Monday July 16, 2012

GREAT BARRINGTON -- An Alford woman has been named the new executive director on Project Native, the Housatonic-based, nonprofit plant farm, nursery and wildlife sanctuary.

Billie Best, formerly the organization's development director, has assumed the title officially on July. 1, according to a press release released by the organization.

Best replaces Raina Weber, who founded the organization in 1999 as a 19-year-old.

Project Native was originally an offshoot of the Railroad Street Youth Project, using land loaned to the organization by a local farmer to raise and sell native species. But Weber grew the company so quickly that by 2004, Weber and her board of directors bought a farm in Housatonic and raised their plants there.

Now, in addition to that effort, which numbers local farmers, landscapers and florists as customers, Project Native also works to reclaim tracts of land from invasive species.

The organization, which had an original budget of less than $10,000, is now a $600,000-a-year operation.

Weber said she will be leaving the organization to move to Mexico to start a new environmental organization, Kux'an ha (pronounced Koosh an ha), dedicated to holistic water management practices and protecting the underground water reservoirs of the Yucatan Peninsula.

"I love Project Native, but it is time for me to move on to my next adventure," she said. "I am happy to say that it has some fantastic people who will keep doing the great work we have begun promoting and protecting Berkshire's beautiful natural habitats."

"It is impossible to overstate the incredible work Raina has done," said Erik Bruun, founding chairman of the Project Native board of directors. "She had this kooky idea to grow native plants that only a few knew could even be important, and turned it into a thriving business that is literally restoring our landscape. She is a pioneer with the work ethic of a locomotive."

According to Bruun, Project Native has restored more than 250 acres of native habitat, distributed tens of thousands of native plants and raised community awareness of the crucial role native plants play in proving homes and food for native wildlife.

Best has been farming and working a an organizer for sustainable agriculture since 2003. Her professional career began in the music business and moved into corporate marketing services for clients like Citibank and Hewlett-Packard.

She joined the Project Native board of trustees in 2010 and was named development director this past winter, said Bruun.

"I'm very, very excited," Best said. "It's a great opportunity. Raina was truly a visionary. I think she envisioned the potential for this company when no one else did."

Weber is slated to leave the area in September, said Best, and will be in and out of the office in an advisory capacity until then.