Operations director dedicated to bringing New England bird sanctuary back to life
Amanda Learned has lived in the beachside New England town of Milford, Connecticut, for 12 of her 23 years at Maximus. Working from home as operations director of Maximus's U.S. Health team has been a wonderful treat for her since she has one of the best views in the company – 14 acres of land on the peaceful Long Island Sound and nearby Charles Island. But what was once a lush, forested bird sanctuary is now recovering from ecological disasters.
We spoke with Learned about her work with the Charles Island Reforestation Project and what her community is doing to save this local natural gem.
So, what's it like living in a beach town?
Amanda Learned: We're in Long Island Sound, so it's beautiful. Whenever I get stressed, I take a nice walk down to the beach, take a couple of calls on my phone, and walk around.
What makes Charles Island so special to you and your community?
Amanda Learned: It is a particularly sensitive ecological area that serves as one of the few remaining breeding colonies of herons in Connecticut. It is also a nesting area for the snowy egret and glossy ibis. It was designated both a Natural Area Preserve in 1999 and a Long Island Sound Stewardship Site in 2006 by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) due to its significant wildlife and coastal resources. It also has been designated an Important Bird Area by Audubon Connecticut.
And what's interesting about Charles Island is not only is it a bird sanctuary but there's so much folklore around it, too. There are books about Captain Kidd burying his "booty" out there and how he had a girlfriend in town. It's just a cool story.
What made you want to get involved with the Charles Island Reforestation Project?
Amanda Learned: I love just being outdoors. I'm from New Hampshire, so I always loved the lakes, always trying to keep the lakes nice and clean. I love gardening.
My husband is from here, so he used to tell me how gorgeous it was, just how many big trees, and how it was so lush. Hurricanes Sandy and Irene, a couple of super storms that we had, decimated the area. It's sad when you look at the island; the trees are just gone.
After talking about it with some friends, I decided that I wanted to do something to help. There was already an organization helping to reforest the area. I found the guy who started the project. He had one of the cottages down on the waterside. One day, he and his brother were having cocktails and noticed the ecosystem looked terrible. They did all the paperwork to create a 501(c)(3) and started it about two months before I joined.
How does your group approach reforestation on Charles Island?
Amanda Learned: We're working with Connecticut DEEP so that we're doing it correctly. Some of the towns around us spray to keep the invasive vegetation down. We chose not to because of the herons, the egrets, and the waterway. In the summertime, you'll see all the boats tied up around this island, and I'm one of those people who like to float in the water, and I don't want to float around in pesticides.
We only want to plant native trees like sassafras, basswood, red cedar, red maple, American sycamore, and bitternut hickory. Our goal was to plant 1,000 trees. Last year, we planted about 300, and this year, we planted about 400. By next year we might be done with this project.
Is the reforestation project a big community effort?
Amanda Learned: Milford is just so quaint. It's so New England, as I put it, that everybody wants to donate money. The donations go to the state nursery and the state florist. A little tree is like 50 bucks, and they buy as many as possible. We have one of the boats down here that donates the boat services, donates the time, and gets us out to the island with our little shovels.
The volunteers come from all different walks of life. There are usually seven to 10 people who go out to do the plantings, but there are about 20 people overall. It's really fun meeting other people from the town. There has been so much interest from the local neighbors and some small businesses—they want to see it built up.
What challenges has your group faced in helping save the island's habitat?
Amanda Learned: When we got out there, we found that there was an invasive weed out there. It's called the "mile-a-minute." No matter what we planted, that was going to go and suffocate all the trees. We go out there several times a year and hand—pull the weed because we don't use pesticides.
We put up some fencing around the island, too, because we realized that the deer—even though it's an island—know how to swim and go out to the island and eat.
After you plant 1,000 trees, what's next?
Amanda Learned: We'll still be going out there, especially pulling the mile-a-minute. We know that the deer will get out there, so we'll go back to fix those fences. God forbid another superstorm comes. It's a losing battle with Mother Nature, but we'll go on and fix storm damage.
To learn more about the Charles Island Reforestation Project and support Learned and her community in preserving this natural location, visit the Charles Island Reforestation Facebook page.