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Editorial: Standing for the land

For being one of the Valley’s biggest cities, Northampton sure has its wild side. Up where the city meets Hatfield, forests near Broad Brook and Fitzgerald Lake are thick with wildlife. They contain one of the state’s biggest populations of black bears.

The land in this greenway remains wild because advocates of conservation, chief among them Planning Director Wayne Feiden and local nonprofits, made it so. Northampton’s leaders have slowly created a network of protected land that tops 5,250 acres — more than 22 percent of all the land in the city.

It is a conservation success story we’ve noted before. Recent land acquisition deals are nonetheless significant for a couple of reasons.

Two of the transactions help secure the integrity of the Broad Brook-Fitzgerald Lake Greenway. With a deal that wrapped up Monday, that 900-acre tract will now include 80 acres formerly owned by members of the Kubosiak family beside Broad Brook, located off Coles Meadow Road near Laurel Park. The acquisition, for nearly $500,000, adds acreage that will help protect more than a mile of Broad Brook from the influences of development.

And a smaller deal involving Vollinger family land, recently approved by the City Council, brings just over 21 acres into the greenway. Feiden says the two deals shore up gaps in the city’s largest conservation area. Robert Zimmerman, president of the Broad Brook Coalition, notes that the Vollinger land will help protect a blue heron rookery. The city’s Conservation Commission is paying about $1,000 an acre for the land, in part by tapping Community Preservation Act money.

Over its 80 acres, the former Kubosiak property encompasses seven types of habitat, including what naturalist Laurie Sanders, who conducted an ecological assessment, calls one of the most unusual swamp forests in Northampton. A marsh there is prime black bear habitat and includes a section of the Broad Brook upstream from freshwater mussels on a preservation watch list.

Each protected habitat helps make it possible for wild plants and animals to endure change in human environments around them.

It takes partnerships to advance land conservation. In this case, the city got help from the Broad Brook Coalition, which will manage the land. The deal tapped state land grants and CPA funding. And the Kestrel Land Trust, which has expanded its theater of operations to include Northampton, will hold the conservation restriction on the property.

Kestrel is helping excite public interest in conservation while getting people out into natural places. This Saturday at 1 p.m. one of its board members, David Herships, will lead a hike on trails around Marble Brook in Florence. (To participate, call 549-1097 or email office@kestreltrust.org.)

Land protection is a puzzle in which specific locations matter. Small pieces that add to protected holdings can be significant, as appears to be the case with another recent deal near Parsons Brook on the city’s southwest side. The council voted last week to buy a conservation restriction on 19 acres owned by the Burke family in part because the parcel borders other protected land. The purchase will allow wildlife, including abundant deer, to move safely in the area. The piece creates a contiguous tract of protected land a half-mile long.

Because they often walk away with money, the importance of landowners can be overlooked. Often these people could get more by selling land for development.

But for the most part, the families who have helped Northampton advance its conservation goals care more about that land than anyone else. They know these acres, for their family histories played out here.

For them, news of these deals truly hits home. Last week, Ward 7 City Councilor Eugene A. Tacy called members of the Vollinger family “perfect stewards of land. ... You couldn’t ask for people who cared more about land than they do. They breathe this land.”

And thanks to their vision and steadfast work by the land’s local allies, we all can.

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