Columnist Kristin DeBoer: Kestrel Land Trust looks forward as it marks 50 years

  • From a site visit to Horse Mountain in Hatfield for the LAND grant. MARK GELOTTE

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Fifty years ago, in December 1970, a group of Amherst residents who were members of the first Town Conservation Commission came together to form The Kestrel Trust.

Janet and Toby Dakin, two engaged civic leaders — who also helped establish the Dakin Humane Society and Hampshire College — were Kestrel’s driving force for the first decade. Inspired by the first Earth Day that launched the modern environmental movement and wary of new waves of sprawling development, they wanted to ensure that the area’s natural lands and waterways were conserved as Amherst grew into a bustling college town.

They could not have predicted all the changes to the land that have come in the last five decades. People who have lived in the Valley for that long have watched vegetable fields get plowed under for residential subdivisions. They’ve seen quiet dirt roads turn into highways.

Yet, Valley residents have also helped preserve many historic landscapes that define the Valley’s distinctive sense of place — from the Mount Holyoke and Mount Tom ranges to Mount Toby, and from Puffer’s Pond to Fitzgerald Lake. In partnership with a growing number of towns, hundreds of willing landowners, thousands of supporters, and government and nonprofit partners, Kestrel Land Trust has worked to conserve over 25,000 acres of land.

That is something to celebrate. But it is not nearly enough.

As Kestrel’s board and staff look ahead to the next 50 years, we realize that, too often, conservation is perceived as an effort to save just scenic places, and that too often conserved land can be seen as a luxury for some rather than a necessity for all.

But land conservation will not be relevant if we are content with saving little pockets of nature here and there. Conservation must be bigger, bolder, more connected and more relevant to the times. That’s why, to guide our conservation work for the future, we are asking ourselves harder questions:

■How can we work to ensure that the region’s fertile farmland and vast forests thrive, while supporting new development in appropriate places to provide affordable housing for those who need it?

■Where can we focus protection of wildlands and woodlands on a scale that will not only give wildlife shelter now, but also allow species to adapt to a shifting climate? And when forests are conserved, how can we maximize carbon storage in trees to fight the climate crisis?

■Where can we help create natural parks and trails closer to urban centers so that everyone can enjoy natural places to improve health and well being? Who else can we collaborate with to ensure that all communities have equitable access to land? What would motivate more people to care about land?

■How can conserving farmland not only preserve the Valley’s rural heritage, but also ensure that farms can provide enough local food for the region, now and in the future?

Over the past 50 years, the Valley’s conservation community has led the commonwealth in conserving forests, farms and trails. We’re on the right track. Landowners know they can trust us. Communities want our help. The state is invested in preserving the valley’s ecological and agricultural values. Some of the best forests and farms are protected. But while we have made progress, we can’t take the land for granted. And we must challenge ourselves to protect it in a way that answers these harder questions.

New England is losing 24,000 acres to development every year — and the Valley is experiencing this head-on. Thousands of acres of privately-owned forest are expected to change hands in the next generation. We must increase the pace of conservation while we still have the chance to conserve large tracts.

The Valley also has some of the best soils in the world for growing food, which is why one-third of Massachusetts’ farmland is right here. But the development pressure on Valley farmland is nearly as great as in the Boston-Metro area. Farm families are ready to protect their land, but they need our help.

Kestrel’s vision is to create a Valley where people thrive because nature thrives, and local food and trails deepen our connections to land, water and wildlife. Imagine a Valley where all people and wildlife have a healthy, safe home, where we feel connected to the land, to nature, and to each other.

This is the vision that inspires Kestrel to begin our next 50 years of service to the Valley, but we cannot achieve it alone. The land can’t protect itself. Conservation depends upon collaboration among all of us who love this place and call it home. Join Kestrel as a member, become a volunteer, consider conserving your land, or encourage your town to support conservation.

The future of our Valley depends on the decisions we each make — and the actions we each take — today.

Kristin DeBoer is executive director of the Kestrel Land Trust.