In Land We Trust
What does it take to preserve our land?
Stephen G. Donaldson
Look out over your nearest vista, along the distinctive ridgelines that define the Berkshire landscape—forests, wetlands, valleys, open meadows, and working farms—and it’s likely you’re looking at preserved land.
This is no accident. Our landscape has been shaped by massive collaborative regional and local efforts. Ahead of the curve, the Berkshires is arguably home of the first land trust, the Laurel Hill Association in Stockbridge, founded in the Victorian era. Later, during the Great Depression, the state bought up large tracts of farmland for only five dollars per acre. Today, a staggering amount of land—33 percent of the Berkshires—is permanently protected from development, and as much as 75 percent is protected in some of our more rural towns.
Never simple to achieve, good land use balances conservation with development, sustaining both the environmental and economic health of a community. Without our landscape, the Berkshires would not be the distinctive place it is. More important, it would not remain so.
What does it take to preserve our land?
“No two conservation plans are alike,” says Kathy Orlando, Sheffield Land Trust’s executive director of land protection. Land trusts often work with families to help them realize a unique vision for their land. This often takes the form of a conservation restriction, where the state buys the development rights. Once in place, restrictions on land use can be modified to preserve specific attributes of each site, whether it’s working farmland, well-managed forest, clean water in a stream, accessibility of a view, a species habitat, or an historical feature. The restriction can also include education and recreation for the community, including hiking trails. And it may set aside a house lot for the owners to live on or rent, while the rest of the property is preserved for posterity.
Money to buy development rights or land outright comes from private or agency funding or, oftentimes, a combination of both. Essential players may be the municipalities, the state, or other important regional agencies, such as the Nature Conservancy, the Trustees of Reservations, and the Audubon Society. The key negotiators oftentimes are town and regional land trusts because they have vested interests and deep ties in the community.
Most recently, a grant of up to $850,000 has been awarded by the state with the goal to preserve about 1,400 acres in Otis and Tyringham, on the Berkshire Plateau.
Nat Karns, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, readily admits that there are tensions every time towns discuss land use. Some say conservation increases taxes on homeowners while making land less available. Preserved land does bring in tax dollars, albeit less than developed land, but it also demands considerably less services. Studies such as those from the American Farmland Trust and Williams College show that open space costs towns less. As one land-trust director puts it, “Cows don’t go to school.”
A large amount of preserved acreage runs along unbuildable ridgelines and wetlands. This kind of open space makes the Berkshires attractive to residents and to tourists, bringing tremendous revenue into the local economy. Karns sees land conservation as a balance between sometimes competing interests, ultimately benefiting all engaged in the process.
Keeping the Farmland
The preservation of 630 acres atop Baldwin Hill in Egremont was 18 years in the making. It involved three farm families and was spearheaded by Berkshire Natural Resources Council (BNRC), a pioneering land conservancy dating from 1967 that now owns 8,512 acres. That land is open for public enjoyment, including many hiking trails and a diverse landscape, from riverfront to ridgeline. Additionally, the council protects another 10,045 acres through conservation reserves.
The Baldwin Hill project began under founding director George Wislocki and was completed last year under current director Tad Ames. The BNRC worked with the land’s dairy farm owners—first the Turners and later the Proctors and Burdsalls—to facilitate the preservation of this summit and its breathtaking 365-degree views.
The Proctor family came to Baldwin Hill in 1958 after leaving their dairy farm in Lunenbuerg, Massachusetts, for a larger tract of farmable land. After the scion of the Proctor family died, his son, Charles, with wife Ellen and their son Rhett, continued to farm the land. Because it is now preserved, the land will always be used agriculturally, whether for dairy cows or strawberry growing.
That guarantee came after the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources bought the development rights, paying over $6 million. The three dairy-farming families covered a large part of the local share with “bargain sales” that generously sold the land for less than the appraised value. The balance of $150,000 was raised by the BNRC and the Egremont Land Trust.
“You have to give lots of credit to Tad Ames, he worked long and hard on this project,” says Charles Proctor. “I see what we come from in Lunenberg and how the houses have encroached on the farmland, so that it’s 90 percent gone, and I don’t want that to happen again.”
Piecing Together an Historic Ridgeline
One of Ames’s favorite hikes is the Hoosac Ridge in North Adams, which he can see from his house. It’s a dramatic ridgeline, where you can spot snow year round. Pieced together in six separate land acquisitions that the BNRC made over three years at a cost of $1.1 million, Hoosac Ridge totals 730 acres.
