PITTSFIELD — Jenny Hansell grew up in a big city in the Midwest where being close to nature was more of a myth than a reality. But, she always could pretend. Hansell remembers sitting in her backyard imagining that she was in a field near a lake or by a mountain.
Those youthful daydreams became more concrete as Hansell got older. She had worked for several conservation organizations before becoming executive director of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, a land conservancy organization, in 2018. Hansell is the first person from outside the organization to head the BNRC since the nonprofit was formed in 1967, succeeding original president/co-founder George Wislocki and, more recently, Tad Ames.
We spoke with the Williamsburg resident about her love for conservation and the outdoors, the current status of the BNRC's High Road countywide trail system, and the delicate balance between conserving open space and allowing room for development in tourist-friendly Berkshire County.
Q: What interests you about working in conservation and nature?
A: I grew up in Detroit. I was surrounded by a huge city that already, in the '70s, was on the decline. But, I would sit out in my backyard forever, imagining that I was in nature.
Then I went to summer camp and found this incredible connection to trees and wildlife and water and flowers, and it all just felt very important to me.
I worked as a park ranger when I got out of college (Yale University), and I worked for the National Audubon Society and a couple of environmental groups. It always felt essential and urgent for me to work on protecting nature, and it still does.
Q: You told me when you took this job that the description for the position just seemed to fit. What did you mean by that?
A: What I meant was that it fit my goals of trying to make my mark doing something about climate change. But, also professionally, I felt like it fit my skills and background.
I have this background having worked with environmental organizations early in my career, and then I spent 20 years as an executive director of small nonprofits, so I had management and leadership skills. So, I thought that I could step into the position and help the BNRC move forward. I was familiar with the organization. I knew Tad slightly. His sister happened to be my college roommate.
Q: What's the current status of the High Road project?
A: When I got here, Tad had just wrapped up a capital campaign to raise $5 million to get things off and running. So, my job is to actually bring it to fruition.
We've spent a lot of time sort of planning out where the High Road should go, how to prioritize where the routes should be, figuring out what are the ultimate goals of the High Road and to have a fresh vision of that. What we really envision, this is a way to walk from town to town or, as we like to say, food to food. ... It connects people to the bed-and-breakfasts or the restaurants because they are stopping points along the way.
It's not really a wilderness backpack like the Appalachian Trail or the Long Trail. It's really more for the person who starts out in Lenox, who may have come to the Berkshires for the culture, and now they want to take a walk and end up in Pittsfield and visit the wonderful attractions. It is also a way for people to walk from a town out into nature and back again because there are some places like North Adams that are surrounded by nature but it's hard to get to if you don't have a car.
Q: When will the High Road project be completed?
A: The first segment was supposed to open in the fall, but COVID slowed us down. It will open in the spring, connecting Pittsfield at Bousquet [Mountain]. You'll be able to go up our new Mahanna Cobble Trail [at Bousquet] and get on what we call the Yokun Trail and go into Lenox. ... Ultimately, [the trail system] will be throughout the county. ...
There will be several different routes going in several different directions instead of one route from Sheffield to Williamstown, so, ideally, there may be 60 or 70 or 100 miles of trail. ... For a while, it's going to be different segments. ... It started in 2018, so by 2028 we're going to have something very significant.
Q: How do efforts to conserve land in the Berkshires compare with those practices in other areas?
A: We're in very good shape in many ways in the Berkshires. About a third of the Berkshires is conserved. I think we have 600,000-some acres here and 240,000 are under conservation.
However, let me put that in a slightly bigger context. I recently read an interesting statistic: I think it was something like 70 percent of the northeastern states are forested, but only a small percentage of that is actually under conservation. ... So, it's really important not to stop now, because if it's not conserved, it could be developed tomorrow. It may just be sitting there quietly now, and it looks like it's part of the natural world, but there's nothing keeping it from being turned into condominiums or shopping malls or luxury houses or whatever the current demand is for land.
Q: With so many visitors and so many people seeking to relocate here, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the need for affordable housing in the Berkshires, I assume there's a constant tug of war here between conservationists and developers. Am I correct?
A: We've seen a real surge of people relocating to the Berkshires just since COVID, which is putting a lot of pressure on housing prices, which is on people who live here and are struggling to get by and need a place to live.
There's a trust called the Community Land Trust ( in Great Barrington) that really focuses more on housing than nature. The BNRC has not been very involved in that until now, but it's something we're very interested in because, as part of our goal for bringing more diversity, equity and inclusion into the conservation movement, I think you have to pay more attention to the needs of the people in our community and their connection to the land.
Q: Do you run into a lot of resistance from developers?
A: I haven't been around long enough, so I'm not a survivor of some of the battles that George or Tad might have been in. But, inevitably, there's always going to be competing interests. ...
There will always be somebody who stands up and speaks for the right to profit or to build or whatever that may be. So, our role is to speak up for nature because it's not a special interest. Clean air and clean water affect all of us, so we're really trying to advocate for what is going to protect all of us.
The easy way to think about it is jobs versus the environment. It's never that simple. It's never helpful or healthy to think about it that way because people's livelihoods and a clean, green healthy environment can absolutely coexist. It just takes getting out of the old-fashioned us-versus-them mentality to find that path.
Q: You told me when you took this job three years ago that you wanted to hike all of the BNRC's trails during your first year. Did you actually accomplish that?
A: Within the first six to eight weeks [after taking the job] I injured myself and I spent the whole first summer in a boot. So, no, I didn't accomplish that goal. I'm pretty close to that now, but we keep opening new trails, so I've got more to do. I'm almost there.