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Reflecting on Mount Grace's First Forest Legacy Project: Interviewing a Forest Steward

Brian Szyndlar found the land of his dreams in his current hometown of Petersham. “I’ve always had an interest in owning and managing forestland,” he told me as we enjoyed a pleasant midday summer breeze on his porch. “I don’t know where I got the bug, but it’s always been with me to be in the woods, work around the woods…”

I nibbled on some blueberries Brian picked that morning as I listened to his reasons for purchasing protected land. “Where I’m from in southeastern Mass, land was always expensive… I probably could have bought a small piece of land down there, but I just kept looking until I found out about this particular piece of land that Mount Grace helped conserve.”

Mount Grace protected the property back in 1996 as part of a Forest Legacy Program. This federal and state program encourages the protection of privately owned forest lands through conservation easements or land purchases to maintain a multitude of public benefits such as recreational opportunities, water quality, wildlife habitat, and forest products. According to Brian, three different owners (including a timber company and an investment company) managed this property throughout the 10 years between the time it was originally conserved and the time he bought it in 2006. The first owner conserved it in an effort to permanently protect his family’s sawmill business and the sale of the conservation restriction generated income for the family and reduced high inheritance taxes.

For Brian, an important feature of the property was its size, and he appreciated that it was relatively affordable despite its proximity to his original home. “It happened to be in conservation, which significantly kept the price down,” said Brian. “So, I actually ended up getting a lot more land closer to home because it was under a conservation restriction.” At the time, development pressures were driving land prices up. In the area Brian lived, “a house lot could cost the same money I paid for the 500 acres of conservation land,” he pointed out. “Fully forested, stocked… It was a great deal.”

Apart from the relatively low purchase price of the property, Brian has received multiple federal grants to maintain the trails and manage his woods due to his land having been conserved. Through these grants, Brian received funding to perform multiple forest management activities such as thinning to promote oak regeneration and early successional habitat as well as to control pests and reduce erosion.

In addition to the timber harvesting potential, Brian’s conserved property also has unique natural, cultural, and recreational features that the public are welcome to experience. One side of the property displays rugged terrain with bear dens, rock outcroppings, ravines, and a nice view into Wendell. On the other side, Brian maintains walking trails, which include a segment of one of the town’s first roads that connected Petersham to North Dana and New Salem. Here, hikers can admire the foundation of an old farm building that belonged to one of Petersham’s first European settlers. Locals maintain hidden mountain bike trails and, although Brian is not a hunter, hunting is allowed on his land as well.

“I feel it’s a little bit of my small part to take care of this place that somehow fell into my lap, for a little while, until its someone else’s turn… Someone’s gotta take care of it!”

Brian shared with me an optimistic vision of his land and our region for the next few decades. His property’s conservation status will allow subsequent landowners to manage the land differently, but it will never turn into house lots and strip malls: “I most likely am not going to be around in 35 years, so someone else is going to step in… and probably have different ideas. I have a lot of involvement with my particular piece of land (I do a lot of hands-on work) and spend a lot of time there. The next owner may not do that at all. The next owner may own it because he’s an avid hunter and wants it for hunting—totally opposite of me! —But it’s going to remain forestland.”

Beyond his property, Brian is also passionate about his town. Thanks to him, now I know where to look to find many of the old railroad beds around my neighborhood! Brian particularly appreciates the large amount of contiguous protected land in the area, including state forests and private land: “There is conservation land all around us here… including state land …All through these woods, and across the street… It’s almost like you own it all… It’s all connected.” He is happy to feel that Petersham, as well as the region in general, is very conservation minded. He is aware of the rising building pressures in our area, but he also believes that support for land conservation will also continue to grow, especially after the effect the pandemic has had in the demand for local open spaces to get out to: “I think there is going to be more desire, as time goes on, for conservation land and open space. You can already see it. You can see how the pandemic triggered some of that.”

Overall, Brian is proud to have an important role in the stewardship of his land, even if just until it is passed on to the next landowner: “I feel it’s a little bit of my small part to take care of this place that somehow fell into my lap, for a little while, until its someone else’s turn… Someone’s gotta take care of it!”