Author Archives: Land Conservation

Better Late Than Never!

In 2000, Joan Wattman was interested in purchasing a Plainfield property.  It had a wonderful farmhouse, almost 200 acres of woods and fields, and abutted hundreds of acres of preserved land including Mass Audubon’s West Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary.

Ed Kohn, a conservation planner, moved to Plainfield in 1983 and was instrumental in helping Mass Audubon acquire the original 1500-acre property that is West Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary.  When the property Joan was interested in came up for sale, Ed made sure that conserving the land with Mass Audubon was part of the deal.  So, when Joan bought the property, she did so with a plan and a promise to preserve it.

Becoming a Conservation Buyer

Joan recalls that “after renewing my Mass Audubon membership, I noticed in the brochure of [membership] benefits a ‘Conservation Buyer Program.’  I called and Mass Audubon connected me with Ed Kohn.  The former owner, Jay Buell, had asked Ed to find a buyer who would agree to preserve the land rather than develop it.  I had been doing environmental organizing for years and wanted my purchase of ‘Skyland’ to make a long-lasting and impactful statement of my values.  I was excited to be the next steward of this beautiful property.”

View of a stonewall and field that are a part of the Wattman Conservation Restriction in Plainfield.

Years passed, Joan improved the house and managed the forests and fields with the help of several grants for landowners, including MassWildlife and Natural Resource Conservation Service.  The commitment to protect the property with a permanent Conservation Restriction remained, although on the back burner. Then, in the fall of 2016, Mass Audubon and Joan reconnected and the project moved forward.

Conservation Land Tax Credit Program

To help make this gift possible, Joan applied to the Massachusetts Conservation Land Tax Credit Program. This program provides tax credits (usually in the form of direct payments) to landowners making eligible donations of an interest in land for permanent conservation purposes. 

Funds from that program were awarded to the project this year and the closing took place in September—protecting 182 acres of Joan’s property in perpetuity. And thanks to a grant from the Westfield River Wild and Scenic Fund, most of the due diligence costs incurred by Mass Audubon were covered!   

A Connected, Protected Landscape

I finally had a look at the full extent of Joan’s property when we gathered information for the Baseline Report (an extensive documentation of the current conditions of the property).  I had an opportunity to walk around the boundaries, and see the variety of trees, the nature on the forest floor and Bartlett Brook flowing south across the land. 

Joan’s property significantly expands the protected corridor of land that runs from the Kenneth Dubuque Memorial State Forest in the north, through West Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary, and on to the Deer Hill State Reservation to the south – a connected, protected landscape of more than 10,000 acres. This newly conserved addition includes over a mile of Bartlett Brook, a cold-water stream that begins on West Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary and flows south to the Westfield River.  This area provides critical forested habitat for numerous native and woodland species, and through its connectivity with other protected lands, it preserves intact ecological processes and helps nature be more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

Thank you!

Working with Joan on the conservation of her property was a pleasure, and I can’t thank her enough for making this extraordinary gift. The property remains private. However, Mass Audubon has permission to lead educational tours on occasion.  Stay tuned!    

By Kate Buttolph, Land Protection Specialist

Patience, Persistence, Protection!

About 4 years ago, I received a call from a landowner in Hampden about a possible donation of some land next to Laughing Brook Wildlife Sanctuary.  We talked about the process and the costs involved. It was helpful information for the landowner to have, though not the right time for him to act. In the middle of March this year, I got another call—it was the right time! 

Springing into Action

Despite the challenges of working from home, with limited ability to travel and do site visits, the landowner and Mass Audubon agreed on a donation of seven acres, leaving him with his house on three acres. 

Mass Audubon liked the property because of its location next to Laughing Brook, the buffer it provides between a residential neighborhood and a nature trail, and its ecological significance with Prime Forest, and Priority Habitat for rare and endangered species.  The property will provide a place for the wildlife of Massachusetts to adapt to climate change.

