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Retired Ironworker Creates Wildlife Habitat
John Sferazo, a retired local 361 Ironworker from Brooklyn, N.Y., was a first responder in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy. Working amidst the devastation alongside fire fighters, police officers, reservists, national guardsmen and fellow union members, Sferazo suffered psychological and physical afflictions, including the loss of much of his breathing.
But adversity hasn’t slowed Sferazo. Instead it spurred his personal mission to secure medical compensation for those who risked their health and safety after 9/11 and to create the number one rated wildlife improvement program in Maine, which he opened to disabled veterans and responders for hunting.
"As an Ironworker who has worked in any kind of inclement weather doing work nobody else wants to do-going up hundreds of feet in the air attached to some imaginary sky hook-why would I give up when 37% of my breathing has been taken from me?" Sferazo said.
The year before the twin towers fell, Sferazo purchased a parcel of land in Maine known as Owen’s Marsh. A former asphalt plant, the site had gone through some reclamation including the construction of a dam, which created a deep water marsh. Five weeks after Sferazo purchased the property, the dam breeched, releasing 73 acres or a "wall of water" as described by a newspaper delivery man who scarcely avoided the rushing water.
"I can’t explain the amount of waterfowl-ducks, herons, egrets-utilizing this body of water," Sferazo said. "So the breech ripped my heart out. The reason I purchased the property went down the highway, more or less."
Thus began Sferazo’s work reclaiming the site. Because the topsoil had been washed away, he first worked with his contacts at the State University of New York, where he earned an environmental sciences degree, to secure organic matter. He then planted flora that only exists today in small pockets of Maine, such as Swamp White Oak and the American Chestnut, which provide a good food source for wildlife.
When Sferazo began his reclamation work, the land across the highway was being harvested heavily for hardwoods, a mass food source for the local deer herd. Sferazo saw an opportunity to establish a feed area on his land by planting wintergreens and other winter food sources for the deer and other browsers like moose and the snowshoe rabbit. By providing quality forage for prey species, Sferazo also benefited bobcat, the Canada lynx and other predators.
Sferazo even took advantage of nuisance beavers, allowing the Department of Fish and Wildlife to release them on his property. "Why are they a nuisance? Because they dam up bodies of water close to the road and cause floods," Sferazo said.
"I wanted these little convicts on my property because they’re going to do their job-build dams. Dams contain a body of water, which provides habitat for birds, moose and other animals."
With funding from the Farm Bill and help from experts including Kevin White with the National Resource Conservation Service, Chuck Hulsey with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Dr. Craig Ferris with Ducks Unlimited, Doug Little with the National Wildlife Turkey Federation, Ron Joseph with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Paul Karzmarczyk with The Ruffed Grouse Society, and Glen Rae with The American Chestnut Tree Foundation, Sferazo established the number one rated wildlife improvement program in Maine. His land is now on its way to becoming a wildlife improvement showcase facility for all of New England.
By creating quality habitat, Sferazo also created better opportunities to harvest game. In conjunction with the Pine Grove Program, which aids American heroes and their families that have survived man-made or natural disasters through nature therapy, Sferazo opened his property to disabled veterans and first responders.
"It gives them the edge they need because of their disability, such as being confined to a wheelchair," he said.
According to Sferazo, the recovery effort of 9/11 left terrible scarring in his mind and of all those involved. "What we’re doing through Pine Grove is giving these people the opportunity to let the pressure valve go off" through time spent outdoors.
"If you look at the people who were at the world trade center…they were cops, firemen, national guard, construction trades. What do they have in common - Union. That’s why it was so important for me to get in touch with the TRCP ; you represent union people," Sferazo said. "My hope, my prayer is that I’ll have enough breath left in my lungs to perpetuate this program and create a memorial dedicated to all those who got involved in the aftermath of 9/11.