The road turns from pavement to dirt where Old County Road heads northeast off Route 101 in South Ashburnham. Very quickly the houses are left behind as the road draws up to the eighteen-acre parcel which Elaine Tuck donated to Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust in 2000. The land, originally intended for houselots, became a conservation area, with guaranteed public access, as a result of her gift.
Phil Hagar, Tuck’s nearest neighbor, was an enthusiastic supporter of protecting that property. “I felt very, very strongly that we ought to protect the land,” he says. “Too much land in town was being eaten up and the habitat we have right here is really special. You can go down to the vernal pools and see what’s going on with the animals. We’ve got everything from squirrels up to bear out here.” He became a volunteer steward of the conserved land, covering the land on foot or on horseback to keep an eye out for damage to stone walls or the land, and trash left by inconsiderate visitors.
A chance to do even more came last year as part of the Forest Legacy Program, a United States Forest Service program that buys development rights from owners of large forest stands to ensure that the land remains wooded. Forest Legacy is an entirely voluntary program which encourages the protection of privately owned forest lands through conservation restrictions (CRs), without removing the property from private ownership. In Massachusetts, the program is administered by the Bureau of Forestry at the Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Forest Legacy requires that at least one dollar be provided in local matching funds for every three federal dollars granted. Because of this requirement, land trusts participating in Forest Legacy often look for landowners who are willing to donate the value of their development rights by donating CRs through the Forest Legacy program
Mount Grace, which is currently working on several Forest Legacy projects covering land in Ashburnham, Ashby, Erving, Northfield, Royalston, Warwick, and Wendell, proposed donating a CR on the Tuck Conservation Area after seeking approval from Elaine Tuck.
When he heard about the proposal Phil Hagar offered to donate a CR on his own property also to be used as cost share, and to purchase the Tuck property once it was covered by a Forest Legacy CR, bringing the two properties back under a single ownership permanently.
The Hagar property consists of 50 acres of forest land and four acres of pasture used as a horse paddock. In addition to forests and pasture, the lands protected contain at least seven vernal pools. The final project involved three simultaneous transactions. Mount Grace sold the Tuck property to Phil Hagar, who immediately donated a Forest Legacy CR on 2 of his parcels and the Tuck property back to Mount Grace. Finally Mr. Hagar separately granted a CR to Mount Grace on another 18-acre adjacent parcel. “It’s our duty to protect this land,” says Hagar. “It’s something that God expects from us.”
The agreements are part of the Metacomet-Monadnock Forest Legacy project, an extensive conservation effort three years in the making that will protect 1,180 acres in Ashburnham, Erving, Northfield, Royalston, Warwick, and Wendell. Since the Tuck and Hagar CRs provide cost share for the Metacomet-Monadnock project, the conservation of this little woods in Ashburnham will be instrumental in protecting swathes of forest land stretching from Old County Road out to the Connecticut River Valley.