Covid-19 Causes Concern

We agreed to try our best to close before the end of June.  There was scant time to get a survey plan and prepare deeds.  We had to move quickly, but the landowner who had been so responsive and helpful was suddenly silent.  Time was ticking away, and the ability to close before June 30 was fast disappearing. 

I was concerned about the landowner because the silence seemed so abrupt and it was spring 2020 with the threat of Covid-19 always in the back of our minds. I was relieved to finally hear that while the landowner had been in the hospital, the reasons were not related to the virus and had been remedied. 

Back on Track

We were back on track with scarcely a month to go, and we needed an approved subdivision plan.  The Hampden Planning Board had not had a meeting in a couple of months.  I pleaded with the Planning Board Administrative Assistant.  She let me know when the Board agreed to meet on June 24. 

Meanwhile, I overnighted documents to the landowner— deeds and affidavits and a closing statement for signature.  Signature in front of a notary!  Another hurdle, but fortunately, a kindly notary met with our donor and witnessed the signings as required.  A self-addressed stamped envelope came back to me in a couple of days with all the original signed, witnessed documents. 

One Last Step

Back to the Plan — I tuned into Zoom at the appointed time on June 24 for the Planning Board meeting, explained the reason for the subdivision, and the Board approved the Plan.  Now to get it recorded! 

I picked up the signed copy, left for me by the Board Administrative Assistant in the Town Hall foyer (no contact), and sent it overnight mail to the Hampden County Registry of Deeds (no “in person” visits permitted there, no electronic recording, and certainly no “curbside” pickups!!)  Finally, I provided the original deeds to our attorney for electronic recording as soon as the Plan was on record.  All was completed with two days in June to spare. 

Success!

Thanks to the cooperation and help of the Hampden Township Planning Board, the Hampden County Registry of Deeds, the notary, the lawyer, and the landowner, a special 7 acres of land has now been added to Laughing Brook Wildlife Sanctuary.  The landowner, who wants to remain anonymous, is “very much interested in wildlife preservation and a believer in Audubon’s mission.”  Mass Audubon is fortunate to have such dedicated supporters helping to protect the nature of Massachusetts for people and for wildlife.

-Kate Buttolph, Land Protection Specialist

Adding Two New Special Properties on Cuttyhunk Island

On June 30, 2020 Mass Audubon acquired two new properties on Cuttyhunk Island totaling over 30 acres and containing roughly 1.25 miles of coastline. This is the final stage of a multiyear endeavor to complete the acquisition of land left to Mass Audubon by bequest of our longtime conservation partner on the island, Muriel Ponzecchi.

For those unfamiliar with Cuttyhunk, it is the last and smallest of the Elizabeth Island chain just northwest of Martha’s Vineyard.  The island is about two miles from end to end.   There is a small, picturesque community (Gosnold, MA) comprised of mostly summer residents, but the vast majority of the island is still undeveloped. 

Copicut Neck

The first and larger of the properties is known locally as Copicut Neck.  This section of coastline is one of the first bits of land that all visitors to the island see when they come in on the ferry.

Penikese Island (home to colonies of rare tern species) is seen in the distance from Copicut Neck

According to Kathy Parsons, Director of Mass Audubon’s Coastal Waterbirds Program, “Copicut Neck is an important location on Cuttyhunk for nesting American Oystercatchers, Willets and other coastal birds.  As a relatively long and remote peninsula, it offers great habitat for some of the most vulnerable birds using the coast.”

Its protection also helps mitigate the impacts of flooding from coastal storms. The peninsula remains a beloved spot locally to take strolls along the shore and hardly see another person—a rare thing in Massachusetts!

Bunker Hill

The second property may be only 3.75 acres, but it is located at one of the highest points on the island, with one of the best panoramic views in Buzzards Bay. 

