Key W.D. Cowls forestland protected in $3.25M deal

Nine years after completion of the largest contiguous private land conservation arrangement in the state’s history, additional W.D. Cowls forestland totaling 2,038 acres between North Amherst and the Quabbin Reservoir is being permanently protected.

On Wednesday, state officials announced the creation of the Walter Cowls Jones Working Forest, which supplements the 3,486-acre Paul C. Jones Working Forest and will serve to protect water supplies locally and for Boston, preserve extensive wildlife habitat and promote continued production of timber.

The conservation restriction was purchased for $3.25 million, or $100,000 less than the appraised value, with public funding coming from the Land and Water Conservation Fund and U.S. Forest Legacy Program, the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game, which will hold the conservation restriction, and private funds raised by Kestrel Land Trust from the John T. and Jane A. Wiederhold Foundation and other philanthropists.

The parcels, in Pelham, Shutesbury and Leverett, will continue to be owned and managed by W.D. Cowls, but the conservation restriction precludes future development, including residences, solar arrays, and cell and wind towers. It requires sustainable forestry practices and assures public access to the land for hiking, hunting and fishing.

W.D. Cowls President Cinda Jones said in a statement that it is critical to enhance clean air and water, have the ability to harvest local forest products, and to access to recreation, which are already a longstanding practice and family philosophy.

“We’re making it our legacy to permanently conserve natural, cultural and recreational values that natural resources hold in our community,” Jones said.

Kristin DeBoer, Kestrel’s executive director, said her organization is grateful to Cinda and Evan Jones for the commitment to keeping the family forest as forest forever.

“As a leader in the Amherst-area business community, Cowls is demonstrating in real time that development pursuits can be balanced by conservation leadership,” DeBoer said.

Jones credits DeBoer for providing insights into this conservation legacy and convincing her that it is in the company’s best interest to pursue such land protection.

The second working forest, which has been in the planning stages for the past several years, is named for Jones’ grandfather, Walter Cowls Jones, who was the family’s seventh generation leader and a regional community investor who developed the country’s first electric sawmill on land that is now the site of the North Square Apartments in the Mill District in North Amherst. He was also co-founder and president of the Amherst Water Company, built the town’s first community-scale affordable home building in the area of Harlow Drive and created the town’s first affordable leasing opportunities on the Amherst Housing Authority.

Scott Jackson, an extension professor at the Department of Environmental Conservation at the University of Massachusetts and chairman of Kestrel’s board, calls the land some of the most ecologically valuable in the Connecticut Valley.

“Approximately 90 percent of the land is identified as core habitat or critical natural landscape by the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program’s BioMap2 project,” Jackson said.

A statement from Evan Jones, Cinda Jones’ brother, reflects on his grandfather: “My best memories of Gramp are driving around in the woods, all over the Valley, in that big Checker cab of his. We’d stop at farms and diners and see old friends and make new ones. His business deals were made on napkins and with handshakes.”

Part of the $1,650-per-acre conservation deal allows W.D. Cowls to maintain forestry operations while providing financing to finish aspects of the Mill District mixed-use development during the COVID-19 economic downturn.

“Sure we could sell or develop this land and make more money, but Evan and I realize our responsibility to assure the planet’s environmental health,” Cinda Jones said.

Main sections of the protected land are between Shutesbury Road in Leverett and Pratt Corner Road in Shutesbury, part of the Atkins Reservoir watershed, between Pratt Corner and West Pelham roads in Shutesbury, and both east and west of Pelham Hill Road in Shutesbury.

The conservation restriction surrounds three exclusions that are optioned for solar farm development in Shutesbury, where W.D. Cowls already completed a controversial solar development on 30 acres known as the Wheelock Tract.

“The only thing better than conservation by itself is doubling our commitment to the environment by harvesting green energy from the sun proximate to our conserved forests,” Jones said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

Author: Going Green

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