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50-Year-Old Aspetuck Land Trust Protects Precious Open Space In Fairfield

David Brant of Fairfield is the Executive Director of the Aspetuck Land Trust, which preserves more than 1,700 acres of open space in Fairfield County. He is pictured at Trout Brook Valley Preserve in Weston, which has 703 acres of open space. Photo Credit: Tom Renner
A family with blueberry bush it adopted at an orchard in Trout Brook Valley in Weston. Photo Credit: Contributed
A vista of the Trout Brook Valley in Weston. Photo Credit: Jim Freund
An aerial view of Trout Brook Valley in Weston. Photo Credit: Brian Russell.
Trout Brook Valley Ranger Jim Wood spotted this owl during a hike earlier this summer. Photo Credit: Facebook/Aspetuck Land Trust
A rare Spotted Turtle was seen earlier this year at Trout Brook Valley in Weston, which is part of the Aspetuck Land Trust. Photo Credit: Facebook/Aspetuck Land Trust

FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. -- Some of the nation’s most recognizable business and political leaders reside in lower Fairfield County. Fairfield’s David Brant, executive director of the 50-year-old Aspetuck Land Trust, has as much responsibility, if not more, than any of them, and is one of the primary players in ensuring the county’s long-term sustainability.

Brant, the only full-time employee at the ALT, works with more than 900 supporters and volunteers to preserve open space, promote land conservation and improve the habitat for animals of all shapes and sizes that call the region home.

ALT maintains over 120 open spaces and 40 miles of hiking trails on more than 1,700 acres in Westport, Weston, Fairfield, Easton, Wilton, Redding and Bridgeport. Its open spaces provide safe refuge for more than 500 species of mammals, birds, amphibians, insects and plants, and countless hours of outdoor enjoyment for the public.

“One of our members says going for a hike on Aspetuck Land Trust open spaces is a way to get out of Fairfield County,’’ Brant said, “while still being in Fairfield County.”

Most Connecticut towns have land trusts, but ALT is unique in that it stretches across several towns. Brant said ALT has three components:

  • to preserve open space and providing connectivity to other open spaces;
  • to promote land conservation and habitat improvement projects, such as the recent work done to restore the Saugatuck estuary in downtown Westport; and finally
  • to engage the public in preservation.
“Land doesn’t preserve itself,’’ Brant said. “The more people we have involved loving and learning about the land, the better we all are.”

ALT’s crown jewel is the 703-acre Trout Brook Valley Preserve in Weston, which is part of the 1,009 acre Trout Brook Valley Conservation Area. ALT raised $11.3 million to purchase the property in 1999 from the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company, which planned to sell it to a developer for 103 luxury homes. Professional golfer Tom Watson walked the property and surveyed potential holes for a course.

The state of Connecticut provided $6 million toward the purchase, while the Aspetuck Land Trust and the Nature Conservancy raised the remaining $5.3 million.

“Trout Brook Valley is one of the most important ecological features of this region,’’ Brant said. “It forms the core of 6,400-acre expanse that serves as the green heart of Fairfield County. It’s a critically important ecosystem which we all have a responsibility to protect for future generations.”

One of ALT’s newest preserves is a 39-acre Newman Poses Preserve on Bayberry Lane in Westport. The space is the only public memorial approved by the family of Paul Newman, honoring the late actor and philanthropist. ALT worked with Westport and the Newman family to keep the property as open space. ALT made improvements for public access and manages the preserve. Newman lived near the property, which also includes land sold to the town by Lillian Poses, a neighbor and friend of Newman.

“I frequently walked these fields with my father and the ubiquitous pack of dogs, and we fretted together about what would eventually happen here,’’ Lissy Newman, Paul’s daughter, wrote on the ALT website. “He stopped short of buying it outright and turning it into a preserve, a decision I think he sometimes regretted. He did eventually facilitate the first steps in its preservation, which brought us to this point. It seemed to me, that, on his passing, I wanted to hold on to something that was dear to us both. And so with the help of many kind and devoted people both at Town Hall and at the Aspetuck Land Trust which has agreed to monitor and maintain it, here we are.”

Newman’s largesse did not stop there. Earlier, he contributed $500,000 to preserving Trout Brook Valley.

ALT continues to acquire parcels donated by benefactors. In 2012, it acquired 34 acres in Easton known as Randalls Farm, donated by Joan duPont. Last year, it received a 5-acre donation off Horseshoe Lane in Fairfield from Jean Baldridge Uehlinger, who used to play on the land as a girl. Its smallest parcel is a 0.3-acre area in Fairfield, the Sasqua Wildflower Preserve, across from the Pequot Museum in Southport. The preserve is a beautiful spot to see wildflowers and is a certified Monarch Waystation.

The person pulling all of the logistical strings together for ALT is Brant, who took the position as executive director in 2008. He has been vital in keeping and acquiring green space in Fairfield County.

“David’s energetic, outgoing and enthusiastic,’’ said Dick Ritzel, president of ALT’s Board of Directors. “We’re a volunteer organization, and we have a couple of part-time folks that are super helpful. But David has just been a godsend.”

A native of Michigan, Brant worked for nonprofit organizations in Minnesota and Boston, along with a brief stint running an organic farm in Vermont and a llama farm in Montana. Much of his expertise came in working with children, such as his position as founder and executive director of Youth Farm, a youth development program for inner-city children in Minneapolis/St. Paul to teach them to grow, cook and sell their produce.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do career-wise,’’ Brant said. “I just knew that I wanted to work outside and help people.”

Brant does not enjoy the ALT’s land treasures as much as he would like because of his administrative responsibilities. But he realizes the land treasures in Fairfield County are critical to the region, and his huge responsibility to keep them preserved for generations to come.

“I think of some of our properties are like a book,’’ Brant said. “Don’t judge a book by its cover. Some of these parcels might not seem like much because they are small. The more time you spend in them, the more they reveal themselves, which is kind of neat. We have some magnificent land here. It’s up to us to take care of it and protect it.”

For more information or to become a member of the Aspetuck Land Trust, click here to visit the ALT website.

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