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Mary and Helen Eldrett at Downybrook. Photo: Joanna Richards.
Mary and Helen Eldrett at Downybrook. Photo: Joanna Richards.

New easement protects an Eden of grassland, rocks and water

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The land just off eastern Lake Ontario near Watertown contains thousands of acres of fields and wetlands that are valuable habitat for birds and wildlife.

In the Jefferson County town of Brownsville, owners of a private wildlife preserve have signed an agreement ensuring their land will be forever protected. Ontario Bays Initiative announced the new conservation easement on the 182-acre property.

Joanna Richards visited the sanctuary and has this story.

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Joanna Richards
Watertown Correspondent

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It's a sunny summer afternoon. Mary and Helen Eldrett are standing on a path next to a pond and they're enthralled with a dragonfly.

"Oh boy there's a different insect, Helen. Ooh! I wish I had my camera – I don't, darnit. He's beautiful, ooh!" Mary said. With a dark body and light colored wings, the insect is a kind they haven't yet catalogued on the 182 acres they own off Perch Lake Road in the town of Brownville. "Yes little fella, yes little fella – you're gorgeous. Ha! Love to get the pictures of the dragonflies. Yes."

The identical twin retirees call their private wildlife preserve “Downybrook,” but it might as well be Eden. On one visit there, I saw toads, dozens of birds and butterflies, Canada geese, a red squirrel in her nest and hoofprints of deer. There was a beaver dam, hundreds of snails and an outgrown snakeskin left on a trail. And the Eldretts say there's more: they've seen Cooper's and redtail hawks, snapping turtles big enough to wrap your arms around, wood ducks, and countless others.

Mary Eldrett says Downybrook is rich in wildlife because of the diversity of its land. "We've got quite a few different habitats. We've got wetland that drain out of the ponds. We've got the ponds themselves – there are five ponds in all. There's this high brush habitat, and then the evergreen woods, which are kinda nice for birds that like to nest in evergreens," she said.

"And then there's alvar," Helen Eldrett adds. That's land where limestone is close to the surface, with only a thin layer of soil, broken by deep crevasses in the stone. "And it was kind of destroyed when the farmers farmed it, but now they're thinking maybe some of those rare species of plants might come back. And it's very unique, to have that kind of land here in New York."

Downybrook has been the Eldretts' project since they started buying up and converting farmland in the early '70s. Now it will be protected from development even when they're gone.

"My name is Jim LaPlante and I am the board chairman for Ontario Bays Initiative, which is a small volunteer-run land trust based out of Chaumont."

The twins recently signed an agreement with Ontario Bays Initiative placing a conservation easement on Downybrook. "Which means that the property owners give up some rights to the property," LaPlante said, "mainly development rights, and it follows the property, so the property will be forever preserved."

Conservation groups have recognized Downybrook as well worth preserving. The property has earned recognition from the National Wildlife Federation and the National Campers and Hikers Association.

The Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation District helped to build five ponds on the property. A conservation grant allowed for 7,000 trees to be planted. Grassland birds, mallards, teals, wood ducks and Canada geese nest here, and migrating Merganzers, buffleheads and ring-necked ducks stop here during their spring migrations.

Mary Eldrett says she's pleased the property will be preserved into the future. "It means a lot, because having spent over 30 years trying to develop it, I would feel terrible if a developer came along and just put a whole bunch of houses out here or a shopping center and took this all away from these animals that are here," she said. "They need someplace to live. With all the development that we've got going on in the North Country, we've gotta save a little bit for the animals, too."

Mary and her sister get their love of nature from their childhood. The Eldretts grew up in Saranac Lake at the end of a street by a woods. Their father loved birds and fed the chipmunks, so the girls just grew to love nature “automatically,” she said.

Now they're hoping Downybrook can help future generations grow to love nature just as they have.

"This is a good time right now for the birds, because there are a lot of birds singing around, and there must be 15, 20 different birds out here. We don't know what they all are yet, but you can hear 'em."

An inventory of the wildlife at Downybrook and a management plan are in the works, thanks to grants from the Land Trust Alliance and the Community Foundation of Northern New York. Expanded public access to the property also is planned.

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