South county land trusts take collaborative approach to conservation initiative
Berkshire Trade & Commerce, February 2010
by John Towles
The real estate market may be down, but pressures for development continue - as do efforts to preserve open land and the rural qualities and environment of Berkshire County.
A current initiative to protect the natural habitat and character of a corner of southwest Berkshire County reflects an increasing emphasis on a collaborative approach to land conservation on a regional scale, and on consideration of individual sites in the context of the larger landscape and community.
"What can make this successful is that the sum is greater than the parts," said Kathy Orlando, director of land protection with the Sheffield Land Trust, which has a lead role in the initiative. "This is an opportunity to do something that is not just based on what town a particular site is in, but which also is based on its regional importance."
The initiative - known as the Sheffield-Egremont Agricultural, Ecological and Scenic Corridor - focuses on an area between Route 7 on the east and the Taconic range to the west, in northwest Sheffield and Egremont. It extends north of Berkshire School Road and encompasses land in the vicinity of the Sheffield-Egremont Road and Route 41.
It is being undertaken by the Sheffield Land Trust, the Egremont Land Trust, the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires, the Berkshire Natural Resources Council and other organizations, with the assistance of public agencies.
While the corridor contains housing and other familiar development patterns, large segments of it are still farmland and other open vistas interspersed with woodland, wetland and upland areas. It is also near a section of the Appalachian Trail.
"It is rare to find a landscape that is still as unfragmented and intact as this," said Orlando. "It's got beautiful views and rich farmland and recreational opportunities, and it contains important habitats and other environmental features. It's the kind of place people envision when they think of what the Berkshires are all about."
Land trusts work to preserve sites through various methods, such as helping owners sell agricultural preservation restrictions (APR) or other forms of development rights on a property to the state, or by purchasing and transferring ownership to public agencies or private conservation organizations.
Ursula Cliff, president of the Egremont Land Trust, sees the collaborative approach as reflecting the realities of land conservation. "On the whole, local land trusts have traditionally focused on their own community," said Cliff. "However, habitats for animals and plants don't follow town boundaries. So it makes sense for land trusts to work together on initiatives like this."
The overall goal, Orlando explained, is to help focus development onto appropriate sites while protecting those that are important for other reasons, such as scenic open land, farmland, wildlife habitat, wetlands, connections between protected land and other environmentally important areas. "It's also not just about the land," she said. "It's about maintaining the quality of life for the whole community. There are also economic reasons, including maintaining the agricultural economy and the natural beauty that attracts tourism here."
Orlando emphasized that the intent is not to lock up the area, but to balance residential and economic activity with regional conservation and protection of the area's resources for the future.
"We work with the owners to protect as much land as they want to work with, in ways that enable them to be able to afford to keep and preserve it," she said. "For example, we help them with the sale of development rights, so that the family can afford to continue to own and use the land for farming or in other ways that preserve its qualities and open spaces."
Susan Witt of the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires (CLTSB) sees the initiative as a blending of goals. CLTSB is oriented to providing affordable housing, and worked with the initiative to preserve an existing farmhouse there.
"Sometimes, groups working on different issues - like advocates for housing and land conservation - don't always see eye to eye on priorities," said Witt. "But the Sheffield Land Trust has been wonderful about recognizing the different needs of the community in this, and is doing it in a way that addresses various goals together."
Linked to a larger region
|The initiative also links the corridor with a larger geographic landscape.
The corridor is within a region encompassing southern Berkshire County, northwest Connecticut and adjacent sections of New York that was designated as one of the "Last Great Places" in the country by the Nature Conservancy, a national organization which is also involved in conservation efforts there.
It is an area that has unique environmental and scenic characteristics, including one of the largest contiguous forests in the Northeast and an unusually high concentration of rare species and natural communities. It includes state parks and other preserved public land, including the Mount Washington State Forest, Mount Everett Reservation and other
Orlando noted that a collaborative approach of grouping smaller individual projects into an overall plan, and also linking the corridor to larger landscape preservation initiatives, opens up the potential to
|Aerial photo of the core of the Sheffield-Egremont Agricultural, Ecological and Scenic Corridor, with Maple Shade Farm in the foreground and the Taconic range at back.
receive grants and other support from government and national conservation organizations and foundations.
"National sources of conservation funding are interested in large projects that are on the level of protecting regional landscapes," said Orlando. "So they are more likely to support initiatives that contribute to that."
