Category Archives: Project Updates

“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

Project Update: Confirming a Legacy of Conservation on Cuttyhunk Island

Our recent acquisition of the West End parcel on Cuttyhunk Island for conservation marked only one step in a much larger project on the tiny island at the end of Buzzards Bay.

Over the last several years, Mass Audubon has been doing the work necessary to accept the gift of several parcels on Cuttyhunk.  These pieces of land, scattered around the island, were all owned by Muriel “Oriel” Ponzecchi who passed away in late 2015.  Oriel, as she was known by her friends, generously left all these lands to Mass Audubon in her will.  We are very grateful to have the opportunity to help achieve her intended legacy of conservation.

Accepting gifts of land can be more time consuming than one might think.  There are many things to consider before taking on a property, especially on a place like Cuttyhunk with its long history of varied human uses including military, agriculture, and tourism.

View from Cuttyhunk southwest towards the Atlantic Ocean

Similar to buying a house, we have to consider all sorts of issues to make sure we understand the property we are about to own.  For example, we have to consider if there are any safety concerns on the property and if there is clear title to the land (meaning no risk of disputed ownership) among other things.

Some twists and turns are expected.

That all aside, we have worked on some wonderful properties so far and there are more to come.  Next on the list is a high point on the island with one of the best views of Buzzards Bay that one could hope to find. 

More trips to the island by this Mass Audubon Land Protection Specialist will likely be necessary, hopefully in summer, because fortunately someone has to do it!

 By Nick Rossi, Land Protection Specialist

Progress in Effort to Permanently Protect 1,500-acre Bear Hole Landscape

Mass Audubon has been working for some time, in close partnership with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Conservation & Recreation (DCR), and the City of West Springfield, to permanently protect more than 1,500 acres located in the southern Connecticut River Valley.

This large-scale project seeks to conserve the spectacular Bear Hole Landscape. That extensive, intact, forested area was acquired by the City of West Springfield over the last century as a surface water supply.  When the City went to a groundwater well system to fulfill their municipal water needs in recent decades, the future of the land was brought into question because it was no longer needed for the purpose for which it had been acquired. 

Paucatuck Brook at Bear Hole

In recent years, Mass Audubon and DCR have had the good fortune of working with two forward-thinking mayors of West Springfield – mayors who have embraced the vision of placing permanent protections on Bear Hole.  In that future, the conserved landscape would be managed for powerful climate change response, as well as increased and enhanced low impact public use and enjoyment.  West Springfield is to be commended for recently taking steps necessary to become one of the first municipalities to monetize the carbon sequestration services of their forests – opening up exciting reinvestment potential for the Bear Hole Landscape.

While there are a number of important milestones still ahead of us, we remain optimistic that the exciting opportunity to permanently protect Bear Hole will be fulfilled.

By Bob Wilber, Director of Land Conservation

Missing Link to Warren Woods Closing Soon

Two years ago, Mass Audubon was instrumental in assisting the town of Ashland with protecting Warren Woods and creating a wildlife corridor of over 1,000 acres. Since then, Mass Audubon has continued working to conserve the important adjacent lands in the town of Holliston. Residents and town Warren Woodsofficials in Holliston have been devoted to the idea of conserving an abutting portion of Warren Woods (22 acres) that serves as a critical link that connects the recently protected land and trails in Ashland to other protected land Holliston, including Mass Audubon Conservation Restrictions, Town-owned conservation land, and agricultural preservation restrictions.

Pretty soon, Holliston will be closing on the sought after property, securing it for a conservation outcome! The next and final step toward achieving true permanent conservation will be when the land is put under a Mass Audubon conservation restriction, which should happen shortly thereafter.

-Bob Ford, Land Conservation Specialist

The Last Chapter of our Detective Story

Charlie Wyman, Senior Land Protection Specialist
When we first reported on an unfolding detective story (Channeling Sam Spade), we were far from certain how it would turn out. Would Mass Audubon solve the puzzle and save the land? Or would the prize get away, and our detective wind up drowning his sorrows at a bar, sharing pithy comments about how the world isn’t for the faint of heart?

We’ve got a few pages left to turn, but we’re in the last chapter, and it’s looking like the story will have a happy ending. To remind those who have forgotten the details: In the town of Dudley in central Addition to Pierpont Meadow 2013Massachusetts, four parcels of woodland and wetlands totaling 64 acres adjacent to our Pierpont Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary are labeled by the assessors as “Owner Unknown.” Such parcels are rare in Massachusetts, as generally it’s only a matter of time before the mystery is resolved by either a taking by the town for back taxes, or someone succeeding in untangling the web of obscure descriptions to locate unsuspecting heirs.

Here in Dudley, with hard work and determination and a healthy dose of luck, we were able to determine the last owner of record: a couple who owned a large farm next door, and who passed away around 1950. We suspect the executors of their estates simply lost track of these parcels, with their poor deed descriptions and infertile, rocky soil, and they were never sold. More research and luck allowed us to piece together the family tree and to identify and eventually locate 12 heirs, in three generations, scattered across the country.

When we contacted them at first, telling them that they were part owners of a tract of land in Dudley, many thought we were cranks or scammers. But the credibility of our evidence (and of our name) won out. And our purpose was appealing: to acquire this last bit of their ancestors’ farm and preserve it forever as conservation land, “for wildlife and people.”

An unexpected benefit for us was the opportunity to hear stories about the land. The eldest of the twelve grew up on the farm and fondly remembers those fields and woods. She told us about the sheep that walked Sheepwith her to the one-room schoolhouse each day. (And no, her name is not Mary!) The sheep stayed in a shed out back until school was out.

