Youngblood retires from Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust after 26 years

  • This land, across from 87 Old Wendell Road in Northfield, is among the 35,000 acres that has been protected by Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Leigh Youngblood, right, stepped down as Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust’s executive director, effective Oct. 1. She has been replaced by Emma George Ellsworth, left. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/2/2020 4:24:11 PM
Modified: 10/2/2020 4:23:59 PM

ATHOL — The woman who grew Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust from a one-person organization into a dynamic environmental steward has moved on into retirement.

Effective Thursday, Oct. 1, former Executive Director Leigh Youngblood was replaced by Emma George Ellsworth, who has worked with Youngblood for a year as deputy director.

Youngblood, 56, said “a combination of things” led to her decision to leave after 26 years. She said she has some health issues and also wants to explore other fields.

“I’m also young enough that I feel like I want to do something else in my life,” she said. “I’m not sure what.”

Youngblood also said the trust’s work with TerraCorps, which in 2018 spun off from Mount Grace to develop its own nonprofit status and move its headquarters to Lowell, helped her see the importance of younger leadership. Based on a 2008 Commonwealth Corps program designed at Mount Grace, TerraCorps was established in 2010 and was originally called the Massachusetts Land Initiative for Tomorrow (MassLIFT), under Mount Grace’s leadership. It is an independent nonprofit that aims to “create a future where land is the foundation of health and well-being for all people in every community.”

“I think fresh leadership is important for an organization,” Youngblood said.

She will stay on in an advisor capacity for a year.

Youngblood said she got involved with Mount Grace after working for a conservation commission in Hampshire County and meeting many property owners who were building on or selling land for development because they did not know they could sell their land for conservation. She designed a land stewardship economics degree through the University of Massachusetts’ University Without Walls, a program offering degree completion coursework (typically for non-traditional students), and finished in 1997.

“It was my goal to get an education and get in with a land trust,” Youngblood said.

Mount Grace, with a staff of nine, has conserved 35,000 acres in less than 35 years.

Ellsworth, 44, is new to conservation, having spent 20 years as a union organizer and negotiator, most recently serving as vice president of Unite Here, the international union representing casino, hotel, airport and food service workers. She said she has close ties to the land trust — her father, Allen Ross, was on the board of directors in the 1990s, and it helped her mother and stepfather with what they needed for the Just Roots project in Greenfield. Her father-in-law’s sawmill in Petersham is also conserved by the trust.

Having grown up in Montague and Greenfield, Ellsworth said she looks forward to “giving back to my own backyard.” She, who hunts, fishes and hikes in the area, said the land is near and dear to her heart.

“Every aspect of my life is kind of touched by this geography,” she said.

Ellsworth, who said Mount Grace has been remarkably successful, wants to build on the groundwork that has been laid for her.

“We need to maintain that efficacy and the strength of the community support we have built,” she said. “We have significant new threats to our backyard in the form of climate change, new waves of development, and now this pandemic. This is not a time to rest, but instead to overturn new leaves, new rocks, and continue working together to plow forward.”

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.


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