Empathy for others, concern for environment compels Buckland’s Janet Sinclair to activism

  • Buckland resident Janet Sinclair says the prescription for successful local activism efforts is “to be confident, skillful and knowledgeable, and to be persistent.” CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Buckland resident Janet Sinclair collects signatures in Holyoke for the two bills she co-wrote. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/14/2020 9:54:39 PM
Modified: 1/14/2020 9:53:50 PM

Editor’s Note: This profile is the third in a week-long series focusing on female activists from across Franklin County, timed in advance of the coming weekend’s Women’s March.

BUCKLAND — Janet Sinclair says she wasn’t born an activist and never thought about being one. That was until her lungs started to hurt when neighbors all around her were burning wood and the smoke started to bother her.

The Greenfield native, who graduated from Greenfield High School, Greenfield Community College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said she moved to the Buckland side of Shelburne Falls and could smell nothing but smoke during the cold weather.

“Being an activist was never who I was,” she said. “I never thought ‘I’m going to be an activist’ when I was growing up.”

Sinclair said being an activist — at least the stereotype some people conjure up when they hear the word, like holding signs and getting arrested — is not even her personality. She is soft-spoken and sometimes even shy.

“My activism is circumstantial,” Sinclair said.

She said the first time, actually, that she started thinking about it was when she was hiking with her boyfriend about 25 years ago. They went to Colrain to hike through Catamount State Forest, when they ran into people who were four-wheeling.

“It was the New England 4 Wheelers, I believe,” she said. “They were having a jamboree on the Fourth of July. My boyfriend had his camera, so we took photos. There were vehicles driving through streams, and they were parking in places they shouldn’t have been near the lake. I was appalled.”

Sinclair said the photos “made their way” to the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which led to more strict environmental rules.

But, she said, it was when she started feeling sick that she approached the town and its Board of Health.

“I told them it wasn’t right for me to feel that way in my own home, and that I shouldn’t have to constantly inhale someone else’s smoke,” she said. “I did some research and fought a good battle, but I didn’t win that one. So I started educating myself about the effects of wood burning on health, the environment and the community.”

Sinclair said she also learned how government, big and small, passes the buck at times.

“I’ve been working on this issue for two decades,” she said. “When I heard someone was trying to bring a biomass wood-burning plant to Greenfield, I had to get involved. I didn’t want to see anyone else go through what I’ve gone through, but on an even bigger scale.”

When opponents started fighting against a 47-megawatt wood-burning biomass power plant coming to Greenfield, she needed to do something. Sinclair gathered all the research she had already done, started more and gathered experts.

“I had a personal connection there,” she said. “I knew opponents wouldn’t be listened to, wouldn’t be heard. I needed to help.”

Sinclair attended all of the meetings held by Greenfield officials and boards, held numerous press conferences, and by 2013, after a more than four-year-long fight, the biomass project proposed for the industrial park was dead.

“I wanted to walk away from it so many times,” she said. “You’re treated badly, bullied, and that’s not any fun. But, I couldn’t walk away, because I knew it was the right thing to do. ... Sometimes life takes detours you don’t plan, but when you know you’re right, you keep going.”

An acupuncturist by trade, Sinclair thinks she’s been more successful since her fight in Shelburne Falls, because the projects she has fought since have not been personal, so she’s been able to do the research, gather experts, and write press releases and speeches on facts rather than emotion.

“The prescription for successful local efforts — any effort, really — is to be confident, skillful and knowledgeable, and to be persistent,” Sinclair said. “I had a mentor who taught me how to do the things I do today, and I try to do the same for others.”

Sinclair said her conviction comes from a place of feeling badly for what goes on for people and how difficult it can be to enact change. She said she listens to people and to what they want and need, and she helps them when she can.

Sinclair had her hand in two state bills in the House — H.853 and H.897. The first asks that the state stop subsidizing biomass. She called it a “no-brainer.” The second asks that the state set aside state-owned land, protecting it as climate change becomes front and center in people’s thinking.

“It’s really simple,” she said. “There’s no rational reason to not support the bill. Nature is better at managing a forest than people will ever be.”

Sinclair said what she does is not always sexy, and can sometimes be downright boring, but she does it because she cares.

“It can be tedious, so I do what no one else wants to do,” she said. “And because of what I do, I’ve met the most amazing people along the way. They’re brilliant, talented. People who know a lot more than me. That’s why I keep learning.”

For more information about Sinclair’s work, visit: savemassforests.com.

Reach Anita Fritz at
413-772-0261, ext. 269 or afritz@recorder.com.

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