The property gets its name from four World War II military pillboxes that remain on the site and were intended to provide vantage points from which to spot German submarines.  The army has long since abandoned them, but the Cuttyhunk community, coordinating with Mass Audubon, has stepped up to take on the responsibility of stewarding the restoration of those pieces of island history in the coming years.

The view from Bunker Hill

A Leader of Cuttyhunk Conservation

It is not possible to write about the protection of these wonderful properties without writing about Muriel “Oriole” Ponzecchi—she’s the one who made it all possible! 

Mass Audubon is extremely grateful to have worked with her collaboratively during her lifetime and to have received these generous bequests of land from her – reflecting her lifelong commitment to preserving what is so special about Cuttyhunk.

Muriel’s conservation vision with Mass Audubon began in 2001 when we acquired three Conservation Restrictions on the island from her.  After she passed away in late 2015, Mass Audubon received news of her bequest of Copicut Neck and Bunker Hill.

Those who knew her well say that Muriel cared deeply about the island and its natural lands, and informally made them open to islanders who wanted to visit.  Altogether, her bequests and donations to Mass Audubon amount to almost 50 acres of coastline, shrub forest, and grassland.   

Thanks to Muriel, we can all continue visiting those special places that she loved and shared.

-Nick Rossi, Land Protection Specialist

Piece by Piece: A Long-Term Strategy for Success

Working in partnership with the City of Northampton, Mass Audubon added 5.72 acres of state-designated “Critical Natural Landscape and Core Habitat” to the Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary.  It is strategically located along the eastern boundary of the Manhan Meadows and adds to the extensive wetland systems, grasslands, shrublands and forest that make up the 730-acre Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary. 

View of meadows that provide nesting habitat for bobolinks.

The sanctuary is known to host approximately twenty state-listed rare species.  Arcadia is a designated Important Bird Area, supporting habitat for numerous breeding and migratory birds of priority conservation interest, as well as being important habitat for a wide variety of other animals and plants. 

The new acquisition is part of an old “oxbow” (a U-shaped backwater) that became separated from the primary flow of the Connecticut River long ago. Oxbow wetlands such as this provide important storage capacity for flood waters, improved water quality through filtration services, and habitat for a variety of wildlife. This particular land is part of a wildlife corridor actively used by bobcat, coyote, deer and other wildlife. 

The property also has upland areas which provide vantage points where you might catch sight of an eastern bluebird or bald eagle. 

Wayne Feiden, the Director of Planning & Sustainability stated, “Northampton is pleased to have been able to have a small supporting role in Mass Audubon’s preservation of the Singler property. This land, in the city’s floodplain and with highly productive floodplain forest, fills a hole in the Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary and preserves the same ecosystem partially protected by the City’s nearby Meadows-Historic Mill River Greenway.”

-Kate Buttolph, Land Protection Specialist

“Rewilding” Great Neck

Almost a year ago, thanks to the support of many, generous donors, Mass Audubon acquired the 110-acre former Sacred Hearts property abutting Great Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Wareham.

Here’s an update on what’s been happening since then:

First, we had a celebration!

Friends and donors gather to celebrate a remarkable fundraising effort and the successful protection and acquisition of the former Sacred Hearts property.
Sister Claire speaks to the audience about her long involvement with the Sacred Hearts Healing Center at Great Neck and the sanctuary the land will continue to provide under Mass Audubon’s stewardship.

Then, with a vision towards restoring the landscape, we hired a demolition company to remove most of the buildings – including 30 bathrooms!

Thanks to due diligence performed before purchasing, we knew there was some asbestos in the buildings, as well as five underground fuel tanks. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to know the full extent of a hazard until destructive testing begins. The asbestos here turned out to be more widespread than projected, but it was all safely removed (along with the fuel tanks).  

The full demolition began in March 2020. These before and after photos tell some of that story.

Before: Boathouse at the edge of Buzzards Bay.
After: The newly unobstructed view across the water with beach grass planting to follow soon.
Before: View of the 46-room Manor House with attached chapel building.
After: The Manor House has been removed and the chapel secured as a venue for hosting educational programs in the future.

