'Heart and soul of what we're about': Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation director retiring next year

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WILLIAMSTOWN — For Leslie Reed-Evans, land conservation is much more than just preserving landscapes precisely as they are.

It is also about fostering a culture of respect for the natural world, and understanding what makes life in Williamstown worth valuing. It is a living process that extends well beyond negotiating conservation restrictions and monitoring land use at the properties entrusted to it.

"All of this land is in permanent conservation, but you don't know what's going to happen in the future," she said. "If you don't have people who will stand up and support the work we do today, then it feels pointless."

For nearly 23 years, Reed-Evans has lived this mission as executive director of the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation. She began there as the interim, part-time director of what was still a young, small organization based in an office on Spring Street.

Through the years she learned the ins and outs of the job, and led efforts to expand its mission include preserving the town's cultural heritage — like its history of small farming — and the creation of a centerpiece education center at Sheep Hill that opened in 2003.

Last week, Rural Lands announced Reed-Evans would be retiring next summer. A search will be conducted for her successor, but she may continue to help with some ongoing projects and as part of the education program.

"You can easily say she's the heart of soul of what we're about," said Phil McKnight, president of the foundation. "She's indefatigable, and has instituted a number of programs that have been very successful."

Right from the start, in early 1994, she began working on projects, particularly the effort to preserve the former Phelps Farm — now Cricket Creek Farm. She had previously worked as an administrator at the Greylock Animal Hospital, and says she was hired for her administrative skills and knowledge of the local farm community, as well as just meeting lots of pet owners in the area.

Reed-Evans credits the help of other land conservancies in the area, like the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, and the assistance of state agencies that work in agricultural and land management.

"I learned on the fly," she said. "But one thing about the land conservation community — especially in Berkshire County — is everyone is driving to the same end, so everyone is so helpful. I just needed to make a phone call."

Reed-Evans also took advantage of opportunities to innovate. When Sam and Elizabeth Smith of Caretaker Farm wanted to retire in 2003, Rural Lands was involved in the effort to ensure the community-supported agriculture approach would survive another generation.

It was no simple task, with a piece of land worth a lot of money and uncertainty if any prospective farmers could begin without support.

Reed-Evans said there was no template at the time for this kind of project.

Over the course of three years, Rural Lands was able to work out a deal by which an affordable housing agency bought the farm, sold it to the foundation, which in turn sold the buildings to a new family of farmers, who work the land on a 99-year lease.

The solution preserved the land, made it affordable for another generation to farm there, and sent a message to the town about the importance of this kind of work.

"We had our hand in that for a long time, and I think we helped raise awareness that it is a community responsibility," Reed-Evans said. "If we want this kind of rural, working landscape instead of a sterile, beautiful landscape, we need to support the farms."

The solution used a unique mix of land conservation tools, and even earned some national attention within the community.

"It just hadn't been done before," she said. "It's always neat to be doing something on the cutting edge, and for a small land trust that's pretty neat."

Reed-Evans grew up mostly in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where her family moved when she was in seventh grade after living in Connecticut, Washington state, and Boston.

She attended Ohio Wesleyan University, where she studied botany and ornithology, and went on to work as a bicycle mechanic and in the preschool program at a private elementary school.

In 1978, she moved to Williamstown when her husband, Art, got a job offer designing wood stoves for Mohawk Industries. Reed-Evans said she worked a number of odd jobs around town — at the Arcadian Shop branch in town, for a baker on Water Street, and at Images Cinema. She finally settled at Greylock Animal Hospital in 1981, where she also learned injured-bird rehabilitation.

Rural Lands had been founded in 1986, when the land conservation movement was getting underway in response to a booming real estate market and the precipitous decline of small farming in the region. It was a response to fears about short-sighted, unchecked development that would ruin natural spaces and have unforeseeable consequences for communities.

The earliest instincts of the movement was to preserve whatever it could that was worth saving. But already there were hints that the mission could be understood in a broader way.

Reed-Evans recalled that her very first meeting with Rural Lands was prescient — it was with Art Rosenburg at Sunny Brook Farm on Route 7 to discuss conservation options.

Rosenburg, one of the last dairy farmers in the area, was in his late 70s and thinking about retirement. Rural Lands started looking for ways to help, but nothing seemed to fit. The soil at the site wasn't good enough for an agricultural preservation restriction, and efforts to lure a business to the land — ideas included an artisanal goat cheese farm, a trail hostel, and llama trekking — all fell flat.

Rural Lands was just working out details of its final option — purchasing the development rights outright — when Rosenburg suddenly passed away in 1998. The estate went to the American Red Cross, which put it on the market.

After a small bidding war with a local developer, Rural Lands purchased the parcel in 2000, and continued to search for a use at the property.

"I think the biggest question was that this is not leasing an office an office on Spring Street," Reed-Evans said. "This is owning a property with buildings with significant maintenance issues, with management issues, with costs we don't know."

But with infrastructure in bad need of renovation, Rural Lands decided the time was right to make a turn, one that would put a much different face on their work. It set about turning the site into a space to host programs and teach about land conservation and the town's rural heritage.

"What will keep us relevant in the future? My one thought was education," she said. "That's really important, and something most land trusts aren't involved with. We need to make sure we are raising a new generation of conservation supporters."

Since Rural Lands moved in 2003, Sheep Hill has become an educational resource. It hosts field trips from area schools, as well programs for kids like its Woodchuck Wednesdays — an unstructured nature camp that encourages kids to explore the area.

There are also events for the entire community, like its annual "Sheep to Shawl" event every spring, and occasional talks, including one about local honey scheduled for Oct. 29.

Reed-Evans said her work has continued as land conservation evolves.

"The big thing now is community conservation, looking at how land trusts can be more inclusive of community needs," she said.

A recent example is there accepting a gift of a parcel of land from the Lehovec family along Green River in the center of town, which will be adjacent to a possible bike path in the area.

"Land trusts are realizing that they need to do more to communicate the benefits of conservation at a very basic level," she said. "Why is what we do important for you? For different people it may be different things, but the point of having lands that are accessible and available is so people go out on them, enjoy them, and love them. They will stand up for things they love."


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