As of this writing, eight of the twelve heirs have sold their interests to Mass Audubon, made possible by the generosity of an anonymous donor. We have agreement with a ninth. If our luck holds out a bit longer, we’ll succeed eventually with the last three, allowing us to pen a satisfying conclusion to this mystery.

From the Big World of Small World Experiences

Bob Wilber, Director of Land Conservation
Every now and then, one encounters a situation that reminds us that, for all of its far reaches and obvious magnitude, the world really can seem like a very small place at times. That was certainly my experience recently, after meeting with a Mr. Whitney – the owner of 82 acres of land we wish to acquire to add to our Whetstone Wood Wildlife Sanctuary in Wendell.

During our first meeting, I casually made note of the fact that Mr. Whitney appeared to be in his late eighties – of essentially the same vintage as my father, who passed away eleven years ago. During the next hour, as we toggled back and forth from getting to know each other to negotiating acceptable terms for a purchase of his land for conservation, degrees of separation became difficult to discern. Its a small world

I learned that Mr. Whitney was a veteran of World War II – same as my dad. He went on to say that he was stationed at Fort Devens in central Massachusetts – as my dad was – and was there at the very same time as my father. Mr. Whitney then proudly proclaimed that he attended UMass – Fort Devens, an obscure bay state trivia tidbit which he seemed truly astounded to see that I was familiar with – because….you guessed it! When he later told me that the primary employer in his career was General Electric – just as it was for you know who – I half expected it. And when he remarked that he cherished memories of taking his kids hiking on many weekends to the “4,000-footers” in the White Mountains, I simply accepted that there was something a bit cosmic going on – I thought of my dear old Dad, and smiled.

We hope to complete the purchase of Mr. Whitney’s land before the end of this month.

Warren Woods Poised to Grow

Bob Ford, Land Protection Specialist

As followers of this blog know, Warren Woods was recently acquired for conservation by the Town of Ashland from Northeastern University (NU). Warren Woods (comprising 120 acres) represents the last and largest remaining piece of open space in Ashland, and connects to a wildlife corridor of over 1,000 acres, one of the largest protected corridors of open space in the Metro West region (see map). Mass Audubon was instrumental in assisting the Town with protecting Warren Woods and we are now working with Ashland town officials on the conservation restriction (CR) Mass Audubon will hold, which will permanently protect the land.

In addition to our efforts in Ashland, Mass Audubon has been working simultaneously with NU, Holliston residents, and town officials to protect an abutting portion of Warren Woods (22 acres, shown in red on map) located in Holliston. These 22 acres serve as an important link connecting the recently protectedHolliston portion of Warren Woods for blog Ashland portion of Warren Woods to other protected land in Holliston (see map), including Mass Audubon CR holdings, Town-owned conservation land, and agricultural preservation restrictions. Mass Audubon recently learned exciting news that NU and Holliston officials have reached an agreement to protect this land for conservation. It is anticipated that a Town Meeting vote will be necessary to fund any purchase, as well as private fundraising, and that Mass Audubon will hold the CR as we are in Ashland. Holliston Town Meeting will consider the purchase on May 6th which is supported by various town boards including the Open Space Committee, Board of Selectmen, Community Preservation Committee, and Finance Committee. Stay tuned for more updates as this project continues to take shape.

A Dam Good Opportunity

Charlie Wyman, Senior Land Protection Specialist

What do you do with a dam and reservoir when they’re no longer needed?

That’s the question facing Mass Audubon and a town in central Massachusetts. Our sanctuary there surrounds a 5-acre public water supply reservoir created by damming a small stream in the late 1880’s. The reservoir hasn’t been used in decades, and the town, faced with the cost of maintaining the dam and the property, has begun talks with Mass Audubon about a transfer of the land.

Do we want it? How could we not, lying as it does in the midst of our sanctuary? Should we maintain the dam and the pond? It’s been there for more than a century, and the plant and wildlife communities haveReflection on pond adapted. It’s also pleasant on the eye and the soul, a serene place to stop and enjoy a summer day. But in the long term, does the dam provide more ecological good than ill? Unlikely.

The cost either way is significant. The earthen dam needs significant remedial work and regular maintenance to minimize any threat of failure. The alternative – removing it – is also expensive, and requires careful planning to ensure that what replaces the reservoir are native plant communities and not the tangled mess of invasives that often occupy disturbed ground. Where do the funds come from?

Lot of questions, not many answers yet, but that’s how land protection projects evolve – from asking the right questions to finding the best answers, one by one, until we have a workable solution. This one may take longer than most. Bob’s Christmas wish list (My Holiday Wish List) asked for “a simple land conservation project…just one…!” We’re still looking.
Scenic Pond

Agreement Reached for Addition to Whetstone Wood Wildlife Sanctuary

Bob Wilber, Director of Land Protection

We recently reached agreement with the owner of an 80+ acre property in Wendell that was identified as a high priority for protection in our Land Conservation Plan for our Whetstone Wood Wildlife Sanctuary.

Pond at Whetstone Wood Wildlife Sanctuary

Pond at Whetstone Wood Wildlife Sanctuary

If conserved, the property will provide an important link between the sanctuary and State Forest land located to the west – an outcome that will become increasingly significant as the impact of Climate Change sets in. We still have a ways to go in completing necessary due diligence (title examination, environmental site assessment), but it is nice to be able to report that we have reached agreement on basic terms for the property to be acquired and added to our wildland sanctuary.