With the demolition complete, we shifted our focus to revitalizing the former campus. Mass Audubon received two grants totaling over $20,000 that enabled us to plant over 100 trees and shrubs, and to sow native flowers—transforming the past building sites to benefit bird and butterfly populations.

Next up, staff and volunteers will develop additional trails and plan educational experiences for visitors—creating interpretive signage and offering programs.  Great Neck Wildlife Sanctuary’s projected role in accommodating salt marsh migration gives us the perfect opportunity to demonstrate land conservation’s vital role in our collective response to the effects of climate change.

Our rewilding efforts to date, particularly the infrastructure removal noted above, were far more costly than originally estimated. If you’d like to help us continue the work we’ve started here and make the full vision become a reality, please consider making a donation to Great Neck Wildlife Sanctuary today.

Project Update: Bolstering the Rattlesnake Hill Landscape

In February 2020, the Town of Sharon and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), with the financial support and encouragement of Mass Audubon, protected the iconic 330-acre Rattlesnake Hill property — an exciting, rewarding conclusion to a decades-long conservation effort.

For Mass Audubon, the successful protection of Rattlesnake Hill by DCR and the Town is part one of a larger conservation outcome. 

The Next Step

Mass Audubon is now working with the Town of Sharon to put permanent protections on 220 acres of abutting Town lands known locally as “Inter Lochen Park”.  Portions of that land have never received full legal protection and remain vulnerable over the long-term.

To remedy that, the Inter Lochen lands will be permanently protected by a Conservation Restriction (CR) that will be acquired and held by Mass Audubon.  This will ensure the perpetual protection of these 220 acres in a similar way to Rattlesnake Hill, where the Town acquired it for conservation and DCR holds the permanent CR. 

Both properties exist within an impressive block of more than 2,000 acres of connected protected land. The land is adjacent to Borderland State Park (fun fact: large portions of the movie “Knives Out” were filmed at the mansion on Borderland State Park) and just a short distance from Mass Audubon’s Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary

A Unique and Diverse Landscape

If you have the chance to visit Rattlesnake Hill and Inter Lochen Park, it won’t take you long to realize that it’s a pretty special place, particularly given its location in relatively densely populated eastern Massachusetts.  Beautiful forests, exquisite savannahs, rocky ledges, all intermingle with scattered vernal pools (seven in total) throughout the landscape.  The land is home to a startling array of plants and animals — some of which are rare or endangered. 

Exposed bedrock near the top of Rattlesnake Hill.

And in case you’re wondering, no, rattlesnakes have not been seen on the property for quite some time; although, it would make excellent habitat for them – making it easy to understand where the name came from.

Did I mention the boulders? The land has a wonderful array of massive granite boulders, known to the geologically inclined as “glacial erratics” because they “hitched a ride” and were deposited by receding glaciers.

It is tremendous fun to traipse around this property.  Soon, trails will be officially opened to the top of Rattlesnake Hill which offers lovely views.

For such a special place, it is all the more important to make sure that every square inch of it is protected forever.  We hope to share news of the permanent protection of part two—Inter Lochen Park—soon.

-Nick Rossi, Land Protection Specialist

Better Than a Birdie

On April 29, 2020, Mass Audubon acquired a Conservation Restriction (CR) on a former golf course in Northampton.  Purchased in February by the City of Northampton, the property adds 105 acres to the southwestern section of a large forested area known as the Rocky Hill Greenway.

The Greenway has been the target of a conservation partnership between the City of Northampton and Mass Audubon over the last decade. In addition to this latest success, the partnership previously protected three adjacent parcels.  The conserved area of the Greenway is currently over 200 acres.

Bird’s-eye view of the golf course and the Nashawannock Brook running through it.

