The Great Marsh will be in the spotlight on Saturday, as Mass Audubon opens a new sanctuary in collaboration with Essex County Greenbelt and helps “Curious George” viewers learn about salt marsh ecology.
In Rowley, officials will celebrate the opening of the new Rough Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary on the marsh, following the $2.37 million purchase late last year of a key 75-acre parcel of marsh and wooded upland.
Rough Meadows consists of that parcel plus 125 acres donated to Mass Audubon in 2007 by the late professor Alfred D. Chandler, along with several adjacent parcels of marshland owned by the Essex County Greenbelt Association, for about 250 acres.
The sanctuary will be managed cooperatively by Mass Audubon and the Greenbelt to maximize the impact of a confusing patchwork of holdings. “Think of it as a quilt,’’ says Mass Audubon's Bill Gette, sanctuary director at Audubon's Joppa Flats Education Center in Newburyport.
Rough Meadows sits east of Route 1A, off Stackyard and Patmos roads and just south of Mud Creek. It includes roughly 2 miles of dirt trails and boardwalks and a small parking lot off Patmos Road.
That infrastructure was installed as part of about $500,000 in work, which also included demolition of a dilapidated barn once used for salt marsh hay and other outbuildings. A house and grounds on Route 1A were excluded from the purchase.
“Seven or eight years ago, we embarked on a completely new approach to land conservation here, a much more proactive approach” said Bob Wilber, Mass Audubon's director of land protection.
“As opposed to responding to proposed development or someone offering to give us or sell us a piece of land, we sat back and used the best available data to identify the properties that we most wanted to protect,’’ he said.
In addition to targeting land themselves, they joined with Essex County Greenbelt. “Rough Meadows is a great example of the collaborative approach to land conservation we are using in this region,” said Ed Becker, Greenbelt executive director. “Greenbelt is excited to partner with Mass Audubon in the conservation of this incredible parcel.”
The state Department of Conservation and Recreation will acquire a conservation easement on the property, to be co-held with the town and Greenbelt.
The 75 acres was originally slated for development into as many as 10 house lots, Wilber said, but the project ran into money problems. Mass Audubon worked with the developers and their bank to win time to raise money for the purchase.
Milestones included $1 million from federal wetlands conservation funds and $250,000 from Rowley Community Preservation Act funds. “It was very heartwarming to see that,” said Wilber. “They needed very little encouragement.”
In addition to wildlife and recreation, the upland area could be key to the future under global warming, Wilber said: “As the sea comes up, that provides a platform for that critical salt marsh system to be able to migrate inland and continue in existence, as opposed to just getting flooded out if there were a parking lot behind it.”
Various officials will thank donors at a 3 p.m. ceremony at Rough Meadows, after which everyone will be turned loose on the trails. Audubon officials say more parcels may yet be added to Rough Meadows.
Meanwhile, a member of the Joppa Flats center staff will play host to “Curious George.” The animated monkey from the PBS show won't be there, but a camera crew will be, to film one of the live-action segments on the show, which airs on WGBH-TV (Channel 2) in Boston.
Audubon teacher-naturalist Lisa Hutchings will be out on the marsh, teaching the show's young actors about the importance of that salt marsh ecosystem in the grand scheme of nature.
“I'm a big fan of the show already,” said Hutchings. “I have a 5-year-old, and we watch it together.” In fact, her son Danny and his big sister Abby, 8, will also be part of the segment.
“There are a couple of activities we can do to show them how rich in life and marine life the salt marsh is,” Hutchings said. “One thing is, we're going to bring binoculars to show them how the salt marsh is a very important resting and feeding place for many different species of birds. We're going to look for great blue herons and egrets and shorebirds.
“The second thing is, we're going to go down to the low marsh. That's the part that gets covered by water during high tide, and we're going to set a fish trap and try to catch some minnows, which are one of the most common small fish that feed a lot of the larger animals that visit this habitat,” she said.
Hutchings made TV appearances in her previous job at the New England Aquarium and says that while she and her kids are excited to be on the show, they have it in perspective.
“Luckily, Danny understands the show. He knows that I'm not going to be animated and he's not going to meet Curious George,” she said.
An air date has not been announced, she said.