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Land trust guards 750 acres in Hawley

HAWLEY — Alice Stuart Parker Pyle has plenty of memories gleaned from decades on Singing Brook Farm, from the cows, chickens, pigs and turkeys that remained from the time when her family bought the 500-acre spread in 1919, to the visits there every vacation in eight-hour family car rides from Boston and, more recently, singing workshops she leads on the property.

Now, Pyle and her family have ensured that Singing Brook Farm will be preserved, just as her three neighbors have done in a 750-acre land protection effort completed with help from Franklin Land Trust, the town, the state and foundation and private donors.

“Every single school vacation, winter or summer, we were here. This was where home really was,” said Pyle, whose age in years equals the 88 keys on the piano in the home 100 yards from the state forest, where she moved full-time in 1995.

Of the conservation program, she said, “It seems to me it’s the most responsible thing to do. If you think of developing land in Hawley, the first thing you’d have to do is build a whole lot of bridges over all the streams, and we know what happens to bridges in big storms. And the hillsides are so craggy ... I think the future of this whole part of the world is recreation, and if we can preserve the woods that we have now, and through careful management of the wood property, that’s the most far-reaching thing we can do.”

Announcement of the “Hawley Focus Area Project” comes on the heels of a similar, 782-acre “Landscape Partnership Program” in Leyden last week. Both projects make use of a state program designed to conserve large tracts of undeveloped land while keeping it on the tax rolls.

The state provides 50 percent of funding for conservation restrictions that landowners can match by accepting only half of the appraised value of the development rights they’re giving up. They can then get a state tax credit of up to $50,000 for that gift, as well as a federal income tax incentive. All of the land can still be logged, farmed or used for recreation.

Along with Parker’s 525-acre, fourth-generation Singing Brook Farm Trust property managed for timber, wildlife and recreation, there are three small abutting properties totaling 70 acres that belong to members of the Sears family and were protected by conservation restrictions.

Also, Richard Ohmann of Labelle Road placed conservation restriction on his 155 acres to protect an actively managed forest, a growing beaver pond, streams and a hay field.

These properties, which include managed forests, diverse wildlife habitat and add to existing conservation land blocks, are, in the case of the Singing Brook and Sears conservation areas, adjacent to the Kenneth Dubuque Memorial Forest. The Ohmann property, meanwhile, connects to the state Fish and Game Department’s 250-acre Hawley Natural Heritage Area to the west and two privately owned conserved properties to the north.

In fact, said Alain Peteroy, the land trust’s director of land conservation, the connection to surrounding blocks of forest, bogs, streams, brooks and river tributaries and steep mountains was what made the project possible — funded with about $283,000 from the state, $100,000 from the Open Space Institute and smaller contributions from the Fields Pond Foundation and William P. Wharton Trust.

Franklin Land Trust, Peteroy said, “felt very strongly that properties such as these that are working landscapes and high-quality habitat for wildlife were worth the effort.”

The land trust, which also worked on a state Landscape Partnership Program grant in 2012 to protect Charlemont woodland associated with Hall Tavern Farm, began work on the Hawley project three years ago, but had to seek extensions because the town’s volunteer officials were absorbed with dealing with damage from Tropical Storm Irene, said Peteroy.

The town and Franklin Land Trust jointly hold the conservation restrictions, she said, adding that finding a balance between land protected under conservation restrictions and land carved out for future development is what made the project successful — especially in a town that already has a high percentage of state forest and other protected property.

Hawley Conservation Commission member Lloyd Crawford said that as Chapter 61 managed forest land, “This is land that’s essentially being taxed much below market rates, and I don’t think was any, or much, with developable frontage, that was potentially buildable, so when you really look at it, I don’t think these recent deals have made any difference in that.”

Crawford, who is also a member of the town Finance Committee, said “The reason this town is like it is is that it’s very steep and rugged so it’s not suitable for farming or developable in any way, and it’s not close to anything. In fact, it’s arguable that when land is under conservation restriction, the land around it becomes more valuable.”

Even though development is seemingly not as great a threat in an isolated town like Hawley as in other parts of the region, Peteroy said, as climate change progresses, it’s Hawley’s rolling hills, with its nooks and crannies, that will provide an open diversity of landscape that will become even more critical for wildlife and plant species.

“It’s sort of self-conserved because of the landscape,” she said, “but this made it so that people couldn’t push it and do things that would be detrimental in the long run.”

On the Web: www.franklinlandtrust,org

You can reach Richie Davis at: rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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