Treeing it Up

Now, many of you may be wondering why Mass Audubon would be interested in a CR protecting a former golf course. We are usually involved in the protection of intact forests, rare and endangered species, or wetlands full of special plants, birds and salamanders.   In this case, Mass Audubon saw a chance to restore a stream flowing across a golf course, through the western portion of Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary, and into the surrounding landscape, as well as reforest the land around it.

It is an unusual opportunity to reforest a substantial portion of a small degraded watershed and to restore the natural shape and function of the Nashawannock Brook – boosting resilience for nature and people in the process.

According to Tom Lautzenheiser, Regional Scientist for Mass Audubon: “As a golf course, a primary interest was getting stormwater off the greens and fairways and into the brook as quickly as possible, which has led to increased erosion problems downstream. The City has already taken steps to dismantle parts of the stormwater management system that contributed to this problem, but with reforestation and other work on the site, we have a great chance to further slow the flow. And by planting a wide variety of tree species chosen in part for future climate conditions, we can ensure that the future forest will thrive.”

View of a managed waterway on the course.

This ecological restoration is a clear example of a climate change adaptation project: predicted increases in the frequency of severe rainstorms will worsen Nashawannock Brook’s unstable dynamics over the coming decades; restoring the watershed now will be an investment in protecting Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary while providing additional flood storage benefits to nearby residential areas.  Plus, the reforestation and stream restoration will greatly enhance the wildlife corridor that the Rocky Hill Greenway provides.

Kate Buttolph, Land Protection Specialist

To Protect, or Not To Protect…That is the Question.

One question we often get asked is “How exactly do you choose which land to conserve?”

The answer is probably less straightforward than you might think.  There are a range of factors that influence our land protection decisions.

Prioritizing Land Protection

Mass Audubon has traditionally focused on land that can expand and enhance our wildlife sanctuaries across the state. 

Such land provides two very important things: critical habitat for plants and animals (the nature of Massachusetts) and places for people to connect with nature – to experience it directly. As a sanctuary-based organization, we look for ways to preserve the integrity of the landscape and to enrich the experience of visitors.

Even then, some lands around our sanctuaries are more important than others. 

When someone gives us a call about donating or selling land nearby, we conduct an initial “desk review”, using various digital tools to determine how important a property might be for conservation.  If that initial screening looks promising, we follow-up with a site visit for a more fine-grained assessment.

Maps are a great tool to help us sort that out (the land department really loves maps!).

In particular, many sanctuaries have “Sanctuary Protection Plans” like the one for Rough Meadows in Rowley shown below.

These are maps that we produce that rank properties for conservation by their importance.  The red parcels in the map above are ranked the highest with lighter shading ranked lower.  Blue indicates existing Mass Audubon sanctuary land and green indicates other protected land.

A lot of data and fancy computer mapping go into making these. Much of the data comes from the state of Massachusetts which maintains a variety of map layers showing different types of natural resources.  These include things like:

  • Rare species habitat
  • Drinking water, wetland and other water resources
  • Connection with other conservation lands (i.e. wildlife corridors)

Using the map above as an example, you can see that a lot of conservation has happened around Rough Meadows already.  However, a number of gaps remain. Protecting these gaps will ensure Rough Meadows remains a large, intact natural area providing better habitat for biodiversity and richer experiences for people.

Scenic views like this one at Rough Meadows not only nourish the soul, but provide critical habitat.

Protecting Habitat for Future Generations

While we tend to focus on protecting land around our existing sanctuaries, Mass Audubon also establishes altogether new wildlife sanctuaries on occasion, in instances where there is particularly outstanding habitat, or in an underserved part of the state.

Our new Brush Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Warwick is the most recent example.

Increasingly, the Land Department focuses on protecting land that will reduce the impacts of climate change for nature and people.  This connection between land conservation and climate change response has grown clearer over time.

Protecting wetlands in a floodplain, for instance, ensures that those wetlands will keep storing and absorbing flood waters during increasing extreme rain events, and protecting forest ensures that those trees can keep storing carbon.

