Shirley Nichols - Darien Land Trust Director retires after 14 years

After 14 years as the executive director of the Darien Land Trust, Shirley Nichols will be stepping away from the day-to-day operations of the organization. She will continue to work with the DLT as a trustee emeritus and will assist Beth Harmon, the new executive director, with the transition starting in September.

Land Trust President Flip Huffard made the announcement during the Land Trust’s fourth annual Farm to Table dinner on Aug. 25, held on the DLT’s Waterbury Field preserve. Having earned a masters in environmental sustainability from the University of Reading in England, Nichols has always been committed to preserving nature. Nichols joined the Land Trust in 2004 as her children were entering high school and has worked as the sole staff member with a 24-member volunteer board.

Originally founded in 1960, the Darien Land Trust takes responsibility for the preservation of open space in Darien, a town that is 97% developed. Under her stewardship the Land Trust added 59 acres of undeveloped land, increasing the Land Trust’s preserves to a total of 217 acres across Darien.

Beyond simply protecting this open space, Nichols has worked with board members, volunteers and dozens of local organizations to enrich the environment and promote community engagement with nature. During her tenure she worked with the board to revise the Land Trust’s mission with a new focus on the preservation of natural habitats and educational opportunities for children and adults of all ages.

The organization’s current mission statement reads, “The Darien Land Trust permanently preserves and restores open space, providing the community with environmentally rich habitats, scenic vistas, opportunities for educational experiences and the quiet enjoyment of nature.”

During her time as executive director Nichols said the organization has shifted its own stewardship practices to promote a healthier ecosystem around its preserves. In pursuit of that mission, Nichols launched a number of successful initiatives, often partnering with other organizations both locally and at the state level. The Land Trust recently celebrated the completion of the Noroton River fishway in April after several years of partnership with the Connecticut Fund for the Environment’s Save the Sound Program.

Save the Sound approached the Darien Land Trust in 2011 to help open a fishway at a culvert near the Stamford-Darien border. Redesigning the culvert, which connects with the Darien Land Trust’s Olson Woods property, was the key step in re-opening a 6.8-mile stretch of the river for migratory fish.

“As an organization we’ve learned to look after our land in a more environmentally compelling fashion, so we actually have living landscapes for pollinators and birds that are migrating through.”

Among the Land Trusts preserves Nichols said she is particularly fond of Mather Meadows, and often visits the space to admire the birds, butterflies and insects. In 2015, the Land Trust held an exhibit at the Darien Nature Center for a photography exhibit called Our Meadows Alive and Buzzing, showcasing local pollinators visiting the preserve. This year the land trust was able to replace 10 dying trees with red maples, refreshing the space for decades to come.

“That was really rewarding to me, to know that those trees will be there for the next 100 years,” Nichols said. “We’re in the business of forever. Stuff we do will always be here, no matter what happens. Things change, zoning laws change, people’s way of living will change, but as long as there are stewards of the property and people willing to step up and help, those 217 acres will always be open space.”

The Land Trust has also been able to provide variety of hands-on educational opportunities for kids. A few years ago when Darien Public Schools chose to defund school field trips, Nichols decided to invite the district’s second graders to have an annual field day at several of the Land Trust’s preserves. Though the first year was piloted and funded by the Land Trust, the field trip was adopted into the public school budget the next year for all elementary schools.

Nichols also launched a Trails Discovery Day in Dunlap Woods, giving young people a chance to participate in a 1.5-mile treasure hunt with different stations along the path. Each station was operated by a volunteer expert who helps hikers witness and understand the different wildlife living around the preserve. During the winter months, the Nichols worked with the Darien Library to host environmentally-focused films.

Nichols was appreciative of all of the local organizations she has worked with in Darien, from the Board of Selectmen, Planning & Zoning Department and the town assessor in Town Hall, to the Eco-citizens club at Darien High School, volunteers from Whole Foods and everyone else in-between. Nichols thanked the 24-member board of the Land Trust for giving her the opportunity to serve the community through the years.

“I’ve been privileged to work with really amazing people who have given so much time and energy voluntarily, to keep these open spaces viable, significant and healthy. It’s always been an honor and a privilege to work for them.”

Though she will no longer be involved with the day-to-day operations of the Land Trust, Nichols will continue to serve on the Steering Committee of the Connecticut Land Conservation Council, which advocates for land trusts across the state. Nichols will spend her new free time doing more travelling and is already planning to participate in a service project next year in Cambodia. As she steps away from her role as executive director she repeated a quote from anthropologist and author Margaret Mead.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”