Environmental officials from across Massachusetts were in the Berkshires this week to celebrate a conservation milestone.
On top of a grassy hill in West Stockbridge, the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game announced it is now protecting more than 200,000 acres of land. Since the start of Governor Deval Patrick’s administration in 2007, the agency has invested $64 million for land acquisition, adding nearly 40,000 conservation acres in that time. Rick Sullivan is the state’s Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
“But it is also an economic development strategy particularly when you are out here in Berkshire County,” Sullivan said. “There are over 90,000 people that work in the field of hunting, fishing and open space recreation. It brings in tens of millions of dollars into the local economy. But, you also see the companies that are looking to locate here and grow here in the commonwealth of Massachusetts. When you ask them why they’re coming they talk about quality of life. Good schools, certainly. Police and fire, certainly. But, open space. That means access to rivers, streams, hunting and fishing.”
Partnering with more than 75 environmental organizations, Sullivan says the state is looking to expand on the 110,000 acres of land acquired overall during the current administration.
“We certainly look for endangered species and unique habitats,” he said. “We look for, in this particular case, are we able to put together an unfragmented forest that helps the migratory patterns of certain species. At the same time, now we look to address the issues of climate change and putting together larger tracks of land.”
In the past fiscal year alone, the Department of Fish and Game has acquired more than 3,500 acres. One of those pieces was the Maple Hill Wildlife Management Area, just across the street from where officials had gathered for the announcement. Brian Hawthorne is a habitat biologist with the department working out of its Dalton office.
“That land is former agricultural land,” Hawthorne said. “The area has pasture land that is growing into forest. It also has old apple orchards that we’ll be retaining the apple trees for wildlife food. At the base of the hill, it has rich limestone soils that will support many rare species of plants.”
The state's conservation area on Maple Hill totals more than 560 acres, completed in two steps. The first phase, finished in June 2011, was the creation of the 273-acre area north of the Massachusetts Turnpike known as the Flat Brook Wildlife Management Area. The final phase was completed in December 2012, marked by a $1-million acquisition of 190 acres from the Wilde and Gennari families. This included 5,500 feet of road frontage providing public access to the existing hunting area. Here’s Hawthorne.
“If we had not protected the land it’s very likely that it would have been sold off to a developer and there would have been a dozen house lots in there or three or four larger house lots,” Hawthorne said. “In fact, just to the south of the land that we purchased, there was a development that went in with four or five large estate lots with a private road that serves that. That habitat has been lost now.”
Most of the state’s land is open for hunting and fishing. $5 from the sale of every hunting and fishing license goes towards the commonwealth’s conservation efforts. As President of the Berkshire County League of Sportsman, Mark Jester represents more than 3,200 hunters, fishers and trappers.
“We have some of the best cold water fisheries in the country,” Jester said. “We have people that come from all over the world to fish some of our lakes and ponds that produce trophy fish.”