Statewide Mass Audubon leader weighs in on pipeline, Pleasant Valley site damage

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LENOX — The new statewide president of Mass Audubon has filed for intervenor status for its West Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary in Plainfield, just over the border from Berkshire County, in the federal review of the proposed Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. project.

During his first visit to the environmental and land conservation organization's Berkshire Sanctuaries as president, Gary Clayton said he is "very concerned" about the 1,627-acre sanctuary in northwest Hampshire County, which adjoins Windsor and is about 25 miles east of Pittsfield.

He questioned whether the idea of placing the route within "large green blocks on the map represents a wide or sound approach." According to the Kinder Morgan subsidiary's preferred route, the pipeline would cut across the West Mountain sanctuary after exiting the Berkshires from Windsor.

West Mountain, within the Westfield River watershed, is one of the largest sites of conserved land in the state, Mass Audubon states, and provides "valuable habitat for moose, black bears, otters, fishers, and bobcats as well as habitat for a number of state-listed rare plants and animals, and nesting sites for threatened ground nesting birds."

Kinder Morgan, parent company of Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co., has filed an application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee to construct a 412-mile high-pressure natural gas line that crosses seven Central Berkshire towns.

Mass Audubon has a crucial stake in the outcome, Clayton said, because of the organization's statewide commitment to protecting and preserving "important lands," including Pleasant Valley, which had been targeted along a previously proposed pipeline route, which has been put aside.

"From ecological, aesthetic and economic development perspectives, I want to emphasize what's so special about these places, and I would submit it's not more pipelines," he said.

Clayton, formerly vice president for conservation programs at Mass Audubon, also is pursuing restoration plans for about 1.3 acres of disturbed Pleasant Valley land along the Lenox Mountain ridgeline. The sanctuary property was damaged during a Pittsfield Airport Commission project last summer to rebuild an access route so a deactivated safety beacon could be re-lit atop Yokun Seat.

The Lenox Conservation Commission is seeking a detailed plan from the airport's consulting engineer, Stantec, in order to avoid issuing a Scenic Mountain Act violation notice.

Mass Audubon's western regional conservation scientist, Tom Lautzenheiser, is heavily involved in preparing the restoration design after assessing damage that includes harsh degradation of the mountaintop land. At least 85 trees were uprooted and underbrush and vegetation were destroyed, he reported, exposing soils on steep slopes to potential severe erosion.

"As we think about any of the legal issues that might arise, we're prepared," Clayton noted, citing economic resources he has committed to the project that include the hiring of legal counsel and a planned new survey of Pleasant Valley's property lines.

In a letter to the Lenox Conservation Commission, Boston attorney Kathleen Connolly listed "egregious violations. ... unauthorized intrusion onto its property and the associated damage to vegetation and soils in this sensitive mountain environment."

"At this stage, we're optimistic that in working with the Conservation Commission and Stantec, the restoration plan will be adequate and that letter will be the only need we'll have for legal counsel," said Becky Cushing, director of the Berkshire Sanctuaries.

However, Clayton stated, "this isn't over yet and we've got to see what the plan says and whether the Pittsfield Airport Commission is prepared to fund what's required. So, we're optimistic but the jury's still out."

"We take on an obligation when we acquire or are given land or money to buy land," he commented. "Whether it's natural gas pipelines or other projects, we take our responsibilities seriously."

During a conversation in Pleasant Valley's administrative center, a onetime-1790 farmhouse and surrounding land acquired in 1929, Clayton — the permanent Mass Audubon president since October — said he has been a frequent visitor to the sanctuary during his 27 years as an Audubon staffer.

His mission includes brainstorming with Cushing about new programming. He predicted "some exciting opportunities" for additional summer season offerings as well as "engaging the public of all ages" in educational ventures.

A comprehensive site plan involving upgrades to the existing structures yielded "significant improvements" to the barn and the education building, Clayton said. The main building, including a gift shop, is getting new investments to improve accessibility and for general renovations.

Before considering any major changes such as a separate visitors center, Cushing said, "we first need to know where the true needs are." The outcome depends on the new programming with the help of newly hired educator Dale Abrams for the Berkshire Sanctuaries.

"Our focus is bringing people here and connecting her to the land," Cushing stressed, along with new activities involving area schools and attention to energy efficiency.

Cushing noted that Pleasant Valley, which includes 1,300 acres, hires seasonal staffers, including nine counselors, mostly area college students, for its summer camp. Cushing was named director of the Berkshire Sanctuaries in May 2014, succeeding Rene Laubach, who retired after 29 years in the post.

At Canoe Meadows in Pittsfield, the Sackett Brook dam-removal site is being monitored, Cushing said. The annual after-school program offered at nearby Herberg Middle School includes field trips and science projects.

The site's wildlife observation pavilion, which was destroyed by fire last June, is targeted for potential redesign.

Programs at the Lime Kiln sanctuary in Sheffield are being enhanced, Cushing said, including a wildlife tracking workshop this winter.

"People who go will love that sanctuary," she commented, citing rolling trails through fields and "spectacular views."

Cushing, a self-described science nerd, acknowledged that "I don't even try to hide it anymore. I take pride in that."

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551

Berkshire Sanctuaries at a glance ...

Sites: 100 wildlife sanctuary sites statewide, including three in the Berkshires.

Public access: 56 sanctuaries prepared for visitation, including Pleasant Valley in Lenox, Canoe Meadows in Pittsfield and Lime Kiln in Sheffield: Trails, off-street parking, maps, programs

Annual visitors: At least 20,000 at the three sanctuaries.

Annual budget: $24 million statewide, $430,000 for the Berkshire sanctuaries, supported by gifts, grants, Mass Audubon allocations, statewide and local membership support and visitor fees, cultural council grants, endowment draws. The 501(c3) non-profit is breaking even.

Staffing: 220 statewide, four in Berkshire County (all full-time), plus one part-time and seasonal staffers.

Endowment: $2.3 million for Berkshire Sanctuaries; $86,884 contributed to operating funds and $20,087 to special projects (such as building maintenance, trail maintenance, camp scholarships).

New programming: Free summer education programs, such as bird walks at Pleasant Valley as monthly introductory programs at Lime Kiln in Sheffield, funded by area cultural councils.

Source: Mass Audubon


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