Finding the balance between nature’s rhythms and modern living can prove a challenge, but the effort to reach reasonable accommodation between the two is worth it.
A case in point — and a source of local pride and some national notice — has been the effort spearheaded by the Harris Center for Conservation Education in Hancock to marshal volunteers to help protect salamanders and other amphibians in their nocturnal migrations to return to their breeding wetlands. Each spring, as the ground thaws, warming temperatures and rainy nights cue salamanders, frogs and peepers to head to the same vernal pools where they were born. Sadly, instincts evolved over thousands of years don’t help them skirt such recent, man-made hazards as roadways, and during the annual journey large numbers can be wiped out by passing vehicles.
In Keene, a particularly popular migration route has meant amphibians crossing North Lincoln Street adjacent to Woodland Cemetery in large numbers, and in recent years the City Council has granted the Harris Center’s request to close down a portion of the street during a six-week period in March and April for up to six nights when weather conditions indicate a migration is likely.
This has proved a win-win, not only for the protection of the salamanders — which play an important role in the ecosystem as insect predators and as food for other animals and were described in a 2014 New York Times report as among the “white hats” of climate change for their beneficial role in the global carbon cycle — but also for the safety of the volunteers who turn out to help monitor and collect data on the crossing and assure safe passage. And an even further benefit has been the educational one for the children who have accompanied their parents to witness the annual ritual of amphibians heading to or back from their breeding grounds.
Earlier this month, the Harris Center submitted a request to the City Council for approval of a similar temporary closure of North Lincoln Street this spring. Given the success of the city’s proactive role, and aided no doubt by actual volunteering in the effort by several city councilors in past years, the request was unanimously approved by the council’s Municipal Services, Facilities and Infrastructure Committee at its Jan. 22 meeting. This year, though, the Harris Center expanded its request to make the North Lincoln Street temporary closures an ongoing approval that doesn’t require annual council action, and to seek approval of an experimental, temporary two-night closure of Jordan Road, both of which the committee put on hold to allow further city staff input.
Of the two, the request for a temporary Jordan Road closure sparked objection from Police Chief Steven Russo, who voiced safety concerns over the potential closure of that road, which, unlike the annually closed stretch of North Lincoln Street, has houses on it. The chief is, of course, doing his job to raise the concerns. And the committee was right to put the matter on hold, as Russo acknowledged he had only recently learned of the request and hadn’t had an opportunity to discuss the proposal with Assistant Public Works Director Duncan Watson, who has been working with the Harris Center on the request.
We hope and believe there’s a basis for the safety concerns to be adequately addressed in order to test out the more-limited Jordan Road trial closure. That site is an important migration route for the Jefferson salamander, one of the “Species in Greatest Need of Conservation” identified in the state’s Wildlife Action Plan.
Already, in past springs, volunteers have been out at night assisting with amphibian crossings on Jordan Road without the benefit of a more formal plan worked out with the city. And we note that similar safety concerns about the North Lincoln Street crossing were raised by the police in 2008 and the current arrangements there have since proved satisfactory. The alternative to a temporary closure is for the city to install amphibian tunnels. While more effective than temporary road closures, the tunnels can be pricey, with reported cost estimates ranging up to $350,000. It’s certainly worth it to find a way to safely test out a limited temporary Jordan Road closure.