Mount Grace jumped right in to a major land conservation project on its founding in 1986. At the request of the Town of Athol, the trust started work on the acquisition of the 365-acre Lawton Tree Farm with a total of $18 in the bank.
Making that project a success required the strong support of a wide network of community members who joined together in support of a vision of the North Quabbin as a region that celebrates its working rural lands.
This summer, many of those same people joined together again to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the protection of Lawton Forest and of Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust. Picnickers gathered to listen to the recollections of some of the original partners in the Lawton project and to tour the forest and the Skyfields Arboretum headquarters of Mount Grace.
Mount Grace got involved in the Lawton project almost immediately after the historic tree farm in Athol went up for sale. A developer proposed building 200 houses on the historic farm, but Mount Grace made an offer on the land at the town’s request, acquiring the farm to sell it to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Forests and Parks as permanently protected open space when money became available in 1987. Local businessmen Peter Gerry, Sid Mann, and Jim Tedford helped collateralize a bridge loan from Shawmut Bank to make the project a success. And after purchasing the land, Mount Grace sold the home and house lot to the Spencer family. The tree farm is now the Lawton State Forest, a mix of trails, woods, and wetlands owned by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation and adjacent to Mount Grace’s headquarters at the Skyfields Arboretum.
Speakers included former Shawmut Vice President Karl Bittenbender, Peter Gerry, Keith Ross, and Senator Bob Wetmore, who took a leading role in the project. Current Senator Steve Brewer and State Representative Denise Andrews also spoke, putting the work of Mount Grace in a statewide context. Leigh Youngblood thanked several of the attendees for their work in 1986, including Gilbert Bliss, Director of Forests and Parks for the DEM, Colleen Mruk, whose petition drive was instrumental in bringing record turnout to town hall during discussion of whether to protect the land, and Allen Young, whose articles in the Athol Daily News brought the opportunity to protect the land to many people’s attention.
Picnickers then toured Skyfields, starting at the new information kiosk which was put together by AmeriCorps Service Learning Coordinator Laurel Swope and installed by Celt Grant. The tour took in some of the new interpretive bird trails set up by Swope and fellow AmeriCorps volunteer Gwen Kozlowski with a team of Athol High School Honors Biology students. Department of Conservation and Recreation forester Chuck Pernaa led a group along the old cart roads of Lawton Forest, which can be reached via the trails at Skyfields, finishing up at the sign at the forest entrance, where the attendees were joined by members of the Spencer family to pose for a picture to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of a truly historic project.