PORTSMOUTH - Dense stands of red maple trees line a series of narrow hiking trails. Two short-haired brown rabbits converge nearby, keeping a watchful eye on a small group of hikers from the Melville Park Committee and members of the Raytheon Employee Wildlife Habitat Committee. "Eisenhower's golf tee," (also known as the water tower in simpler terms) is the lone reminder of the corporate world.
This small but unique wilderness is located within the secure grounds of Raytheon's Portsmouth plant - the only company in the state with a certified wildlife habitat on its premises. Today, the 175-acre property is home to countless plant and animal species, and offers a tranquil escape for employees and the public.
The corporate initiative began in 1999 with the help of former employee Henry Mutter, before he relocated to the west coast. Mr. Mutter was instrumental in establishing Raytheon trails and habitats in Portsmouth and elsewhere. Certification from the Wildlife Habitat Council followed in 2001.
"People come here with their laptops sometimes for meetings, probably because it's the spot farthest from the building," said Raytheon engineer William Saslow, who manages the habitat with 11 other company volunteers.
The wooded habitat is situated on the southern end of the property behind Raytheon's Nimitz building and is one of three Raytheon wildlife habitats (the others are in Virginia and Texas). The site boasts more than three miles of wooded trails that are home to a variety of plant and animal species.
But some species are better enjoyed from afar.
"This here is a poison ivy tree, so we have to be very careful about which trees we hug around here," Mr. Saslow said while leading a group who oversees Melville Park.
James Garman, of the Melville Park Committee, said the group came out to examine Raytheon's trails and get a tutorial from the wildlife experts. The committee is in the midst of establishing and maintaining their own woodland trails at Melville.
According to Raytheon environmentalist, Brenda Bibb, the trails are home to deer, possum, coyotes, and falcons - among other bird and animal species.
"We think we even have a fisher, but he's very shy. And, we have chipmunks who are not all that common on the island," Ms. Bibb said.
Taking a gander at geese
Not every animal on Raytheon grounds is of a living, breathing species, however.
A pack of motionless coyotes peppers the property, often prompting a startled second glance from visitors.
Before the 16 'coyotes' were placed at their posts, employees couldn't even sit down at a company picnic without staining their work clothes with geese droppings.
The archery targets were added in hopes of driving away some throngs of visiting geese. They outsmart many of the migratory geese, but not the locals, which have by now have figured the targets as phonies, thanks to some persistent pecking.
"As much as everyone laughs at them and make fun of them, I still think they're effective," Ms. Bibb said.
The idea came to a Raytheon employee after he read in Audubon magazine about a golf course that successfully controlled geese with the decoys.
An asylum for the ages
The habitat is also home to a little piece of Portsmouth history.
The Poor Farm Ramble trail is one of eight trails roaming through Raytheon woods. But this trail offers unique insight into one of the town's more forgettable periods of history - The Portsmouth Asylum.
Pieces of the asylum's foundation are all that remain.
"If you were poor you came to the farm to live in conditions that were pretty abominable," Mr. Saslow said.
The town sent its elderly, disabled or disadvantaged to the farm in the 1800s and these unfortunates were often held in solitary confinement with just bread and water. Those diagnosed 'insane' were typically kept in chains and were reportedly subject to attack while deep in slumber.
The asylum's conditions helped prompt Rhode Island to pass legislation in 1851 that required institutions to shape up and implement humane methods for treating the mentally ill.
Going into their fifth year, the interpretive trails strive to promote environmental awareness among Raytheon employees and the greater community, the Raytheon caretakers say. Guided tours are available to the public upon request.
"The company fully supports us, but this is really an employee led volunteer program," Mr. Saslow added.
by jason turcotte
Copyright © 2003, The East Bay Newspapers