With a bit of help, turtles get highway to freedom at Smiley's Pond

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EGREMONT — Life always finds a way, but sometimes a bit of help is needed.

People gathered at Smiley's Pond, also known to some as Mill Pond, on a recent Wednesday, to help uncover a solution in order to prevent turtles from drowning on their way to the pond from Hubbard Brook.

Representatives of state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and Department of Transportation, herpatologist Sarah Barnum, and state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, gathered at the site to tackle the ongoing turtle crossing problem at the bridge, that features a dam underneath, connecting the Brook and Pond.

"We have nothing to copy so we have to try to invent something," said Pignatelli, who is also the House chairman of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture. "We have to be protective of our natural species, whatever it may be, and give them access to migrate safely."

To get to the pond to lay eggs, turtles try to make it across the rocks, but often get caught up in debris and drown or get swept away by water off the dam. A combination bridge and dam was installed years ago on Route 41 and featured a ramp specially built for the turtles.

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But in 2017, Ari Zorn, who lives near the pond, discovered that the ramp wasn't working. Turtles are struggling to get up the current ramp, especially when covered with wood and debris.

"I've been [working to fix the dam] for two-plus years," said Zorn, who has saved drowning turtles at the dam on multiple occasions. "This water is some of the purest water you'll find; that is why you have animals coming here. I want to protect the entire thing."

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Different ideas brought to the table included a mesh fence for turtles to climb up, a pipe-like hole they can crawl through and a ramp that is much easier to climb, which also funnels all turtles safely to the pond.

"That is what makes this job exciting; community minded people and state officials who want to find a solution," Pignatelli said."My dad used to say 'Talk to as many people as possible, some may have ideas you have not thought of,' " he said of his father, John Pignatelli, a towering figure in Berkshire politics for many years. "Having a collective meeting with different minds really allows us to throw things against the wall."

Zorn, who created the Friends of Smiley's Pond Facebook page, not only alerted Pignatelli to this issue, but has made it a goal to keep the pond, and the creatures who use it, safe.

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"The fact that we're all showing up together has a feel of community, especially seeing all these people who actually care," Zorn said. "It is about saving something and involving people and focusing on something positive we don't have to fight over. There was a lot of progress made today and it was a big step toward where we need to be."

There is opportunity to experiment at the bridge as the migration period takes place for a month starting in early-to-mid June. For those involved, the next few months are about making a plan that could be tested and monitored sometime in the fall. From there, they'll have until June to find the money and permits needed to create the safe crossing.

"I am a nature enthusiast and have been since the day I was born," Zorn said. "Honestly, with all the bad news and politics, I wanted to do something to take my mind off of it all.

"I've played a lot of sports and have won games and championships," he said. "None of that has ever felt better than saving something in this world — that is what this is all about and I decided that is what I wanted to do."

Jake Mendel can be reached at jmendel@berkshireeagle.com, at @JMendel94 on Twitter and 413-496-6252.


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