Berkshire County wildlife sanctuary trails reopen to the public

Members of a birding class take in the scenery at Canoe Meadows in Pittsfield last May. The trails at the wildlife sanctuary have reopened to the public, but users must follow social-distancing guidelines.

Trails at Mass Audubon's wildlife sanctuaries at Pleasant Valley in Lenox and Canoe Meadows in Pittsfield have been reopened to users after being off-limits to the public for nearly two months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But the Pleasant Valley's nature center and buildings remain closed.

A science-based framework was used to determine which sanctuaries are deemed safe to be reopened at this time, said Becky Cushing, director of Berkshire Wildlife Sanctuaries. However, facilities such as the offices and restrooms at Pleasant Valley will remain closed. Although there will be no admission charge, donations are encouraged.

Social-distancing guidelines remain in place, and the public is being asked to wear face coverings, park only in designated areas and avoid "high-touch surfaces" such as benches and play areas, she said.

"We're asking for everyone's cooperation," Cushing said in a phone interview. "Otherwise, we won't be able to keep the trails open."

She also noted that Mass Audubon has been pursuing a coordinated statewide approach, designating certain sanctuaries as safe for public use. Two of the less-frequented Berkshire Wildlife Sanctuaries also have been reopened — Lime Kiln Farm in Sheffield and Tracy Brook in Richmond.

The statewide organization headquarters in Lincoln opened 20 other sanctuaries in the Connecticut River Valley, central and eastern Massachusetts, the North and South Shore, Cape Cod and the Islands, while another 30 remain closed.

"Just as the decision to close was not taken lightly, the decision to reopen resulted from a thoughtful process," Cushing said. "We're relying on users and communities to help us keep them open by following guidelines and wearing masks on our narrow trails and boardwalks" such as those at Pleasant Valley.

Support our journalism. Subscribe today. →

Mass Audubon has coordinated the reopening strategy with local health agencies in Pittsfield and with Tri-Town Health, which serves Lenox, Lee and Stockbridge, she said.

"After careful analysis and discussions with local officials, we have determined that we can safely open trails on many of our wildlife sanctuaries for local visitation," Mass Audubon stated in an announcement Monday. "These sanctuaries were selected based on a variety of conditions including being able to manage capacity for expected level of use (both on the trails and in the parking areas) as well as having support from the communities where they are located."

"We're in line with their guidance that no one should be congregating but passive recreation, such as trail hiking, can be open to the public," Cushing added. "It's a positive thing to be back on the trails, especially as the weather will be warming." She noted that Mass Audubon has been offering many virtual school and public programs during the closure.

To prioritize the health and safety of visitors, all of the organization's trails were closed on March 24 to support Gov. Charlie Baker's stay-at-home advisory. Programs and facilities had been shut down a few days earlier. Prior to closing the trails, many of the wildlife sanctuaries experienced huge surges in visitors, parking lots overflowed and social distancing was challenging on trails and boardwalks.

Like all nonprofits, Mass Audubon has been struggling with serious financial setbacks requiring some staff furloughs as well as the disappointment of program cancellation and sanctuary closures, according to a previous announcement from state headquarters. "We will take on each new challenge that comes our way with the ultimate goal of protecting the nature of Massachusetts for people and wildlife," Mass Audubon stated.

Cushing also noted that the Berkshire Sanctuaries reopening is especially timely, since the annual 24-hour Bird-a-Thon fundraiser from 6 p.m. Friday through 6 p.m. Saturday now can take place not only outside participants' homes but also at the sanctuaries, as long as the public can reach the locations by biking, walking or, for Canoe Meadows, paddling to the sanctuary.

Funds raised will support the BWS's science education program. To participate, donate or for more information, visit massaudubon.org/birdathon.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.