An autumnal view of Mt. Norwottuck in the Holyoke range. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On Tuesday, Sept. 29, the college announced a partnership with Kestrel Trust and a number of local landowners to conserve a total of 583 acres across the Mount Holyoke Range. Kestrel Trust is a local conservation group that aims to conserve land and waterways in the Pioneer Valley. The group works with landowners to keep land undeveloped infinitely. 

The college has contributed 96 acres on Tinker Hill in Hadley, which will offer public trail access and continue to remain under the college’s ownership as it’s preserved through the Trust. Six other landowners participated in the preservation, including the Town of Amherst and the Town of Hadley, which contributed 360 acres of watershed land. The college’s Board of Trustees voted to contribute this portion of land for conservation through the Kestrel Trust by enacting a Conservation Restriction, a legal designation that ensures the permanent protection of that land for the future and prevents any building. Amherst’s nearly 1,000 acres sits on Nonotuck land, with the Nipmuc and the Wampanoag to the East, the Mohegan and Pequot to the South, the Mohican to the West, and the Abenaki to the North.

President Biddy Martin expressed in a statement, “Amherst College strongly supports the conservation of the valley’s most scenic and treasure mountain range. We are happy to participate in this community-wide effort to conserve the entire Mount Holyoke Range for this and future generations.”

Kestrel Trust’s Executive Director Kristin DeBoer explained how the college’s partnership will work in  practice. “By acquiring the Conservation Restriction over private land, the landowner retains ownership of the land but gives up their legal rights to develop the property with houses. The owner continues to own and maintain the land,” she said. “As the holder of the Conservation Restriction, Kestrel’s responsibility is to check on the land once a year to ensure the land stays in good shape. In this case, on Tinker Hill, the college will remain the owner and manage the forest in a way that supports public recreation on trails, outdoor education and research by students and wildlife habit.” 

Jim Brassord, the chief of campus operations, served as the project manager on behalf of the college throughout the process of securing the conservation status with Kestrel and the other landowners.

“A central part of Kestrel’s effort is to facilitate conservation through Conservation Restrictions of various sorts,” explained Ralph Tate ’69, treasurer on the trust’s board. “What that means is that we have an ongoing obligation to monitor that the restrictions are being met. In other cases, those conservation restrictions which we have helped bring into existence, are owned by a town, or  some other entity which assumes the monitoring responsibility.”

In its announcement, the Kestrel Trust outlined the environmental implications that this purchase will have, including the protection of  rare microhabitats, specific to the unusual geological nature of the east-west range, that are home to 27 rare and endangered species. The protection of the land will mean that this stretch will no longer be vulnerable to habitat fragmentation, an insidious process that breaks up land area and exposes edges reducing liveable habitat and biodiversity. 

“In the face of climate change, there’s even more urgency to ensure that critical wildlife lands are connected to allow animals safe passage to find water and food. And during the pandemic, we have seen how vital it is for people to have access to nature and the healing power of being outside on trails close-to-home,” the trust wrote in its announcement

While the effects on environmental preservation are strongest locally, a project like this can scale to have broader implications for global problems. “Forest conservation is a critical natural solution to climate change— trees sequester carbon emitted through pollution from burning fossil fuels, and store it in their trunks, branches, roots, and soil,” said DeBoer. 

As Professor of History and Environmental Studies Edward Melillo explained, “This project, and efforts like it, are crucial from both environmental and psychological standpoints. We know how critical it is to protect wilderness areas for their abilities to maintain biodiversity, provide clean water, and store carbon. However, this pandemic has shown us, in quite stark terms, how important conservation lands and open spaces are to our own health and wellbeing.”

“Placing these precious woodlands in conservation status underscores the college's commitment to sustainability by ensuring this critical habitat is preserved in perpetuity and that they will continue to sequester carbon for generations to come,” Brassord said. 

“The problems we’re facing are so massive that it’s really easy to throw up your hands and say ‘how does 100 acres on the Holyoke Range help?’ But you can’t. Or you shouldn’t. If everyone dug in locally, it might help a little,” said Tate. 

But, there’s room beyond this to scale up the impacts, Tate feels: “My hope in the future is that we will tackle bigger projects, which may require more cooperation with folks like the Trustees of Reservations, Mass Audubon and other land trusts. Some of the needs — the climate and environmental consequences — require bigger ambitions.”

“Kestrel remains willing to work with the College to permanently protect any additional land, and we are grateful for the College’s leadership to donate this Conservation Restriction to protect the Mount Holyoke Range,” DeBoer said. 

With such meaningful impacts on both the local biodiversity and global carbon cycle, many stakeholders feel that it can usher in a future of more engagement between the college and the community across the Pioneer Valley. 

“I think that it's great that Amherst [College] is helping to preserve part of the range,” said Jeanyna Garcia ’23, an environmental studies major and co-founder of the college’s Sunrise Movement hub, a chapter of the national intersectional environmental justice group that has created major waves organizing for climate policy. Garcia explained that she was disappointed that this was the site of engagement, rather than prioritizing the protection of a potential construction site in Northampton, that holds over 8,000 years of significance to local Natives, specifically to members of the Narragansett tribe who have been advocating against the construction of the proposed roundabout project. “Although this issue pertains more with the city of Northampton, as opposed to Hadley and Amherst, I still think that the college could be doing more to express solidarity with the tribe and their allies to sway the city council of Northampton to prevent building a roundabout over a very important site,” she said,

Tate explained how he saw this as an opening for further collaboration between the college and local stakeholders in the Pioneer Valley, as well. “My hope over time is that Amherst College as an entity would think of itself as having an even broader social responsibility to its home,” he said, explaining the room he saw for more local engagement with non profits so that students can better understand the town they live and work in, “because it will be a lot like the town you eventually live in. Your life will be lived locally, wherever you end up. And local engagement is vitally important for everyone.” 

He feels projects like this one are one step towards bridging that engagement nonprofits, whatever their focus may be, can offer college students the ability to become a meaningful part of the larger community. “It feels  it’s a worthy part of any human’s education to not only know Latin but to know how a foodbank works,” he said. 

Chief Communications Officer Sandy Genelius pointed out the college’s work providing funding for the Amherst Cinema, Musante Health Center fees, the Downtown Amherst Foundation COVID fund this spring, the town’s Business Improvement District fees, in addition to tech for schools, an annual contribution for emergency services, meals for the Survival Center and the availability for Amherst Regional High School students too take classes at the college. “This support reflects our ongoing commitment to the wellbeing of the town and our surrounding community,” she said. 

For Garcia,  this conservation project can be a starting point for understanding the intersecting nature of land protection and social responsibilities. “I think that many people, especially affluent, white people, still view climate change as this issue that centers conserving nature at all costs, but fail to realize that climate change also means advocating for the people — primarily, poor and/or BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] people — that directly experience oppression from the extractivist and industrial forces that drive climate change. However, I think that students at Amherst, and people worldwide have started seeing the connections between racial justice and climate change more clearly due to the pandemic and ongoing [Black Lives Matter] movements,” she said. 

“Once people start proactively incorporating social justice to the conversations of climate change, I think that we can start building true changes for the well-being of our planet and of our people.”

Olivia Gieger