A Hat Trick for Conservation
The small twist of fate that resulted in conserving the Crowningshield farm in Heath has become a transformative experience for Franklin Land Trust and its partner, Trout Unlimited.
In a hat trick for conservation, the collaborative project has conserved a family farm, protected valuable habitat for wild trout, and opened new possibilities for cooperative projects that involve riparian acreage.
For years, Frederick Crowningshield and his son, Arthur, ran their dairy farm, pasturing Ayrshire cattle. But when Arthur was killed in a farm accident, Frederick could no longer manage the farm alone. Fred hung on to his wish that the farm would maintain its character, but Agricultural Preservation Restrictions (APRs) require that farms have a high percentage of soils of prime importance to the state’s agriculture. No matter how one looked at it, the Crowningshield farm didn’t meet those standards.
Nearly seven years ago, when FLT began exploring options for conserving the Crowningshield Farm, Fred was frail and living with his daughter, Phyllis, in Greenfield. An APR was not feasible, but FLT hoped that, because the property had a fairly large area of open land, the Massachusetts Department Fish and Game might be interested—they were not.
Time passed; FLT was stymied. Fred passed on, and Phyllis continued her effort to fulfill his wish.
Then in the fall of 2014 a local farmer, David Freeman, approached FLT to see whether they could facilitate his purchase of the land. FLT did a fresh appraisal, hoping they could use a newer tool, the Massachusetts Conservation Land Tax Credit, to help David. But the appraisal priced the land higher than David expected, even with a restriction in place. Once again, the process came to a halt.
Phyllis was patient, but if she could not get an agreement with David, she was ready to put the land on the open market. Time was finally running out.
Frustrated but determined, FLT’s Josh Morse and Will Sloan Anderson walked the property again. Josh is a biologist and an avid fly fisherman. As he studied the pool and riffles in the river waters, he thought they looked like a great place for wild trout. He did more research on wild brook and brown trout in Massachusetts, discovering that the West Branch North River, a tributary of the Deerfield, is one of the most important watersheds for native brook trout, not just in Massachusetts, but in the Northeast. In their native range, wild brook trout are a valuable indicator species for the overall health of a river. They require clean, cold, water to thrive and have seen sharp population declines in their historic range due to warming water temperatures, pollution, and loss of spawning locations and quality habitat.
Josh and Will contacted FLT volunteer monitor Mark Burton, who has a relationship with Trout Unlimited (TU) of Greater Boston as well as the local chapter. Mark called his contacts and set up a conference call with officers of TU and FLT, explaining that FLT would need 50 percent of the land cost ($50,000) to save the parcel from open market sale.
Trout Unlimited was excited, but normally they do not grant money for land purchase. FLT explained that the land trust could own the land and provide public access; TU would be stewards of the river and its important fishing waters. TU asked FLT to present the case to TU’s interstate council for Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
The presentation was received enthusiastically, and for the first time, the council gave unanimous approval for a donation of $45,000 toward purchase of the parcel. FLT then contacted Caleb Slater, head of the anadromous fish project for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, who agreed that the project was valuable to the state’s fisheries.
This data was sufficient for the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game to offer its support for the purchase of a conservation restriction on 100 acres of the farm.
FLT has now purchased the farm which they intend to continue to own and manage as a conservation area. There is also an old farmhouse on about eight acres of land that FLT has entered into an agreement to sell to a local farmer.
The process helped FLT understand the importance of the headwaters of the Deerfield River, seeing those arteries as drivers for terrestrial conservation throughout the Deerfield River watershed. FLT can now look beyond the usual land conservation partnerships to many entities, such as the MA Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Geological Survey; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the U.S. Forest Service, and Trout Unlimited.
FLT has been invited to a series of conferences that look at fisheries conservation, learning to recognize how that perspective can connect to terrestrial conservation. This comprehensive approach is an evolution in thinking for FLT.
Garry Crago, vice chair of the Massachusetts-Rhode island Council of Trout Unlimited, has walked the Crowningshield property.
“The river is in fabulous condition, bounded by good hardwood forest, not channelized, running a natural course. We devote a lot of funding to restoration, but this project showed us that working to conserve an intact river requires far less money, time and labor than restoring damaged habitat. Western Massachusetts has many more miles of river where conserving the surrounding land would safeguard cold, clean streams as well.”
“There were two pivot points in this process: FLT came to realize the value of the stream, not just the land. For TU, it was a profound discovery that supporting a land purchase to conserve an intact river requires far less money, time and labor than restoring damaged habitat.”
“In terms of return on investment, it is a huge shift. And we were able to work through the process in four months, which simply is not possible with restoration, where state and local approvals can take years to complete.”
“On this project,” Garry explains, “we were able to act quickly. When FLT presented, we had alerted all chapters to come to the meeting, and their support was tremendous. The Greater Boston chapter was generous in funding because they could see the opportunities to conserve a whole watershed. When we did our due diligence, we got great responses about Rich Hubbard and the FLT, so we will welcome other opportunities to work together.”
“Nothing gives you a better understanding of a stream’s health than walking into the river,” Crago maintains, “and fly fishing requires you to be in the water. If there are pollutants, your movement will disturb the riverbed so you can see or smell problems. Where you find stagnant pools, you realize the effects of damming and erosion on water’s movement and clarity. That’s why fly fishers make great stewards!”