From the ground up

From Canada to Georgia, behind every project and every acre OSI protects, there are people. Whether they’re lifelong environmentalists or new to conservation, each person has a connection to the land that has inspired them to protect it. Their stories are as diverse as the landscapes they are dedicated to protecting. From time to time we’d like to share some of those stories.

In this first installment, OSI’s Peter Howell tells us about two women and how they found common ground to complete the largest conservation project ever in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Kristin DeBoer and Cinda Jones seemed like an unlikely pair to negotiate the largest working forest conservation deal in Massachusetts history. DeBoer, the head of the Kestrel Land Trust, was an advocate for New England wilderness restoration, who worked on a campaign that hoped to create a national park in Maine. Jones, head of the ninth generation to run W.D. Cowls, a forest products company, is a self-proclaimed private property rights advocate who had opposed the wilderness park. 

But in December, when Governor Deval Patrick announced, with Kestrel, the conservation of 3,500 acres of land on Brushy Mountain owned by Cowls in Leverett and Shutesbury, the real story was the distance these women traveled to get the deal done. It’s a story about the land and the relationship of trust they built, and how the latter helped to protect the former, and it began around a big table in an old farmhouse in North Amherst, which has long been the home of Jones’ family business.

That table is where generations of Joneses have gathered each morning at 5 a.m. to start their day and discuss business. And it’s where DeBoer and Jones began talking six years ago, first about matters that divided them and then about what would unite them.

DeBoer was used to thinking big from her decade in Maine’s North Woods. After relocating to the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts, she began to volunteer for Kestrel and in 2006 later became its executive director, turning a volunteer group into a highly effective professional land trust serving a 19-town region that is on track to be accredited by the Land Trust Alliance. Around OSI, which had made several loans to Kestrel for projects and later made grants for the Brushy deal, Kestrel used to be known as “the little engine that could.”  They’re still little compared to many other land trusts, but now we just refer to them as the engine that does.

DeBoer brought her big-picture thinking to Kestrel, looking for ways to nest its typically small acquisitions within a larger landscape, e.g., the watershed and large blocks of woodland in the valley.

That’s when she decided it was time to start building a relationship with Cowls, which is the largest private landowner in the state. “Kestrel was used to doing small deals, and here was the landowner in the region that owned thousands of acres, and we weren’t talking with them,” recalled DeBoer. “I told my board that this is a conversation that was worth beginning.”

Cowls had been in the news because of a well-publicized dispute over the proposed siting of a national scenic trail on the company’s property. Jones opposed the trail and in the controversy established her bona fides as a libertarian. But she was deeply committed to managing her family’s holdings sustainably for nine more generations, and having worked for various conservation groups herself, began to explore ways to conserve the land.

When DeBoer and Jones first met, each regarded the other somewhat warily. Jones, who had taken the reins of her family company, had experience in conservation, having worked for both the National Fish and Wildlife and Forest foundations. Still, she regarded DeBoer as a radical environmentalist, DeBoer recalls. And for her part, DeBoer was skeptical about commercial forestry and was starting to accept the role of sustainably managed working forests in large landscape conservation.

“We came from different ends of the conservation and political spectrum,” said DeBoer. “But we found common ground in the land trust model of promoting voluntary conservation of private land by compensating landowners for fair market value.”

Jones recalled that relations between Cowls and Kestrel had been strained, and trust stretched thin when she and DeBoer began talking. But “we shared the same set of goals, and that’s why this deal got done,” she said.

It took hard work to finalize the conservation restriction on Jones’ land. DeBoer had to be assured that the timber harvesting would be sustainable, and that the easement had teeth. Jones realized that as the ninth generation took over the property, there were more pressures than ever, and making money was getting tougher. How much longer could the land remain in family ownership? Funds from a conservation restriction could really help. But where would they come from?  The family did not want to ask local residents for funding through a private capital campaign and had deep misgivings about accepting government dollars that came from taxes.

But when it became clear that the project might receive a federal Forest Legacy grant, and the state would match it, the family came around. They accepted this because Forest Legacy is derived from offshore oil and gas receipts through the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, and the state would match it with funds largely collected from hunting and fishing licenses – not taxes. 

Jones and DeBoer returned to the giant round table in the Cowls family farmhouse to work out a deal. The big issues were appraised value, access and forestry. “We’d inch forward, and sometimes slide backwards,” recalled DeBoer. 

There was no shortage of drama. Jones, a straight-talker who wore cowboy boots and would sit on the table, bristled at government bureaucracy. When the economy collapsed and Congress didn’t pass a budget, it looked like the deal might just crater. There were tense moments – and humorous ones. DeBoer recalled when, late in the negotiations, a UPS truck arrived with a box of costumes for Cowls employees for the 250th anniversary of the town of Amherst. Jones donned a head-to-foot grizzly bear costume and kept negotiating.

The group, which by now had grown to include the Franklin Land Trust, a conservation planner for Cowls and representatives of the state Department of Fish and Game, kept meeting around the table, and slowly they worked out the deal that was announced by Gov. Patrick in December and made the headlines.

Even now that the deal is done, Jones and DeBoer aren’t. 

They are both committed to the future of conservation in the Pioneer Valley, and they’ve agreed to continue meeting on a regular basis. Except that now and then they meet in a restaurant or diner. That big round table will get a break … for now.

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