It covers linear miles of ridgeline, extending from Route 2 (Mohawk Trail) to Spruce Hill in the Savoy Mountain State Forest. The BNRC subsequently sold a conservation restriction over the entirety to the state’s Division of Conservation & Recreation for about $340,000 so it can never be developed.
In 2011, the BNRC built a three-mile hiking trail for the public that winds along the ridgeline through several rugged rock faces. It’s well designed, allowing hikers to look up, rather than constantly down at their feet. The BNRC schedules regular hikes here, but most visitors take the trail on their own.
Families with small children or those looking for a short interlude can take a quick hike—a little over a mile, round-trip—and get great satisfaction when they reach the first vista. Heartier hikers can continue on through the BNRC trail connecting Savoy Mountain State Forest, where there’s a view of three states from Spruce Hill. The trail doubles as a section of the 100-mile Mahican-Mohawk Trail, an ongoing project recreating the traditional Native American travel route from the Hudson River to the Deerfield River.
Educating Future Land Stewards
A “poor man’s” dairy farm built in the early 19th-century, Sheep Hill, with its sweeping views, is home to Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation (WRLF). Today, this 50-acre property, about a mile outside of Williamstown, “is a place that reflects what we do,” says Leslie Reed-Evans, the foundation’s executive director. Sheep Hill’s offices, educational centers, and hiking trails provide the community with the tangible pleasure that comes from land conservation.
To some extent, wealth and community generosity have driven much of the conservation in the Berkshires, and Sheep Hill is no exception. It was purchased in 2000 with a private loan of $550,000, after which the foundation was able to raise close to $1 million from members and other community members to repay the loan and renovate the farm.
While WRLF acquires, facilitates, and manages conserved properties in the town, its educational programs are an essential part of its work. “There’s hardly a childhood picture without me holding a shell, flower, or a critter,” says Reed-Evans, who feels strongly about the importance of early nature education in land conservation.
Young children join her preschool nature classes and after-school Woodchuck Wednesdays. Sheep Hill’s summer program teaches mapping and compass-making. Kids scavenge-hunt for types of leaves, cook on an outdoor oven, and lift “bug boards” to see what is underneath. The property also includes a kitchen for teaching, a gathering place for events, two large barns, and a nature cabin. Once a rundown farm with a rich history, Sheep Hill has been reinvented in a way that makes the area’s rural heritage, as well as finding pleasure in nature, relevant to the next generation of land stewards.
Engaging the Community
In keeping with the trend to engage communities in conservation, the vigorous Sheffield Land Trust is working with local school children to replace a bridge over Schenob Brook. Once completed, it will connect two preserved parcels, making them usable for planned hiking trails, which will be open to the public. The land, totaling 20 acres, includes forest, wetlands, upland, and rare species.
Students have walked across the bridge to go to school for generations. Now they’re preserving the surrounding land by making it accessible once more. They’ve created a vernal pool, pulled out invasive plants, and even sought out proper permitting—so that generations from now, their children’s children can enjoy the land.
What can you do? Take advantage of the many hikes and workshops available on protected land, and bring family and friends along. Join one of the many organizations that protects our landscape. Preserve specific tracts that are dear to you and your community, and pay attention to land use in your community. Become active in your town by joining a planning board, conservation or agricultural commission— or simply by speaking out at a town meeting.
The following is a list of land conservation organizations, all town-based, with the exception of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, a regional organization. You can also go to the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission’s website, sustainableberkshires.org, and sign up for their email notifications.
Alford Land Trust, alfordlandtrust.org
Becket Land Trust, becketlandtrust.org
Berkshire Natural Resources Council, bnrc.net
Egremont Land Trust, egremontlandtrust.org
Great Barrington Land Conservancy, greatbarringtonlandconservancy.org
Great Barrington River Walk, gbriverwalk.org
Lee Land Trust, 413-143-2097
Lenox Land Trust, lenoxlandtrust.org
Monterey Preservation Land Trust, 413-528-6609, Jonathan Sylbert
New Marlborough Land Preservation Trust, 413-229-7738, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Richmond Land Trust, richmondlandtrust.org
Sheffield Land Trust, sheffieldland.org
Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation, wrlf.org