWTs from the Field is a regular feature bringing you the wonders of nature from out in the wilderness from our Stewardship and Wildlands Ecology Programs.

Photos by Hannah Epstein | View of fall foliage by Sophie Ehrhardt