Often times, conservation and economics have butted heads. But a western Massachusetts company is looking to buck the trend.
The Ramblewild aerial adventure park in Lanesborough, Massachusetts is one of the largest climbing structures in the Northeast.
“It’s about 10 solid acres big,” said Luke Bloom, Ramblewild’s programming director and co-director of operations. “We have a series of eight separate aerial trails. Each one of our trails carries a series of about 15 elevated platforms anywhere between 12 and 50 feet up into the treetops. In between those platforms we have over 150 very unique elements that allow you to climb, jump, swing, soar and of course zipline from one platform to another.”
The park offers a tiered system of courses, based on difficulty, all the way up to the double black diamond. Bloom says the trail has a 10 percent success rate. In other words, just one of 10 people who attempt the course climb all the elements without weighting the harness.
“If you got the American Ninja Warrior in you, brother, we got what you need here,” said Bloom.
The aerial course looks like a spider web in the canopy. People in orange helmets maneuver across wooden boards, pegs, swings…you name it. At ground level, a 200-foot suspension bridge traverses a ravine, offering views of ziplines above.
“There she goes,” Bloom said as a girl rode along a zipline. “That’s our highest, fastest zipline in the park. She’s about 150 feet above the forest floor at the bottom with the river down there and going close to 20 miles an hour.”
One of the other major thrills is called the “Leap of Faith,” in which a climber willingly attaches their harness to what looks like a pulley and leaps off a platform.
“You won’t feel positive traction from that for about the first 1o or 15 feet, so it feels like a freefall,” said Bloom.
While in the aerial park, most of your focus is on the swinging, dangling obstacles or the ground below as you and other thrill-seekers launch off platforms 50 feet in the air. Many may not pause to consider what makes the whole experience possible: trees.
“We have to look at this entire thing as our commodity,” said Bloom.
As Bloom explains, every decision Ramblewild makes comes with the goal of keeping trees upright. Even the equipment keeping its aerial park visitors in the treetops.
“There are no pieces of metal,” Bloom explained. “There is no through-bolt that goes through any tree. We use a friction-wrapped design and a compression locking system. And protect the tree with cambium slats to protect the vascular cambium of the tree and then allow the tree to grow at its own natural rate.”
Ramblewild’s sustainability mindset is even more surprising when you consider the nearly 1,500-acre complex was purchased as a foray into the timber business. Valentina Cugnasca is the co-founder of Ramblewild. What exists today started as Feronia Forests. While working in investment finance in the early 2000s, Cugnasca was searching for assets uncorrelated to the markets, real estate and other oscillating factors. She settled on timber.
“Unlike other commodities like corn or other produce, you don’t actually have to harvest it on command,” Cugnasca said. “It grows happily by itself.”
Feronia Forests purchased two properties – one here in Lanesborough and the other in New York’s Adirondacks. Cugnasca says the plan was never to clear-cut the trees, but rather to use sustainable harvesting methods. Then, she had a change of heart.
“I remember being on the properties and looking around in the forest and saying ‘There has to be more value to these forests than the value of the real estate and the trees,’” she said. “And anybody who’s spent any time in the forest is going to nod their head and say ‘Well of course there is absolutely.’ But, how do you put a value on those other extra values of the forest?”
Cugnasca says the land’s recreational, spiritual, social and renewable energy potentials started to be seen.
“We set out to build a business case around that,” Cugnasca said. “It was really important to build a business case because I believe that business is a way to affect change.”
And in July 2014, the aerial adventure park opened.
“Now going into our fourth season, a lot of people really only know us for the aerial adventure park and we’re so much more than what we were even two or three years ago,” Bloom said. “We really are moving towards an adventure forest, an eco-tourism destination.”
Ramblewild visitors can also ride to the top of Sheep’s Heaven Mountain and view the Berkshire Wind Energy Project up close.
Six of the project’s 10 turbines are located on Feronia’s property, along the ridgeline of Brodie Mountain. The turbines rise nearly 400 feet into the air, when accounting for the blades. The project produces enough energy to power about 6,000 homes each year, according to the Berkshire Wind Power Co-op.
Roughly 70 miles of plastic tubing weaves throughout a 110-acre area collecting sap to produce maple syrup. Proceeds from the sale of Mission Maple support the group’s non-profit Feronia Forward. It sponsors field trips for students to come learn about the renewable energy, sap collection and sustainability efforts at Ramblewild.
“This is quite literally the biggest living laboratory that you can possibly find,” said Bloom.
Student projects have included building scaled-down wind turbines and studying the collection efficiencies of plastic versus traditional metal tree taps. As part of the group’s social mission, Bloom says Ramblewild also hosts professional development days for the county’s teachers.
“Then we gave them the time to sit with their colleagues and cohorts and create lesson plans of which they left with us,” Bloom said. “We’re now in the process of taking those lesson plans and creating a digital library for any teacher that wants to come here can go there and say ‘Oh, this is what a teacher from the fourth grade in Pittsfield did.’”
A low ropes course offers team-building exercises for companies and some of 30 miles of hiking trails can be utilized for shinrin yoku – a type of meditation that involves getting lost in nature. In addition to the intentional social building activities, Bloom says the aerial adventure park also creates a sense of shared struggle.
“You’ll see somebody on a trail who will look down and see somebody who is nervous and be like ‘Hey man! Don’t worry! I was right there like twenty minutes ago. You got to try this. You got to do that,’” Bloom recalled. “If you’re out on the street, there’s a good chance those two people never communicate.”
As I worked my way through the obstacles, I certainly saw the camaraderie. But when you’re all alone on a platform and the designated way down involves swinging by rope into a cargo net, hearing “You can do this” and “It’s not that bad” isn’t worth all that much.