State grants allow addition of more than 200 acres to conservation areas in Belchertown, Hatfield and South Hadley

Last modified: Wednesday, January 08, 2014
Outdoor enthusiasts in the Valley can look forward to more conservation land in 2014.

Thanks to state grants awarded last fall, more than 200 acres of land is to be added to conservation areas in Belchertown, Hatfield and South Hadley, connecting large tracts that conservationists in each town hope to make available for hiking, hunting and other outdoor activities.

“We’re fortunate to live in a town that has beautiful open space, whether it’s farmlands, or streams and rivers or woodlands,” said Mark Gelotte, a member of the Open Space Committee in Hatfield.

He said the hope is that in 100 years, residents will still live in a community that balances development with open space. “It just improves the quality of life here in Hatfield to have those resources available to the residents,” Gelotte added.

Five Hampshire County communities — the others are Northampton and Amherst — received a total of $909,265 from the state Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs last November. Belchertown was awarded $133,650 to purchase 90 acres of land for the 66-acre Jabish Brook Conservation Area, and Kestrel Land Trust was given a total of $65,500 to protect land for the towns of South Hadley and Hatfield.

Ben Wright, land conservation specialist with Kestrel Land Trust, said the nonprofit organization seeks to match communities which have an interest in conserving open space with grants that make it possible. He said that while larger communities such as Northampton, Amherst and Belchertown are often able to secure grants on their own, smaller towns sometimes team up with the trust in their land protection efforts.

To add 20 acres of land to the 579-acre Terry A. Blunt Watershed and Conservation Area in Hatfield, Kestrel Land Trust was granted $27,500 to purchase the property. Town Meeting in May will vote on using Community Preservation Act funds to purchase the development rights to the land for about the same amount.

Adding this parcel makes continuous what was once a gap in the protected land that forms the watershed of the Running Gutter Reservoir, which is the water supply for 70 percent of the town, explained Gelotte and Peter Cocks, chairman of the Open Space Committee, on a recent trip to the conservation area.

By protecting the property against development of neighborhoods and roads, the land and water supply that runs beneath it will not be affected by runoff from lawn chemicals and salting of roads, explained Cocks.

He acknowledges the challenge in finding a balance between development pressures and preserving the land.

“We face it — and no doubt other towns do around here,” Cocks said. “People have got to live somewhere too, but people have got to reconcile these things.”

Cocks, a retired professor of political science who taught at the State University of New York at Albany and Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, has been a resident of the town since 1983. Gelotte, owner of Mark Gelotte Architect, has been a resident since 1985. Both have been on the town’s open space committee for about eight years.

Gelotte said that other than exploring the idea of adding more hiking trails to the conservation area, the committee plans to keep the added land in its natural state. He said the committee built a hiking trail last year at the southern end of the conservation area to test the idea, and so far he has received positive responses from people. Whether new trails are added after the land is acquired will continue to depend on further public reaction, he said.

Jabish Brook

LeeAnne Connolly, who is in her 16th year as Belchertown’s conservation administrator, said the additional acreage to be added to the Jabish Brook Conservation Area will protect the water supply that comes from the Quabbin Reservoir, as well as add additional recreational opportunities for residents. The conservation area currently has hiking trails that, in addition to being maintained by the town’s Department of Public Works, are also kept up by Boy Scouts and other youth groups, she said.

Connolly said she hopes to clear trails in the newly-protected area once the weather becomes more suitable.

“I think there are some old trails in there we’ll see if we can reblaze,” she said.

Town Meeting will vote in May on using the state grant, as well as $79,870 in Community Preservation Act funds to purchase the property. The development rights will be held by Kestrel Land Trust.

The purchase would also protect a wildlife corridor, which is a path for wild animals to pass through so they do not end up in residents’ backyards, Connolly explained. Some of the wildlife in the conservation area include moose, bear, porcupine, deer, raccoon, bobcats and coyotes, she said.

“It will protect our natural resources, and maintain the rural character of the town,” Connolly said of the proposed purchase.

Bachelor Brook Floodplain

In South Hadley, Kestrel Land Trust will use a $30,500 grant to preserve the 46-acre Bachelor Brook Floodplain. At the end of December, the land trust obtained the development rights of 46 acres of the Stony Brook Conservation Area using a $7,500 grant to cover the acquisition costs, Wright said.

Bachelor Brook and Stony Brook are two tributaries of the Connecticut River that pass through town. Habitat for 11 rare species listed under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act has been found at both sites, according to Wright.

Janice Stone, conservation administrator for the town, said both areas will be open for hiking, and that it is possible there will be kayaking allowed on the Bachelor Brook property, depending on whether the number of trees on the shore allows enough space to pass through.

Wright emphasized the importance of ensuring that areas with what he describes as “ecological integrity” are contiguously protected.

“These areas are still at risk of development, even in a small town — and they’re worth protecting,” he said.