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Berkshire Hardwoods property in Chesterfield joins Silvio Conte National Wildlife Refuge

  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTO<br/>Jeff Poirer is the owner of Berkshire Hardwoods. The former Chesterfield business sold its land to expand the Conte refuge.

    GAZETTE FILE PHOTO
    Jeff Poirer is the owner of Berkshire Hardwoods. The former Chesterfield business sold its land to expand the Conte refuge. Purchase photo reprints »

  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTO<br/>Part of the Berkshire Hardwoods property, a former gravel pit, was landscaped before the sale.

    GAZETTE FILE PHOTO
    Part of the Berkshire Hardwoods property, a former gravel pit, was landscaped before the sale. Purchase photo reprints »

  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTO<br/>Jeff Poirer is the owner of Berkshire Hardwoods. The former Chesterfield business sold its land to expand the Conte refuge.
  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTO<br/>Part of the Berkshire Hardwoods property, a former gravel pit, was landscaped before the sale.

As Berkshire Hardwoods winds down its operation after 25 years in the timber-supply business, officials with the Silvio Conte National Wildlife Refuge are busy planning the future of near 100-acre property located at 73 East St.

“We don’t have all of the details right now, but we know it will be open to public for activities like hiking, wildlife observation, hunting and fishing,” said Andrew French, refuge manager. No date has been set when the land will be open to the public.

Former sawmill owner Jeffrey Poirier decided to close his operation last fall as timber sales continued to fall and operational costs climbed.

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service purchased the 17-acre property in December, Poirier was permitted to stay on the land for one year so he could fulfill obligations to clients and have time to dismantle his business.

“This is a beautiful spot. We have actually made two purchases of land from him in this area,” French said. “One was an 80-acre parcel that we acquired in November of 2011 for $340,000, and (the other) this parcel of almost 18 acres was purchased in December of 2012 for $632,500.”

The land is located southeast of the center of town, off East Street.

According to French, the first purchase of 80 acres cost less than the 18 acres bought in December because there were buildings that came along with the second parcel, which included the sawmill, a drying shed, office building and drying kiln.

“We will at some point remove the structures. My hope is that they would be repurposed and put to use here or in a different location,” French said.

He said eventually the wildlife service would like to put in a parking area, an informational kiosk, nature and birding trails, as well as trails that are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“I haven’t heard any specifics about exactly what they plan to do, but I am thrilled and very pleased that the land will be part of the refuge,” Bill Joly, a Chesterfield Conservation Commission member, said.

North-south corridor

The first 80 acres of land added to the Silvio O. Conte Refuge established an important north-south conservation corridor that runs through the eastern side of Chesterfield, protecting Dead Branch Brook as well as Long Pond. The land also abuts the Nature Conservancy’s Bisbee preserve , and provides connectivity to the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s 580-acre Fisk Meadows Wildlife Management Area .

The 17 additional acres are connected to the first 80 acres the refuge acquired.

The mission of the Conte refuge is to conserve the abundance and diversity of native plants and animals and the habitats located in the 7.2-million-acre Connecticut River watershed in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

“What we are really trying to do with the Silvio O. Conte Refuge is facilitate connectivity within the larger conservation area,” French said. “This is like putting together a big puzzle that is really complicated and the pieces are all different sizes and shapes.”

By slowly stitching together protected areas of land and habitats, natural corridors are created connecting previously fragmented tracts of land, allowing greater ease of movement for a variety of wildlife.

The newly protected region in Chesterfield is home to deer, moose, black bear, coyote, red and gray fox, beaver, river otter and fisher. Freshwater brook trout and Atlantic salmon can be found in the clear, cold water in the Dead Branch Brook, according to the wildlife service.

The land is also critical habitat for wood turtles, listed by the state as a “species of special concern.” This category refers to native species that have suffered a population decline that could threaten the species if allowed to continue. The listing also applies to species that occur in small numbers, have restricted distribution or require specialized habitat, all of which increase the possibility of becoming a threatened species in Massachusetts.

According to a recent survey of freshwater mussels commissioned by the Westfield River Wild and Scenic Advisory Committee, the Lower Middle Branch and the Dead Branch provide the most promising mussel habitat in the entire Westfield River watershed.

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