Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation marks 30 years of preservation


Photo Gallery | Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation

WILLIAMSTOWN — The Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation is celebrating 30 years of land preservation and conservation — and success stories are easy to find.

The foundation's Sheep Hill headquarters is a testament to the mission.

Purchased in 2000 from the Arthur Rosenburg estate, the property offers public access to about 2.5 miles of hiking trails, an Interpretive Center, Josiah's Pond, rolling hills and grassy areas suited for picnicking.

A Wetlands Walk is now outfitted with a wooden boardwalk that is wheelchair accessible.

Foundation members initially envisioned a working farm at the site but the rocky terrain and other factors created obstacles to farming, foundation Executive Director Leslie Reed-Evans said.

"The more time we spent here, the more we realized having a headquarters here made sense," she said.

The foundation membership is passionate about preserving hiking trails and is working to develop more trail systems throughout Williamstown. Education about the area history and how valuable land is to the region is another strong foundation component, she said.

The private nonprofit land conservation trust was formed in 1986 amid the loss of open space and the demise of regional family farms. A government initiative paying farmers to not produce milk and booming real estate development were taking a toll on farms and open spaces, she said.

"The pressures on the land were changing and it seemed a good time to look at how we wanted our town to look," Reed-Evans said. "As a land trust, we wanted to be able to affect landscapes while working with the community."

Today, the foundation owns 574 acres in 15 land parcels that are open to the public for hiking and recreation. Foundation-owned land includes the Fitch Memorial Woodlands on Bee Hill Road, six acres along Northwest Hill Road adjacent to Hopkins Forest, and the Hopper Brook Loop and the Haley Farm trails.

The foundation also has 12 conservation restrictions over an additional 280 acres and has preserved more than 3,500 acres of prime agricultural, forest and habitat lands. The foundation is governed by a 16-member board of directors. Town resident Philip McKnight is the foundation president.

The organization served as a facilitator for a recent farm preservation project that ensures farming will continue at one of the Berkshires largest working dairy farms.

On June 29, 237 acres of the Fairfields Dairy farm were permanently preserved through a state Agriculture Preservation Restriction program. The state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs oversees the voluntary program.

The state purchased farmland development rights for $2,485,000 and a $150,000 local match requirement was funded via grants from the Williamstown Community Preservation Fund, Berkshire Natural Resources Council, private donations, and the foundation's land protection fund.

The Blair Road farm is owned by James Galusha, whose family farmed the land for three generations. Galusha remains the property owner and may sell the property but the restriction must be honored by a future owner under the terms of the preservation restriction.

The preservation means that the land can be used for agricultural purposes but will never be developed.

"We have been very active in preserving working landscapes," Reed-Evans said.

Caretaker Farm exemplifies the foundation's ability to support land use and preservation. In that situation, the foundation became a property owner. Most agricultural preservations do not result in the foundation purchasing property, Reed-Evans said.

Bridget Spann and Don Zasada operate the Hancock Road farm. The foundation stepped in about a decade ago, when former farm owners Sam and Elizabeth Smith wanted to sell the farm. The couple faced a challenge: keeping the purchase affordable for another farmer while being able to see some profit from the sale.

The farmland was preserved through an agricultural preservation restriction and in 2006, the foundation purchased the land. Spann and Zasada purchased the buildings and entered into a 99-year land lease with the foundation.

"This farm is protected and will be sustainable and affordable for years to some," Spann said during a recent interview. "When the time comes for us to leave the farm, we will need to find a qualified farmer — it could be one of our children — and this farm is something that the town will benefit from for years to come."

The farm relies on solar panels for almost all its electrical power, Spann said. The lease mandates that no pesticides or insecticides may be used, and there must be crop and animal rotation. These measures protect the land and the produce, she said.

"It's a way of building up the land fertility," she said. "It's important that there is a foundation and someone like Leslie, who says 'We can't just preserve the farm land, we have to preserve working farms and it has to be sustainable.' "

On the web ...

Additional information about the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation and its programs may be found at a www.wrlf.org.


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