Conserving the beauty of the Berkshires

The Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation, nestled comfortably above ‘Where’d you get that?’ could be questioned for its very existence. Many would argue that a beautiful secluded area like Williamstown does not need a conservation agency. Leslie Reed-Evans, the executive director of the foundation, argues that her foundation is dedicated to preserving the character and beauty of the Berkshires in collaboration with the local community.

The foundation was established in 1986 in response to concerns that Williamstown might lose its character and heritage due to the development and expansion of the town. “We aim to keep Williamstown’s surroundings as much as they are as is feasible, because these surroundings are what people are drawn to,” Reed-Evans said.

She explains that the town has many resources, which draw visitors and locals, including the College, the Clark Art Institute and the Williamstown Theatre Festival. People are also attracted to the natural scenery around them and a combination of all these factors make Williamstown unique from other New England towns.

Reed-Evans points out that Williamstown’s resources ensure that the community is educated and driven by intellectual energy. In this context, the foundation receives a substantial amount of support from the local community. Approximately two-thirds of the foundation’s funding comes from local membership and donations. The foundation’s board of directors represents the diversity of the citizenry, to ensure that the concerns of each segment of the community are met.

Although many environmental organizations are perceived to be radical, the Williamstown group rejects this stereotype. “We’re not anti-growth,” Reed-Evans said. She emphasizes that the organization aims to work with the community on a partnership basis. To this end, the foundation sponsors nature outings in the local community. The number of people attending these nature outings has increased significantly over the past decade.

As a part of its effort to increase nature awareness, the foundation has bought land and developed two trails near Mt. Greylock. One trail is located in the Hopper, while the other is right off of Berlin Road. Both trails are relatively short, at less than two miles each. According to Reed-Evans, the short trails were deliberately developed so that families with small children and others looking for a non-intense experience could enjoy nature themselves. She said that while not everyone is ready to make a trek to the summit, many people are still interested in experiencing Mt. Greylock.

The foundation collaborates with the College on a regular basis. At times the members give lectures to students in environmental studies classes. Of greater value are the internships the foundation offers to college students. Erryn Leinbaugh ’99 is one such intern. Leinbaugh, whose passion for nature has led him to positions with agencies such as the forest service, worked on trail maintenance, clearing the trails. He also had to make sure the trail was marked throughout. One challenge was to make sure all types of users used the trail in a balanced manner. All-terrain vehicle (ATV) users posed a big problem, as they like to use the trail a lot. Unfortunately, riding an ATV means there is increased soil erosion on the trail. Soil erosion leads to destruction of the very habitat the trail was established to protect. The issue was whether to limit the ATV drivers on the trails or not. “They’re users too,” Leinbaugh said, explaining the dilemma. “The trails are supposed to be there for everybody.”

Leinbaugh views the work of the foundation as a positive sign that even a small community like Williamstown can be conscious about its natural surroundings. “Williamstown needs a view of where it is going in terms of economic development,” he said. “The foundation is there to assist the local community in its quest for preserving the traditional character and heritage of the town.”

Indeed the foundation aims to spend more money on maintaining the land it has already earmarked for preservation. Too often, environmental agencies devote resources to buying land and, as a result, they cannot preserve the lands which they buy. The foundation assists individual landowners who wish to preserve private property in accessing state funds and securing tax breaks. Such arrangements include the owner’s surrendering the right to develop his land while keeping ownership and title. Therefore the owner receives a tax cut from the government and the property is left to nature.

The Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation is working hard to preserve the area’s character. Although the Berkshires appear untainted in many respects, it is often the unseen detriments which cause the environment to suffer over time.

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