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Family Protects Land in Three Towns for Moose, Moss, Gnomes

Posted Wednesday, June 29, 2016

In 1947 Barbara and Richard B. Ellis bought 40 acres at the top of Briggs Road in Athol.  The hunting cabin and colonial barn on the land had no electricity or running water, so the couple embarked on the first of a series of remodels and additions as they raised their children on the land.  Barbara Ellis, a noted watercolorist, and Richard, principal of Athol High School, also began purchasing other neighboring parcels as they became available to piece together what was the historic Briggs Farm.  When their daughter Susie moved back to town, after marrying her husband Ben Feldman, the family owned hundreds of acres of contiguous land in Phillipston, Petersham, and Athol.

This June, as Mount Grace celebrated its 30th Anniversary, the Feldmans permanently protected 297 acres with a conservation restriction (CR), keeping that land in private ownership and undeveloped forever.  Mount Grace has now protected more than 31,000 acres in the last 30 years.  The CR allows the Feldmans to continue forest management, trail building, and recreational uses.  “We are conserving the land so our grandchildren’s grandchildren’s generation will be able to walk in the woods and feel the magic of growing trees,” says Susie.  “We are also doing this for the plants and animals that share our planet, whose habitat has been sorely reduced. It is our hope that living beings, from mosses and lichens on up to moose and bear, can find homes, food, and shelter on this and other conserved land.” 

When Susie, then an art teacher in the Orange Elementary schools, and Ben, Treasurer for the Town of Athol, moved to the house in 1998 they brought Susie’s Norwegian Fjord horse Elke and a love of trails, trail building, and rustic statuary.  Today garden gnomes and the occasional mermaid are scattered throughout the property, peering out at hikers and riders as they use the miles of foot and equestrian trails.

Both Feldmans are graduates of UMass Amherst’s Keystone Program, which is based at the Harvard Forest and teaches landowners to advocate for sustainable forestry and forest conservation.  The land is a Forest Stewardship Council certified tree farm.  Forester Mike Mauri has worked with the family to clear a section of the woodland to create an open area of shrubs and tree saplings to support bird species with declining populations.  A recent survey of the new habitat confirmed the presence of two targeted birds: eastern towhee and broad-winged hawk.

The land borders Harvard Forest and provides a critical wooded buffer to Harvard’s long-term ecological studies that monitor the health of eastern forests, as well as extends a significant corridor of conservation land that will allow unimpeded wildlife passage from the Quabbin Reservoir north to New Hampshire.  ”The Feldmans are valued neighbors who serve as model land stewards and share inspiring lessons with our students and staff,” says David Foster, Director of Harvard Forest.  By protecting their land they have ensured that this wonderful well-managed landscape will remain intact and will provide inspiration and many benefits for future generations.”

The new CR is one of a dozen conservation projects making up the Quabbin Heritage Landscape Project, which will conserve 2,600 acres.  Massachusetts Representative Susannah Whipps Lee, who helped win support for the project while serving on the Athol Select Board thanked the Feldman family for participating in Quabbin Heritage and “for their generosity which will insure that this beautiful piece of land is protected for future generations to enjoy."

Funded by the Massachusetts Landscape Partnership Program, Quabbin Heritage is helping landowners protect working forests, rare species habitat, and the streams that feed the Quabbin Reservoir.  “We knew we wanted the property to be open land forever,” says Ben, “and we wanted to settle the ultimate fate of the land now so that it wouldn’t become an issue for future generations, so that it would always be one piece.”

“I’m glad we’ve done this,” adds Susie.  “I think the big picture is to leave the place better than it was, and this is a way we can do that. As we have been entrusted to care for a portion of land, this is how we feel we can best assure its health and longevity. Forever.”