Gene Chague | Berkshire Woods and Waters: Finally catching up with Jenny Hansell, executive director of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council

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When Tad Ames, the last Executive Director of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council (BNRC) retired and was succeeded by Jenny Hansell a couple of years ago, I had contacted her for a welcome interview. Well, since then, it has been one thing after another in both of our schedules and the interview never came about. It wasn't until COVID-19 arrived that time freed up in our schedules and we finally got together by phone for the interview.A little background on Jenny: She grew up in Detroit, Michigan, and as a child she went to sleepaway camp in Northern Michigan every summer. That's where she developed a real love for the outdoors and woods; not the activities like hunting, fishing and hiking so much as just walking around in the woods. She didn't know at the time that it was something you could do for a living. When in college, she hiked along the Appalachian Trail, among others, and that's where she learned about people who did conservation jobs — such as the Student Conservation Association, which she joined for a summer.

She took classes in American literature in the wilderness and read books by John Muir, Annie Dillard, Aldo Leopold, and others. After college she moved to New York City and got a job with the National Audubon Society in the fundraising department. Although she worked with people in the conservation, her job, at first, was raising money.

In her job she was able to travel the country and teach Audubon chapters about bird-a-thons. In that capacity, people would take her out birding in various states. After a year with the Birdathon, Hansell switched into the science department, where she studied climate change. After a while she took a new job with a local NYC environment group for a couple of years that got her involved with national parks in New York state.

But she had another side of her, that being a passion for the arts. She spent eight years doing art workshops for homeless children, as well as some grant writing. After 11 years in New York she and her husband moved to Sharon, Conn. She got a job running a community center in Millerton, N.Y., and spent 17 years doing that. It was there that she learned how to run a non-profit organization.

In late 2017, She learned that Tad Ames was moving on. She felt that he had done such an amazing job and it would be a great job for somebody. She applied for and got the job.

She came in with environmental and fund-raising experience but no land trust background. What she didn't have was the technical knowledge, but because they have Narain Schroeder, the Council's Director of Land Conservation, Nicole Pyser, Stewardship Coordinator, Mackenzie Geer, Director of Public Programs and other great staffers, she has been learning. One thing that she brought with her was an emphasis on the community education programs.

"The staff at BNRC is tremendous, extraordinarily talented, dedicated and knowledgeable," she said. It was a great opportunity to learn and they have been very patient with her. It's been working out very well for her and feels so grateful to be here. She loves her job, the community and the Berkshires.

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When the coronavirus hit, it took a while for her and the staff at BNRC to get their feet under them and figure out which work would continue, and which would be stopped. They have figured it out now.

In the past, the BNRC and the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife have been great partners acquiring and preserving open space through direct purchase or the purchase of Conservation Easements and Restrictions. With few exceptions, land conserved by BNRC has been open to all forms of passive recreation — hunting, fishing, bird watching, etc. With the change of leadership, local outdoor sports folks have been concerned that there might be a change in philosophy. According to Hansell, there will be no change in philosophy and they will continue to welcome hunters. Almost all of their lands are open to hunting. Understandably, the boardwalk at Parson's Marsh is one exception.

It is important to conserve land for other reasons, too, she said, like the High Road project. (For more info, click onto https://www.bnrc.org/the-high-road/). They will continue to allow hunting as they do have so much land that is currently open for hunting. No change is planned in that respect. Hunters have been such an important part of BNRC history and are integral to the Berkshires forests, she said.

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Due to COVID-19, lots of people are using their trails these days and kids are being more exposed to nature and the outdoors. She is getting letters from people thanking her for not closing the trails and that it is a life-saver. Unlike Mass Audubon which has buildings and bathrooms and had to address that issue, BNRC just has trails, trailheads and parking lots, which are easier to keep safe. For social distancing reasons, they did have to close Parsons Marsh. Staff is still needed to get out to see if trees had been blown down. Everybody is out and about.

At a few places they worry about crowding. At trailheads you will find signage to encourage social distancing on trails. Their use policies during this time follow the guidelines of the CDC and the state. They suggest that hikers bring a mask, in case the conditions warrant using one. They also ask that you avoid parking on the road if a parking lot is full and to come back at another time. Also, please leash your dog on BNRC trails at this time, since our four-legged friends don't seem to understand social distancing.

Is there a major threat to land conservation these days? A lot of what land is left is being developed and is very expensive, she said. It wasn't that way 30 or 40 years ago, but following 9/11, many people bought second home property in the Berkshires. Is COVID-19 going to do the same thing? Will there be another surge in land development?

What is BNRC's priority items? The High Road is their No. 1 feature that it will connect one town to another, provide someplace that is beautiful and where you want to walk and which has and community enthusiastic.

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When asked if she has a message for our readers, she said: "I guess my message to people is to just slow down a minute, to be in nature and to notice and appreciate what is around you. We are in the Berkshires, we have this incredible landscape all around us and it can sustain us and give us physical, mental and spiritual health. Just take a minute to appreciate it."

Sportsmen's Clubs gradually reopening

Subject to Governor Baker's COVID-19 Order No. 33, Sportsmen's Clubs with indoor and outdoor ranges will be allowed to reopen under his four-phase plan. In the Phase 1 reopening guidelines, the various sportsmen's clubs are reopening on a gradual basis subject to: social distancing, face mask or covering, hygiene protocols, cleaning and disinfecting and group size limitations.

Most clubs have mailed newsletters to their members or included them on their websites giving the important details of their re-openings. In addition to the above guidelines, each club has unique issues regarding the use of their indoor/outdoor ranges. There are some very explicit instructions in each club's newsletter on how to conduct yourself and you are strongly encouraged to read and abide by them. The directors of the clubs are not fooling around here. For example, the following is an excerpt from one club's newsletter: "If you do not adhere to these guidelines you will be locked out. If we find the members are not complying with these guidelines as laid out here, we will have no choice but to shut down the club."

You don't want to be the one responsible for the shutting down of your club.

Gene Chague can be reached at berkwoodsandwaters@roadrunner.com or 413-637-1818.


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