Army Corps, police block environmental camp from Knightville Dam land

  • Maya Zink, right, with Wolf Cohen, left, and Stefan Maitinski in the Mill River in Florence as part of Biocitizen. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jon Cleland, 9, looks for water critters in a net by the Mill River in Florence as part of Biocitizen, an environmental-themed summer camp. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jon Cleland, 9, looks for water critters in a net by the Mill River in Florence as part of Biocitizen, an outdoors-based summer camp. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Kurt Heidinger, founder of Biocitizen, an outdoors-based summer camp, with Jon Cleland and Theo Szegda (standing) at the Mill River in Florence Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left, Adia Bennett, a senior staff member and teacher with Biocitizen, an outdoors-based summer camp, walks down the Mill River in Florence with two campers Tuesday, July 7, 2020. In the middle is Maya Zink, and right is Ethan Arsenault. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Zane Poehler makes his way across the Mill River in Florence along with Matan Ryan, left, a CIT, and Jon Cleland, a camper, as part of Biocitizen, an outdoors-based summer camp. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Zane Poehler makes his way across the Mill River in Florence as part of Biocitizen, an outdoors-based summer camp. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/8/2020 7:18:33 PM

CHESTERFIELD — For the past decade, Biocitizen, a Westhampton educational institution that teaches young people about the environment, has used land managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Indian Hollow as part of its programming.

But on Monday, the nonprofit was ordered off the property, and forbidden from returning, an action that came as a surprise to the program and its participants.

“What happened yesterday came as a real shock to us,” said Kurt Heidinger, Biocitizen’s founder, speaking Tuesday.

Biocitizen offers 10 five-day day camps yearly in the Pioneer Valley, held when school is out of session. Heidinger said the camps provide young people with a sampling of different area microbiomes to explore. He said Biocitizen uses the Indian Hollow land one to two times a week during these camps.

“We were using it the way it should be used,” Heidinger said.

There is also a campground on the Indian Hollow land, although Biocitizen’s campers don’t stay overnight when they visit the property.

Heidinger said that Army Corps personnel approached him Friday on the land and questioned whether or not Biocitizen could be there. Heidinger characterized the conversation as a friendly one, and he said the officials said they would speak with their superior about the nonprofit’s presence on the property. Heidinger also said Biocitizen wasn’t forbidden that day from returning to the site.

Heidinger said he was unsuccessful in contacting the superior himself and that on Monday the program returned to Indian Hollow. He said that he was approached that morning and was asked to leave by Army Corps personnel, but that he refused to do so because campers were in the woods with staff and he hadn’t spoken to the superior yet, and he felt there was a confusion about Biocitizen using the campground facilities, which he said they were not.

“We’re using land exactly the same way dog walkers use the land,” he said.

Then, that afternoon, Army Corps personnel and a Massachusetts state trooper approached him on the site and told him that the group would have to leave immediately.

Heidinger said the Army Corps raised a concern that the group didn’t have portable toilets with them, and said group members weren’t permitted to be on the land and that they needed a use permit.

Heidinger said he told the Army Corps that the group could return with portable toilets next week and that they were prepared to get a permit. He said Biocitizen had never been told about the need to get a permit previously.

“We want to get a permit,” he said. “It’s very important for us to comply with every law.”

He also said the portable toilets have been ordered.

According to Heidinger, the Army Corps refused to engage in a dialogue with him and issued him a violation for “operating a summer camp on corps property.”

He said the state trooper also told him that if he returned, he would be charged with trespassing, and that he was trespassing Heidinger from the location.

Parents troubled

Margaret Betts, a mother of one of the campers in the program and a trained lawyer and teacher in Easthampon, said the Army Corps website gives no indication that the Indian Hollow land isn’t open to the public, noting that it welcomes people to use the Knightville Dam area for recreation. Indian Hollow is part of this area.

Betts said that when she was picking up her child, she felt that the Army Corps officer who spoke to her did so in an intimidating manner.

“As a parent I was really upset with how my federal government was treating me and the children,” Betts said.

Betts also addressed the children in the program about the previous day’s events on Tuesday.

Dara Shackelford, another mother who picked her child up from the property, said the the public lands in question are open to hunting and horseback riding, and said if horses are allowed kids should be, too.

“This camp is exactly what the kids need,” she said.

Camille Washington-Ottombre, a Smith College professor whose work includes examining issues around access to public lands, picked up her two children from Indian Hollow on Monday, and she said the behavior of the police and Army Corps was uncalled for.

“It felt like they were arresting a gang of drug dealers,” she said.

Washington-Ottombre also said that the display of force was inappropriate and “could potentially traumatize children.”

In a statement it released Wednesday, the Army Corps said it had ordered the closure of recreation facilities at Indian Hollow on April 6, following state and federal guidance related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“In addition, signs are posted at Indian Hollow campground stating the site continues to be closed, due to COVID concerns,” the statement read.

Spokeswoman Sally Rigione said the Corps park rangers called in a state police officer because they have limited authority. She said the closure included all the lands at Indian Hollow and that this was posted on the Knightville Dam Facebook page.

While the webpage for Knightville Dam does have a link to the Facebook page on it, there are no other indications there that the area has been closed.

Rigione said the webpage would be updated.

Ecological exploration

Heidinger said he would like to see a public hearing called so that those who use the public land could work out a management plan with the Army Corps.

Heidinger said this year’s camps will continue with a focus on Northampton and the surrounding areas. They will also continue with their COVID-19 protocols, which include masking, social distancing and having parents drive their children when car transport is required.

Indeed, Heidinger described the program as “as safe as you can get with the pandemic happening.”

The camps are $345 a week, and although scholarships were offered in the past, Heidinger said they’re not being offered this year because COVID-19 prevented fundraising for them.

In addition to the Pioneer Valley, Biocitizen operates out of New York City, Los Angeles, and Concon, Chile.

“We specialize in non-traditional, experiential learning in the field,” Heidinger said.

Those participating in the nonprofit’s programs learn about the ecological and cultural history of the places they explore.

“Every place is a story,” Heidinger said. “We live in these stories.”

Bera Dunau can be reached at

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