Smithfield woman leaves $6.8 million to Audubon and Nature Conservancy

By Ron Scopelliti

Sometimes the greatest gifts come from the most unexpected places. Such is the case for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, and the Nature Conservancy’s Rhode Island chapter. At the end of January the organizations sent out a joint news release announcing that they are remembered in the will of Smithfield’s Carolyn E. Aust with a bequest of $6.8 million to be split between them.

“It turns out it’s the biggest gift Audubon has ever received in its 118-year history,” says the Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s (ASRI) executive director Lawrence Taft of their $3.4 million share.

ASRI is responsible for 7,000 acres of land across the state, including the 120-acre Powder Mill Ledges Wildlife Refuge on Sanderson Road in Smithfield, which also houses the society’s headquarters.

“This kind of came out of the blue,” Taft says of the bequest. He says that Aust had never been a member of the Audubon Society, and that the first he’d heard of her was when her bank called to let the society know Aust remembered the organization in her will.

He says the bequest will be used to establish the “Clifford R. Aust, Carolyn E. Aust, and Thomas B. Capron Fund,” named after Mrs. Aust, her husband, and her brother. The principal of the fund won’t be touched, and the income will be used in accordance with the language of her will.

“It seemed to me that in her will she really wanted it to be for land protection and management,” Taft says. “That’s why we think it’s an appropriate way to use the proceeds from the funds when they get invested.”

He points out the numerous expenses involved in managing Audubon’s land — costs involved in everyday activities like mowing open fields to maintain them as early successional habitats, maintenance of trails and structures like sheds and boardwalks, and even such mundane expenses as insurance.

He notes that it’s often hard to find funds for such expenses. People are more eager to provide funding for activities like high school field trips, or for the raptors and other animals Audubon cares for and uses in educational programs.

“When you say ‘Oh, we need to maintain our properties,’ people say ‘ho hum,’” Taft says. He also points out that while much of ASRI’s land was donated, most of the land came without any associated funds to maintain it. The Aust Fund will help fill that gap.

“It’s one of those things that really helps us in the long run,” he says. “We are so honored to be entrusted. We are very, very grateful.”

The Nature Conservancy will also establish a similar endowment in Aust’s memory.

“It’s the kind of gift that just keeps giving year after year, and helps sustain the long-term effectiveness of the Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island,” says Terry Sullivan, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Rhode Island chapter.

Sullivan was equally surprised by the gift from Aust.

“She was a longtime donor, just at our membership level,” he says. “She was not someone we would call a major donor.”

He notes that many of the group’s 5,000 members in Rhode Island gift $25 to $50 dollars a month to the Conservancy. He counts Aust among that group. The organization plans to recognize similarly loyal donors as The Aust Society in her memory.

Headquartered on the East Side of Providence, the chapter owns about 10,000 acres of land according to Sullivan, including 70 acres of trails.

While most of the Conservancy’s land is in South County and Sakonnet, or on Block Island, the Lime Rock Preserve in Lincoln is a nearby exception. The 130-acre preserve, created in 1986 features 2.75 miles of hiking trails and is home to 30 rare plant species, according to the Conservancy’s website. Sullivan notes that it also contains traces of a manmade feature – a trolley line that once ran through the property.

In addition to protecting land and fresh water and encouraging people to connect with nature, the Conservancy is involved in coastal and ocean conservation. Sullivan says that part of Aust’s bequest will be used to expand their coastal restoration program and launch new initiatives in the Providence area. In particular, they’re looking to reduce the amount of harmful storm-water runoff flowing into Narragansett Bay and the Providence River by using green infrastructure techniques like rain gardens, holding ponds, and increased green space.

“It’s at the beginning stages,” he says of the initiative, “but some other cities like Washington D.C. are doing this with some effect.”

Although Carolyn Aust was a member of The Nature Conservancy for 20 years, Sullivan says he never had the opportunity to meet her, and knows little about her.

“I never met her; I wish I had,” he says, noting that he learned a little about her, but that she was “a private person, obviously.”

“I’ve learned about her love of nature and of course those are the kind of people I want to know and talk to,” Sullivan says, “so I wish I had been able to meet her in person.”