Heavily deforested during the Colonial period, New England forests had been rebounding for the last 150 years. But, according to a Harvard Forest Report, reforestation in the region has peaked, and New England is now losing 65 acres of forest to development every day.
In an effort to reverse this trend, local conservation groups, state agencies and landowners often form partnerships to help protect important natural habitats and critical ecological resources. One such endeavor, the Brewer Brook Project, recently succeeded in placing 1,033 acres of important forestland into conservation.
The project, put together by the Hilltown Land Trust, Kestrel Land Trust, and MassWildlife, also included seven individual landowners, as well as the towns of Westhampton, Williamsburg, Northampton and Chesterfield.
“The Brewer Brook project was well beyond the scope of what any single organization could have achieved alone,” said Mark Wamsley, conservation and stewardship manager with Kestrel Land Trust. “Working with other partners, we were able to tap broader resources, expertise and networks to achieve a much greater conservation goal.”
Through this partnership, a large block of habitat vital for wildlife, forest health, water quality and climate change resilience is now under conservation.
The newly conserved lands are within a 6,000-acre expanse of mostly undeveloped forest, which is considered among the top 10 percent of forestland to protect in Massachusetts.
Ecologically, the Brewer Brook Forest serves as a centralized core connecting several state and municipal conservation areas and is part of a key flow corridor for wildlife.
The Nature Conservancy has identified this area as one of the last minimally fragmented forests in Massachusetts.
While preserving and improving the management of these valuable areas, permanent protection of them also provides public access to thousands of acres of land for hunting, fishing and recreation.
It will also formalize existing trails on several properties, connecting established trail networks in Williamsburg and Westhampton.
Sally Loomis, executive director of the Hilltown Land Trust, said that a number of individual landowners in the area were interested in protecting their land and had been separately speaking with one of the three organizations.
Patricia Lewis of Westhampton had originally approached the Hilltown Land Trust about conserving her 67-acre property.
Meanwhile, two other nearby landowners had approached Kestrel Land Trust to explore conservation options for their property as well.
“Everyone was talking to different people, and suddenly we realized this could be a really huge and exciting project,” Loomis said.
In 2015, the partnership came together to tackle the conservation plan.
“Pat Lewis donated the conservation restriction on her land, and the rest was purchased land or purchased conservation restrictions,” Loomis said. “It is really exciting that so many people came together to make this happen. We had foresters, surveyors, funders, community members and conservation commissions.”
The Hilltown Land Trust conserved three properties, totaling over 340 acres, with assistance from the Westhampton and Chesterfield Conservation Commissions.
The Kestrel Land Trust protected the 349 acre property in partnership with the Westhampton and Williamsburg Conservation Commissions and facilitated the acquisition of another 119 acres in Northampton by the City of Northampton.
MassWildlife protected two properties, one in Chesterfield and one in Westhampton.
The total cost of the project was $1.6 million, half of which was funded by a Massachusetts Landscape Partnership Project grant of $796,000.
This grant is offered by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs as an incentive for private and public agencies to come together to protect at least 500 acres of contiguous conservation land.
“We couldn’t have done it without the state funding,” Loomis said.
Additional funding included $262,000 from the Open Space Institute and a $40,000 grant from the Beveridge Family Foundation.
“This was a great project, and we have already started talking about adding to this block of land,” Loomis said.
Wamsley said there are thousands more acres of forest in the Brewer Brook area that could be protected, and several additional landowners in the immediate area have already expressed interest in conservation.
A planned second phase of the conservation effort could connect the core Brewer Brook forest to other large blocks of protected land.
This could include the Dead Branch State Forest and Knightville Dam and recreation area to the west; Mineral Hills, Saw Mill Hills and the Marble Brook conservation areas to the East; and Petticoat Hill Reservation to the north.
This larger area has been identified as a Forest Core and Priority Connectivity Area for the Berkshire Wildlife Linkage Regional Conservation Partnership.
Loomis and Wamsley say that property owners are key partners in making this sort of conservation project come to fruition. Individuals can support conservation efforts by donating to Kestrel Land Trust or Hilltown Land Trust.
The Hilltown Land Trust is a nonprofit conservation organization serving 13 rural towns in western Massachusetts. Its mission is to protect land and promote ecological diversity and health, respectful land stewardship, historic character and natural beauty in the hilltowns. Since its founding in 1986, the trust has protected over 5,000 acres of farmland, forest, streams and wetlands.
The Kestrel Land Trust is a nonprofit organization based in Amherst that conserves and cares for forests, farms and riverways in the Pioneer Valley.
For almost 50 years, Kestrel has helped to conserve more than 25,000 acres of wildlands, woodlands, farmland, and riverlands in the heart of the Valley and the hilltowns.