Practical Matters

Once we’ve decided that we want to pursue the protection of a particular property, there are a number of practical matters to consider.

  • Do we have the financial resources needed? Even a gift of land requires significant staff time and funds to pay for legal work, environmental assessments, etc.
  • If it is a purchase rather than a gift of land, do we think we can launch a successful fundraising campaign? Thanks to our work securing donations and bargain sales, every $1,000 we raise averages to roughly $9,000 of land protected.  Even so, the ability to raise funds for purchases is a key practical question to answer.
  • Is the project so complex that it would be difficult for Mass Audubon to protect the property on its own? Are there organizations (government or other non-profits) we can partner with to help achieve the conservation outcome? We do conservation in partnership with others a lot and the public/private conservation community in Massachusetts is unusually collaborative in this respect.  It’s a way for us all to accomplish more by working together.

How You Can Help

If you own, or know of, property that might be of interest to Mass Audubon after reading this post, please do not hesitate to reach out to the Land Conservation Department.

Even if it is not the right fit for Mass Audubon, we always try to refer any interested landowners to a local land trust, their municipality, or other conservation organization that might be able to help.  We want to find a “home” for any conservation project.

Or, consider donating to the Land Conservation Department so we can carry on this work!

-Nick Rossi, Land Protection Specialist

Look Up!

One of the joys of working with landowners and looking at land for conservation is the chance to explore special places in the outdoors.  Much of the work of land conservation is done at a desk – preparing documents, reviewing reports, and talking on the telephone.   Then the sunny day comes and you MUST go out to see properties in person. 

Last summer there came such a day.  I was in Sandisfield, walking around a property, looking for any signs of wildlife, finding the boundaries, hoping there were no piles of debris, tires, or old bed springs.

Walking down a steep slope, watching my footing, I heard a sound.  I stopped suddenly and looked up. 

Directly in front of me was a startled porcupine.  Porcupines are near-sighted and slow moving, and generally they are active at night. They spend most of their time on the ground. However, in the summertime, they like to rest in trees. This one decided to keep on climbing, getting farther away from whatever danger she thought might be coming her way. 

The famous porcupine quills, about 30,000 per critter, are lightly attached to the porcupine’s skin.  They come off easily if the porcupine encounters a predator (fishers are the primary ones).   With few predators, porcupines are known to live as long as 18 years.  Their babies are born during April and May.  Babies have soft quills which harden with exposure to air. 

Porcupines are plant eaters (actual vegans).  They dine on bark, stems, nuts, tubers, seeds, grass, leaves, fruit, and buds.  If you see a porcupine, you are lucky because they are shy and nocturnal.  Enjoy the view but don’t try to pat one!

Kate Buttolph, Land Protection Specialist

A Moment of Gratitude

During these unprecedented difficult times it is easy to slip into negative head space. A way to break the downward spiral is to pause and remind yourself of what you are grateful for. Whether it be a spouse who lifts you up or the smell of fresh coffee. Appreciating what you have allows you to see the joy in the moment.

I am Mass Audubon’s Conservation Restriction Steward. A Conservation Restriction (or Easement) is an important tool designed to permanently protect the landscape for its intrinsic natural values such as prime farming soils, old growth forest, endangered species, etc.  Each year, I visit all the properties where we hold this type of restriction, ensuring the land is not significantly impaired.

During a monitoring visit in Plymouth, I stumbled upon rocks placed in the shape of a heart and at the center was a stone that said “Thankful for nurses, Drs, EMT, FF + police”. I was touched by the note. It made me stop and think about the firefighters, police officers, and nurses in training that I know and most importantly it made me smile.

Acts of kindness and gratitude are contagious. They have the power to change someone’s day for the better. Just taking a moment to think about what you are grateful for will surely bring some light into these dark times. 

So what are you grateful for…

Olivia Barksdale, Conservation Restriction Stewardship Specialist