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Landscape Conservation: Rare Wetland Protected in Winchendon

Victoria Shaw’s regular workday ends at 7 each morning when she arrives home in North Orange from the night shift at her workplace in Athol.  On the Friday before Christmas 2009, she capped her daily commute by heading to Greenfield to sign the deed for a land protection deal to conserve 104 acres of her land, including an extremely rare wetland in Winchendon.

The conservation agreement, coordinated by Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust with the help of a loan from The Conservation Fund, an Arlington Virginia based foundation, will result in the land being bought by the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game next year. 

The agreement protects two separate tracts of land.  The first is a 23-acre parcel in Royalston entirely within the Millers River Wildlife Management Area, which includes the headwaters of Rich Brook, a tributary to the Millers River.  The second, 81 acres in Winchendon, contains an exemplary northern Atlantic white cedar swamp, one of only two known occurences of that natural community type in Massachusetts.

Victoria Shaw, who has owned the land since the 1970s, always insisted in keeping the cedars standing, turning down several offers for the property as a whole.  “People would come around with plans to buy it,” said Shaw, “the town told them they could put in a road, cut the trees, and put up all kinds of houses, but I said those trees have been around for a long time.  They deserve to stay.”

There are four varieties of Atlantic white cedar swamps in the state.   Massachusetts classifies all of them as imperiled and as priorities for protection due to their unique plant cover and rarity.  Northern Atlantic white cedar swamps, which thrive at higher elevations and contain black spruce, tamarack, and other distinctive plant species, are the rarest in the state.  This particular cedar swamp is part of a larger wetland complex that meanders through much of the Shaw land and eventually drains to Sunset Lake and the Naukeag Lakes in Ashburnham.

Atlantic white cedar were extensively cut after European settlement and are still under pressure today due to land clearing for development.  Selective cutting of white cedar also threatens white cedar swamps, since hardwoods like red maple can outcompete and replace the cedar.   “Atlantic white cedar swamps in general are rare in Massachusetts,” said Mount Grace Conservation Director David Graham Wolf, “but this particular stand, which is a northern variety, is one of only two in the state.  What’s even more unusual is that I found no evidence of past timber harvesting in this stand, and it exhibits a number of old growth characteristics.  I’ll be taking core samples in the new year to be sure, but right now I estimate the stand to be 200-250 years old, which makes this spot an incredible find.”  A 1990 statewide inventory of Atlantic white cedar found no existing old growth stands at all.  The Winchendon site, if confirmed, would be the only old growth stand of these trees in Massachusetts.

In October, after being contacted by Mount Grace and meeting with the owner, the Department of Fish and Game offered to purchase and protect the land, but budget constraints prevent them from funding the acquisition this year.  With Victoria Shaw hoping to complete the sale by Christmas, Mount Grace agreed to pre-acquire the two parcels and re-sell them to the state next fiscal year.  The sale’s closing brings a new degree of protection to a fragile and extraordinary place that survived into the 21st century largely due to the landowner’s goodwill and personal land stewardship ethic.  “In Massachussets rare natural communities are not protected by law,” added Wolf, “so we were very lucky to be working with a landowner who understood the value of this unique spot.”

Victoria Shaw and Mount Grace President Mary Williamson look over the conservation agreement