Schenck’s Island is a unique spot in Wilton—17 acres of undeveloped land in the middle of the more dense commercial Wilton Center, it’s a parcel owned by the town, which maintains it in conjunction with the Wilton Land Trust. It’s home to multiple species of birds, wildlife and vegetation and it’s a great spot for dog walkers, hikers, birdwatchers, and picnickers as well as anglers who fish along the banks of the Norwalk River on the western and southern edges of the space.
People can live in town for years without even knowing there’s an open space parcel across River Rd. from the Kimco-owned, Stop & Shop Plaza. The only access to the parking area at the northern end is via a sparsely-traveled road that’s nicknamed the “Bridge to Nowhere,” because it dead-ends after crossing over the Norwalk River. The foliage running alongside the western edge of Schenck’s Island is dense enough to keep it essentially hidden from view.
However, the town recently has started a modification project at Schenck’s Island and many plants and trees have been removed at the northernmost corner, directly across from the Stop & Shop Parking lot. It’s a jarring sight for those who don’t know what the project entails or why it’s being done. But the project is only part of the way through; for people worried that so much vegetation has been removed, the plan also includes significant replanting.
According to Mike Conklin, Wilton’s director of environmental affairs, the project is meant to encourage more usage and interaction with the open space in Wilton Center, and address some ecological issues at play in the area.
“The purpose of the project is to provide the public with a refuge area in Wilton Center, where residents can enjoy the Norwalk River and the surrounding areas, and it will also enhance the overall plant species biodiversity and the ecology of the area. It will also improve the esthetic value of the property along River Rd.,” Conklin says.
For some time, the town has been examining ways to manage the invasive plant species around the Norwalk River at Schenck’s Island. These invasive plants are predominantly shrubs that are typically non-native, or not originally from Connecticut. They came into CT via seeds brought in by birds or people may have planted them on private property and then animals spread the seeds.
These invasive species are altering the ecosystem for the native plants at Schenck’s Island, says Conklin.
“The invasive species are ‘out-competing’ the native vegetation there for resources like sunlight, water and nutrients, and they can eventually take over an area. What happens is they create a monoculture, where you have one type of plant species throughout an area. When that occurs, you’re reducing the biodiversity of that area,” he explains.
There are invasive plants through much of the land parcel; those in the meadow are managed by the Land Trust. Now the Land Trust has asked the town to take over managing the problem in the areas outside of the meadow—in the wooded areas and along the Norwalk River. Conklin was tasked with coming up with a plan to start to work to reduce the invasive species and control them from spreading.
During the initial stages, Conklin got help from Suzanne Knutson, a Wilton resident who is a landscape designer and a member of the Wilton Garden Club. She volunteered and donated her services to the town’s efforts, designing the landscaping and areas that will be replanted. Plans were reviewed by the Conservation Commission and the Inland Wetland Commission, which needed to issue a permit for the work.
There are four areas that plan addresses along the river.
“The idea is not to try to remove all of the invasive species at one time. We’re starting with smaller areas where we can remove the invasive species, plant native species and then manage it over time, to keep the invasive plants from coming back, with the hope that in the future we’ll be able to work on different areas of the river in the coming years.”
Following regulations about removing mature trees over a certain size, each of the trees targeted for removal were marked with signs ahead of time announcing that they’d be removed. Installing new trees is a major part of the project.
“Specifically the area across from Stop & Shop—ultimately we’re planning to install 22 new trees in that area this spring, as well as a variety of shrubs, in order to create more of a park-like setting, and more of a landscaped area for people to enjoy, but still increasing plant biodiversity along the river,” he explains. “That will insure long-term sustainability, provide higher-value habitat for wildlife and birds, while still allowing people to really enjoy the river.”
In fact, Conklin says he hopes people now will be able to “interact directly with the river” at that spot, because the riverbanks there are less steep than at the majority of the riverfront in Schenck’s Island.
He is targeting the first week of June for the installation of the new trees, although all the work is weather-dependent.
There are three other focus areas, along River Rd. where more invasive shrubs are being removed and replaced with lower-growing vegetation, a type of tall grass called sedge.
In another spot there are three weeping willow trees, approximately 12 feet in size, that are being planted on the eastern riverbank of the Norwalk River south of Stop & Shop’s property and north of the footbridge that spans the Norwalk River. They were donated to the effort by a Wilton resident, and will be transplanted from a private Wilton residence. Once established the willow trees will provide shade for the Norwalk River, increase stream bank stabilization with their root systems and add to the aesthetic appeal of the park.
Much of the material, including the plants, trees and seeding, is being funded through private donations to the town. The labor to prepare the land and install the plantings, as well as maintenance, will be done through Wilton’s Public Works Department.
Conklin hopes people understand that the work being done is necessary to maintain the health of the natural space there.
“The hope is that we’ll be successful, and use this plan as a model to remove more and more invasive species along the river, and really enhance the overall riparian buffer of the river,” Conklin says.
Sometime in the fall, there will be some dead ash trees on the eastern side of the river removed and replaced with new trees. In the past, when dead trees have been removed, not many were replaced. Conklin says his department is working with Trout Unlimited to get new trees planted there now.
He understands not everyone may be happy to see some of the vegetation disappear, and he says anyone with questions or criticisms are welcome to get in touch with him.
“It’s important if someone has an opinion they’d like to express to me, they can contact my office, either by picking up the phone (203.563.0180) or sending an email.” Along those lines, people who want to help by making donations to the project can also reach out to Conklin or the first selectman’s office.
Above all, he hopes residents see that the project is meant to serve both an environmental purpose as well as a municipal one.
“This project and future projects will enhance the vitality of Wilton Center, and really encourage people to not just visit Wilton Center but stay for a while.”