This 2010 story describes the first service event of Mount Grace's Massachusetts Land Initiative for Tomorrow AmeriCorps program.
Bob Clark is speaking in front of a half-circle of twenty AmeriCorps volunteers when he realizes he can’t remember precisely how many years he’s been on the Petersham Conservation Commission. The group is at Petersham’s new Davenport Pond Conservation Area, getting ready to clear a trail and parking area to make the 68 acres of woods beside the pond more easily accessible to the public. Clark, who chairs the commission, is giving a short overview of how the pond was protected when a question about his time serving the town catches him by surprise. After a few seconds, he gives his best guess: at least thirty years, but probably less than forty.
The AmeriCorps volunteers are at the pond as part of the Massachusetts Land Initiative for Tomorrow (MassLIFT), a program designed to provide professional-caliber volunteer support for the town boards, local land trusts, and other mostly volunteer groups that work on land conservation around the Commonwealth.
It is their first encounter with Clark, who arrived at the Fisher Museum at nine a.m. with a truck full of shovels, loppers, saws, and other tools for the day’s work. Clearing the trails is the final event of a three-day orientation for new AmeriCorps members held at Petersham’s Harvard Forest. After two days of presentations discussing technical issues in conservation restrictions and the rules of the AmeriCorps program, the clean-up provides an opportunity to get outdoors and get moving. Clark leads the group down the trail, assigning tasks to teams of three and four members until everyone is busy, and then returns to the trail head to supervise clearing a parking area.
MassLIFT is based on a program originally created by Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust and the Massachusetts Commonwealth Corps. The regional land trusts that are partners in MassLIFT recruit AmeriCorps volunteers for four positions, each with its own goals: Land Stewards monitor protected land to ensure that conservation values of the land and water are maintained, Outreach Coordinators work to involve more community members in conservation and to strengthen ties to the land, Regional Conservationists initiate and implement new conservation projects and train town volunteers to do the same, and Service Learning Coordinators expand education and volunteer programs to bring young people outdoors to learn about and assist with conservation, farming, and forestry.
“Massachusetts has such a strong history of land protection and environmental education,” says Dee Robbins, who was hired by Mount Grace in July to coordinate the MassLIFT program statewide, “but land trusts have limited funding and can’t always follow up on all the potential projects they see, or do as much outreach as they would like. Local town boards do an enormous amount of work, but that work is being done by volunteers who have to go to their day jobs and raise their children. We want to provide a new group of volunteers who commit to serve for a year at a time who can take some of the time pressures off of conservation commission members and help towns and trusts keep up with the work they need to do.”
MassLIFT’s seven partner trusts are Mount Grace, Franklin Land Trust, Greater Worcester Land Trust, The Kestrel Trust, The Nashua River Watershed Association, The Sudbury Valley Trustees, and Wildlands Trust. Other organizations participating include The Connecticut River Watershed Council, East Quabbin Land Trust, The Highland Communities Initiative, The Millers River Watershed Council, North County Land Trust, The North Quabbin Regional Landscape Partnership, The Pioneer Valley Land Trust Group, The Taunton River Campaign, and The Valley Land Fund. MassLIFT is funded in part by an AmeriCorps grant managed by the Massachusetts Service Alliance.
Helping towns like Petersham address a backlog of trail maintenance and other stewardship work is one of the specific goals of the program. When the orientation is over, the volunteers will head to their year-long assignments at the partner land trusts and begin recruiting more community members to join in projects like this one. Today, the members are on their own, with guidance from Clark. Service Learning Coordinator Sarah Mildren, who was one of the original Commonwealth Corps volunteers with Mount Grace in 2008, and will serve with East Quabbin Land Trust this year, also knows the property since she grew up in neighboring Athol. She heads down a spur trail towards the pond.
Standing half a mile from the road, at the edge of the pond with a team of five members, Mildren looks at the remains of a shack that collapsed decades ago. Visible across the water are several heron nests, perched on dead trees jutting out of the pond. “This spot is really a hidden treasure,” she says. “I’ve been coming here since I was in grade school and it’s an excellent place for picnicking and bird watching. With the clean up and trail work being done I am sure that more people will come and see for themselves.” The volunteers bag up rotting fiberglass insulation, weathered plastic sheeting, and a miscellany of garbage, while stacking the remains of the walls and roof by the side of the trail to be trucked out.
Davenport Pond was protected by the Town of Petersham in 2009 as part of a federally-funded Forest Legacy project managed by Mount Grace that conserved more than 1,800 acres. Called the Quabbin Corridor Connection, the project linked the thousands of protected acres around the Quabbin Reservoir to smaller parcels of protected land. Since 2009, Mount Grace has continued to work in partnership with local towns on new projects that strengthen these links Preparing the trail for visitors is meant to help bring the public out to see the benefits of protecting the land.
Robbins, who has stopped off at the Mount Grace office, returns mid-morning with water, snacks, and encouraging news. A proposed conservation restriction on the other side of the pond has been formally recorded at the Worcester County registry of Deeds. Landowners Aleza Beauvais and Soren Rono have donated the development rights on 66 acres of the north side of the pond to Mount Grace. Their house and land are visible from the shoreline of the Petersham side of the pond, and protecting that neighboring land goes a long way towards guaranteeing the rural, open character of the conservation area. The group takes a break, with some staying at the trailhead for water and others heading to the pond to look at the heron rookery.
When the break is over, Clark moves back to unfinished business at the parking area, wrestling a stray sapling out of the ground. With thirty-some years on the conservation commission, he has been volunteering longer than many Corps members have been alive. “It’s amazing,” says one volunteer, “it’s like he has more energy now than he did when we started.”