LENOX — Against the backdrop of an expanded and renovated 18th-century Program Barn at Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, Mass Audubon President David O’Neill on Friday laid out a sweeping five-year Action Agenda that he called “incredibly energetic, hopeful, achievable.”
The plan, he said, emphasized action to confront climate change, conserving more land to support vulnerable wildlife, and enabling many more people of diverse backgrounds and experiences to connect with nature. A key goal is protecting and conserving 30 percent of the state’s open land in five years by doubling the pace of land-preservation efforts.
“You see the change in climate here in the Berkshires and you understand how important this resilient landscape is to a shifting climate,” O’Neill said. Mass Audubon’s expanding membership, now topping 135,000 statewide, is primed to advocate for policies by organizing politically to push for change at the local, state and national levels, he added.
The completion of the $1.1 million barn project to enhance indoor programming, along with new restroom facilities, a handicapped-access ramp and a new roof, is “a historic moment” at the 92-year-old sanctuary, said Mass Audubon West Director Becky Cushing Gop, who manages Pleasant Valley, Canoe Meadows in Pittsfield and other sanctuaries in Western Massachusetts. The project was designed by J Harwood Architect, based in Lenox.
“It’s significant statewide,” she said, citing the Opening Doors to Nature fundraising campaign that helped raise the $1,125,000 cost of the project. At least 300 individual donors, the Mass Cultural Council’s Cultural Facilities Fund, foundations and partners contributed.
“Our work to provide equitable, inclusive access to nature for all, it’s right here in front of us,” she told the gathering of supporters and political leaders in front of the barn.
“This building is all about providing access for everyone to nature,” O’Neill stressed. An Action Agenda goal is to create three new urban sanctuaries and 20 urban green spaces “to bring nature to communities that lack it,” he told the crowd. “We’re trying to create more opportunity for low-income communities and communities of color to participate.”
Additional investment is planned for the Canoe Meadows “urban wildlife” sanctuary, Cushing Gop said.
During the coronavirus pandemic, cooped-up residents helped more than double the number of visitors to Mass Audubon sanctuaries, O’Neill said.
“People wanted and needed to get to nature,” he said. In April, the organization recorded the largest number of new members in its 125-year history.
“Buildings and additions like this will help us protect nature for now and for future generations,” O’Neill said.
“We in the Berkshires are going to be critical in these statewide goals, taking the work we do to the next level,” Cushing Gop said.
She cited state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, who attended the event, as a champion and supporter of the project, as well as Matthew Keator and Allyce Najimy, trustees and members of the Mass Cultural Council’s governing leadership who advocate for the Berkshires.
“We’re pounding the tables and raising our hands,” Keator said.
“We actually received two rounds of funding from MCC, one for $200,000 and a second for $100,000; both are to support the Opening Doors to Nature campaign and, specifically, the barn addition to make it an accessible and welcoming program and visitor space,” Cushing Gop told The Eagle.
“The first round of funding supported the building of the addition itself and the second round supports interior visitor elements like interactive educational displays and lighting.”
Pignatelli cited town of Lenox leaders, including Select Board Chairman Neal Maxymillian and member Marybeth Mitts, for helping drive support for the state money.
“Pounding on the table sometimes is what it takes, dealing with the Boston folks,” Pignatelli said. “Coming up to the ‘Bird Sanctuary,’ as we called it when we were kids, was always special as a family trip or school trip. … We need to value what we have here and protect what is so special to the Berkshires.”
In an Eagle interview, O’Neill acknowledged that Mass Audubon “took a painful hit, early” from the pandemic, losing $5 million in program revenue and letting go the people who run the programs.
But, as the year progressed, he said, donor generosity came through.
“People cared so much about the mission and the organization, and we were very fortunate to get some large, significant grants that helped us not take any more cuts and go into this year with a fairly healthy balance sheet, much better than we expected,” O’Neill said, noting that the organization is hiring 67 staffers to restore operations, as membership has expanded by 22 percent. “We actually will run a surplus this year.”