Mass Audubon has received a generous donation of land next to West Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary in Plainfield, one of the Hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. Small in acres, but large in impact, the landscape is entirely forested, with a small stream running through it. Conserving this property helps sustain inland flood resilience, as well as maintain regional connectivity for wildlife.
The donor of the property, Tristan Arsenault, owns a home down the road and sought to protect these 2.2 acres in perpetuity – conserving the natural landscape and the habitat it provides for wildlife. It once belonged to Thomas Packard, a resident of Plainfield in the early 20th century and the founder of the Plainfield Historical Society. Packard also owned the adjoining 42 acres which were donated to Mass Audubon in 1991. Records and cemetery stones reveal the Packard family lived in Plainfield from the time of the Revolutionary War, if not earlier.
As 2020 draws to a close, the Land Conservation staff at Mass Audubon are grateful to be able to share the news of this gift and to thank all of the donors – past and present (and future!) – who make this work possible.
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.”
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.
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!