A Personal Connection to the Land
The nonprofit Essex County Greenbelt Association supports our connection to the land and its wild creatures, promoting the wellness of drinking water, bird populations and more in the Merrimack Valley and beyond.
“It’s peaceful out here. Why ruin it?” Janis Bailey, 78, says of the Haverhill farmland that she and her husband, Perley, have called home for more than 50 years. The Baileys raised four children on the property, which Perley, 83, inherited from a pig-farming uncle. Today’s resident pets include two Australian cattle dogs and Petey the goat, who was bottle raised behind the Baileys’ stove.
With help from the Essex County Greenbelt Association the Baileys recently used a legal document called a conservation restriction to secure permanent protection for 60.7 acres of their property. (Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of mvm. ) The document allows landowners to retain ownership of their property, pass it on to heirs, and even sell it, knowing that the restriction (managed by a qualified third party; Greenbelt in this case) will protect it from future development.
“People’s attachment to their land is tremendous. It’s a deep personal connection,” says Vanessa Johnson, Greenbelt’s assistant director of land conservation. Since 1961, the organization has been showing landowners how options such as conservation restrictions (which can be formulated to permit limited development) and property donations can result in land preservation. Greenbelt guides landowners through the approval process for conservation restrictions, providing counsel on ways to maximize the financial benefits through tax credits.
In 2012, Greenbelt was involved in 19 projects that ultimately protected 445 acres across the region, bringing the total the organization has helped set aside since its founding to more than 15,000 acres. In 2013, Greenbelt launched a wildlife monitoring program involving ospreys that’s aimed at increasing engagement with local wildlife and educating people about it. Ospreys are spectacular birds of prey, sporting wingspans of up to 6 feet. Once devastated by exposure to DDT, the osprey population has been recovering ever since the U.S. banned the pesticide in 1972.
The Baileys, who spent years in public service for Haverhill (Janis was a school bus driver for 16 years, and both of them later held custodial positions with the city), have developed a great affinity for the wild creatures that share their farmland, and have affectionate tales to tell of the birds nesting on their porch, and the deer and turkeys occupying their yard. During their initial assessment of the property, Greenbelt staff even sighted the tracks of a mother moose and her calf right next to the property line.
Besides its valuable wildlife habitat, including some that’s classified as prime forest land, the Baileys’ farm met multiple qualifying criteria that Greenbelt assesses during its approval process. There is earth that’s classified as prime farmland soil, “which means it’s some of the richest farmland around,” Johnson says. And preserving the land is “absolutely contributing to maintaining the water quality of Chadwick Pond,” she says, therefore helping to safeguard Haverhill’s drinking water (the pond is a reserve water supply for the city). Wetlands from the farm all flow into Chadwick.
Massachusetts is the only state that requires municipal and state approval of land conservation deals like the ones Greenbelt facilitates, which makes the process more complex, according to Greenbelt executive director, Edward Becker. However, “The whole purpose [of this] is to not only conserve, but to make sure that there is a public benefit in the implementation and the use of the conservation restriction of the property,” Becker says.
An example of an outright gift to Greenbelt is Carter Fields in Boxford/North Andover, an 85-acre tract donated by Tara Leigh Development LLC. The company built a residential development and then gave some adjacent land to Greenbelt, including a large, productive wetland that was created when beaver activity flooded a woodland lot. Great blue herons established a colony there, building their nests atop the dead trees left standing in the pond.
“At one point, this was unquestionably the largest heron rookery in Essex County, when it was up at 90 to 100 pairs” around the time of Greenbelt’s acquisition in 2004, says Dave Rimmer, the organization’s director of land stewardship. As the trees have gradually toppled into the water, it has naturally declined to around 15 nesting pairs in the 2013 season.
Including Carter Fields, Greenbelt currently owns and manages 5,400 acres in Essex County, all with free public access. The Carter Fields property includes a viewing platform where people can watch the herons and other wildlife. A good time to check out the nesting herons is toward the end of May, when there are usually chicks in the nests and the adults are busy carrying food to them.
Besides protecting a wildlife habitat, the Carter Fields donation helped safeguard North Andover’s drinking water, since its wetlands drain into Lake Cochichewick — the town’s lone water source. Also, the proximity of the tranquil pond and its wildlife made the development more attractive to prospective home buyers.
According to Mary Williamson, Greenbelt’s director of development & community engagement, the nonprofit broadened its osprey program in part because “anytime we posted anything on Facebook that had anything to do with wildlife — especially birds — our numbers just shot through the roof. That was an aspect that people were really looking to connect with.”
In response, Greenbelt premiered a live streaming osprey webcam in April 2013, featuring a nest at the headquarters’ location in Essex occupied by the osprey pair Allyn and Ethel (named in honor of Allyn Cox, a famous muralist, and his wife, Ethel, the couple who donated the headquarters’ land to Greenbelt).
Greenbelt also launched a formal osprey nest monitoring program in 2013. Fourteen volunteers observed osprey nests in Salisbury and elsewhere, gathering data that will provide greater understanding of the birds’ breeding biology. And the organization began collaborating with Dr. Rob Bierregaard, who has been researching ospreys on Martha’s Vineyard since 1969. Bierregaard has tracked the birds on their first migrations by strapping tiny satellite transmitters onto their backs. One of the 3-month-old birds he tracked flew 2,700 miles in 13 days, from Martha’s Vineyard to French Guiana on the northern coast of South America. Data he collects, including from ospreys hatched on Greenbelt properties, is helping clarify the conservation issues the species faces.
Williamson sees Greenbelt as an organization that works to deepen the connection between humans and their wild neighbors, helping landowners build osprey nesting platforms and sharing educational information via kiosks, online resources and hands-on events. “I think of our role as one of a resource for the community,” he says.
Essex County Greenbelt Association