In 2021, the state acquired less land than in 2020 and less than the average for the previous ten years.
Goal #1: State Owned Land – 10 percent
In 2021, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) acquired 733 acres of land* under the Recreation and Natural Heritage Trust Program (Trust Program), the primary vehicle for adding land to the state’s system of parks, forests, wildlife areas, water access areas, and other open spaces.13 The state invested more than $1.5 million and leveraged more than $1.3 million to acquire the 733 acres in 2021.
The total area of land estimated to be acquired by DEEP as preserved open space is approximately 264,000 acres. Over the previous ten years, the state has preserved an average of 879 acres per year. While DEEP has made steady progress to increase the amount of land preserved, DEEP’s preservation efforts are not on track to reach the state’s preservation goal of 320,576 acres. At the average acquisition rate of 879 acres per year, it would take DEEP approximately 65 years to achieve the ten percent goal. As the cost of land increases, that goal will become more remote unless the rate of open space acquisition increases.
Open space provides Connecticut's residents with options for outdoor activities, preservation of scenic beauty, habitat protection, increased biodiversity, water protection and flood control. In addition, forests, farmland and other natural habitats absorbed more than twelve percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.14 Land conservation offers a double benefit for the climate: it helps absorb GHG emissions and it prevents significant GHG emissions that would result from development.
Goal #1: The State shall acquire ten percent of Connecticut’s land for preserved open space. This goal was set in statute in 1997 (Connecticut General Statutes, (CGS) Sec 23-8(b)).
Technical Note: *State land is primarily owned in fee by the State. A notable exception is a 111-acre easement acquired in 2020, which is included in the State acquisition total. Acquisitions by “conservation partners” often include easements. State “preserved land” does not mean land that is not managed or harvested. The lands acquired by the state as open space might not be restricted from logging or other types of management or from recreational activities.
Goal #2: Other Conservation Lands – 11 percent
In 2021, state grants helped municipalities and land trusts acquire or protect 1,189 acres through the Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition Grant Program (Grant Program), whereby DEEP provides financial assistance to municipalities and nonprofit land conservation organizations to acquire land for open space, and to water companies to acquire land to be classified as Class I or Class II water supply property.15 The amount of land preserved as the result of grants from the Grant Program in 2021 was less than the ten year average of 1,272 acres.
Unfortunately, the exact amount of land held by DEEP’s conservation partners is very difficult, if not impossible, to determine. Land trusts are continuously acquiring properties for conservation and outdoor recreation, the inventory of municipal land is incomplete, it is very difficult to track easements, and there is no centralized accounting of privately preserved lands. The Council estimated that more than 299,000 acres are held as open space land in fee by its “conservation partners.” This would be approximately 85 percent of the goal of 352,634 acres. The spike in 2021, depicted in the chart above, is due to the addition this year of the Council’s assessment of land trust land and water company land. As of July 1 2021, land trusts held approximately 111,300 acres in fee, not easements. Approximately 103,800 acres of “undeveloped” Class I and Class II land is owned by the water companies in the state. DEEP’s 2019 Open Space Annual Report estimated that municipalities held approximately 84,100 acres as open space.
As noted above, it is estimated that DEEP has preserved approximately 264,000 acres (Goal 1) and its conservation partners “hold” approximately 299,000 acres (Goal 2) as open space for a total of approximately 562,900 acres or 84 percent of the total statewide goal of 21 percent or 673,210 acres.
Public Act 14-169 required DEEP to "...establish a publicly accessible geographic information map system and database that contains a public use and benefit land registry…” DEEP launched a registry portal as a pilot. To date, DEEP has only added about 26,000 acres or roughly 10 percent of the state-owned open space land into the registry was completed in 2021, nor since September 2018.
Technical Note: **The right vertical axes in the land preservation charts above have been shortened, beginning at 200,000 acres rather than the customary zero.
13 DEEP, Monthly Open Space Reports to the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee and the State Bond Commission; portal.ct.gov/DEEP/Open-Space/DEEP-Monthly-Open-Space-Reports
14 EPA, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2019 – Land Use, Land Use Change, and Forestry Chapter; www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2021-04/documents/us-ghg-inventory-2021-main-text.pdf
15 DEEP, Monthly Open Space Reports to the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee and the State Bond Commission; portal.ct.gov/DEEP/Open-Space/DEEP-Monthly-Open-Space-Reports