Tad Ames, president of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, said this reflects a growing trend in land conservation.
"The Sheffield Land Trust is not breaking new ground with this, but it is an important project by thinking on an ambitious scale and bringing various parties together," said Ames, whose organization has assisted the initiative with loans and other support.
"It's difficult to attract the attention of powerful sources of support with a powerful project," he explained. "Large funders are less likely to look at small individual parcels. They'd rather look at how they relate to larger regional landscapes and national goals. So it makes sense to link multiple properties together into efforts to protect broad landscapes."
The initiative had its origins in 2007. About 1,100 acres in the corridor are now protected or are in the process by the land trust. The goal is to extend that to at least another 800 acres in the corridor that are considered essential. Beyond that, according to Orlando, protection of another 1,000 acres would also be considered beneficial in maintaining the qualities of the area. Proponents also hope to link the corridor to other tracts that are already in existing state reserves, along the Appalachian Trail and in other wildlife and conservation management sites.
Orlando said the Sheffield Land Trust is hoping to work with several families who own other land in this area, including farmers and other landowners, to find ways to preserve additional sites in the corridor.
Cliff said the Egremont Land Trust is still developing a plan for its section of the corridor and is not yet ready to announce the specifics. However, she said their general goal is to incorporate land in the valley and connect the corridor to the Taconic range forest and the Appalachian Trail.
Land trusts rely on a combination of funding sources, including contributions from individuals, state grants and other organizations and sources.
In this case, about $2.6 million in state monies will be applied towards the overall estimated $4.3 million cost of the preservation initiative.
The Sheffield Land Trust (www.sheffieldland.org) and the Egremont Land Trust (www.egremontlandtrust.org) are currently conducting a $1.7 million fund-raising campaign for the initiative, which will also go toward paying back loans and covering other costs that have been incurred in the initial stages of the project. The land trusts are also conducting a joint matching-fund challenge. They are raising $500,000 to match other donations, which would mean that $500,000 from other donors would raise a combined $1 million. They expect to finalize and announce that early this year.
Orlando noted that local contributions have a three-fold purpose. In addition to directly providing money for the initiative, they are also a demonstration of local support that qualifies for state portions of purchase of development rights. These contributions also increase the chances of receiving grants from other organizations and foundations.
Started with farm preservation
The Sheffield-Egremont corridor is once of several sections of the town of particular agricultural, environmental, scenic and/or recreational significance that the Sheffield Land Trust has been working to protect since it was founded in 1989. Others include the corridor along the Housatonic River in the eastern section of Sheffield and a series of trails in the center of the town.
The Sheffield-Egremont Corridor initiative grew out of a specific effort in 2007 to preserve Maple Shade Farm and a seven-and-a-half acre field under other ownership that was slated to be sold and subdivided for three house lots.
The field, located in a larger scenic and agricultural area along Sheffield-Egremont Road, had been part of nearby Maple Shade Farm and was under a special agricultural assessment program, but had been sold off three years earlier to a family who had built their house on it. The new owners had been approached by parties interested in buying the other parts of their property.
The land trust took an interest in the site to preserve Maple Shade Farm. It is also in a popular scenic and recreational area. Working with the owners, the land trust purchased the property that had been slated to be subdivided.
The land trust is currently working to sell an APR on the property to the state to preserve it as farmland, and then to eventually either sell or lease it as preserved farmland.
In a simultaneous project, the land trust is also helping the owners of Maple Shade Farm to sell an APR on 120 nearby acres, which will enable that land to also be preserved as farmland.
During this process, Orlando said the state expressed in helping to preserve other sites in that area. This prompted the land trust to develop a broader plan for the corridor. They also arranged collaborations with other land trusts and organizations with an interest in this area.
These transactions will augment other sites in the corridor that had been protected over the last four years, including the purchase of an agricultural preservation restriction on 250 acres on the Larkin Farm near the Mill Pond.
In 2009, the land trust acquired another nearby 58 acres on Lime Kiln Road, which was then conveyed to the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife as a conservation preserve. Also completed was the sale of an APR on 128 acres of the Quarry Hill Farm (just north of Maple Shade Farm).
Another related project involving the Sheffield Land Trust, the Nature Conservancy and the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires supports two separate farms, Equinox Farm and Wild & Cultivated. This preserves 144 acres of open farm fields, unbroken forest land and the associated farmhouse on the south side of Bow Wow Road. The final piece of that project closed in December 2008.