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Sister Act: Eldretts ensure Downybrook will last forever

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BROWNVILLE – Some 35 years have passed since twins Mary E. and Helen C. Eldrett, 71, began a wildlife preserve to protect the habitats of migrating and nesting waterfowl near their Perch Lake Road home.

While the landscape of the 184-acre Downybrook Wildlife Refuge has changed considerably over the years, the twin sisters' commitment has not withered one bit.

"Some people go out to dinner and out to the movies and spend their money that way. And I guess we just use our time and money on maintaining Downybrook," Mary said.

In 1976, when the two started the nature preserve, it was just open farmland. The Eldretts have since purchased adjacent properties to protect the wetlands around their home, planted 8,000 trees and built five ponds, seven bridges and several trails weaving through meadow and forest at Downybrook.

"We've built all of these bridges by hand and we mow the trails every week," Helen said. "It's a lot of work, but we both love being outdoors with the animals and the trees. It's so peaceful."

Before they retired in 1995 — Mary from teaching fourth grade and Helen from fifth grade at General Brown Central School — the sisters often took their students on field trips to the preserve.

They later opened up Downybrook to anyone who wanted to take a walk through the preserve, which is home to several species of fish, beavers, deer, Canada geese, wild duck and more.

The sisters, who moved to the area from Saranac Lake, also have been creating a field guide for visitors. So far, they have been able to put together three books on different kinds of plants, trees and animals that are found at the preserve.

The sisters now are placing a conservation easement on the property so the Ontario Bays Initiative Land Trust, based in Chaumont, can protect the wildlife habitat "forever."

"We contacted the Ontario Bays Initiative Land Trust and said, 'Would you be interested in our land?' So they came out and took a walk and they fell in love with it," Helen said. "They said, 'You know what you should do is preserve this forever,' and so we started working with them on that. And we're getting something that's called a conservation easement, which means when we're gone they take the land over for free and they manage it exactly the way we've been managing it."

The formal agreement will be signed today after a recent approval by the land trust's 12-member board of directors. Downybrook would be the second-largest easement donation received by Ontario Bays since the all-volunteer land trust was created in 1993, according to a press release from the trust.

In March, Ontario Bays Initiative received a $2,100 Northern New York Community Foundation grant and an $8,250 state Department of Environmental Conservation grant to develop a comprehensive stewardship plan for Downybrook.

The Eldretts, who received initial assistance from DEC and the Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation District to expand and improve the preserve, both said they hope the land trust will be able to secure more grants, the better to take care of Downybrook after they are gone.  

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