Land Conservation Partnership Protects 2,038 Acres for Wildlife Habitat & Working Forest
Thanks to a partnership with Kestrel Land Trust, WD Cowls, and federal funding from the US Forest Legacy Program, the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) and its Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) have acquired a Conservation Restriction on 2,038 acres of woodlands in Shutesbury, Pelham, and Leveret. The property is owned by W.D. Cowls, Inc. of North Amherst, and named the Walter Cowls Jones Working Forest. The Conservation Restriction will ensure that the land is managed as a sustainable working forest in a way that conserves critical wildlife habitat, protects water resources, and ensures continued public access to the property for hunting, ﬁshing, hiking, wildlife observation, and other outdoor recreation.
“The Baker-Polito Administration is committed to investing in the protection of open space and sustainable forestry, which are critically important to the character and economic vitality of Massachusetts’ rural communities,” said Governor Charlie Baker.
“This public-private partnership will permanently conserve a large parcel of valuable forest land and wildlife habitat, provide greater access to open space and support our efforts to address climate change.”
“Conserving more than 2,000 acres of forest land under continued private ownership is great news for these communities, wildlife, and people who enjoy the outdoors,” said Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito. “We appreciate the partnership with W.D. Cowls, Kestrel Land Trust, and significant funding from the federal Forest Legacy Program that made this project possible.”
Parts of the property are adjacent to the Quabbin Reservation and Town of Amherst watershed land, and it is located near other large state wildlife lands including Mount Toby, Montague Plains Wildlife Management Area and the 3,486-acre Paul C. Jones Working Forest, which was protected by a similar conservation restriction acquired by DFG in 2011. Together with these and other important forest lands, the large area of conservation habitats maximize the protection of native biodiversity and allow natural communities to adapt to climate change due to topographical diversity, geological diversity, and relative habitat connectivity.
“This property is part of approximately 32,000 acres identified as the tenth largest landscape block in Massachusetts, the type of forest that will be most likely to sequester and store carbon and help mitigate climate change,” said Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides.
“Connecting large blocks of wildlife habitat also provides plants and animals improved ability to adapt to changing weather conditions, making this acquisition a tremendous asset for the Commonwealth, surrounding communities, and future generations.”
The Walter Cowls Jones Working Forest comprises a rich variety of native hardwood trees including red oak, white oak, and black birch, and softwood conifers such as white pine and eastern hemlock. More than 95 percent of the property is identified as Core Habitat or Critical Natural Landscape by MassWildlife’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, habitats essential for ensuring the long-term survival of rare and common wildlife. Two reptiles listed under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act will gain from conservation of this property, as will forest birds like the scarlet tanager, blackburnian warbler, and Canada warbler. The acquisition also benefits mammals with large home ranges such as black bear, moose, and bobcat as well as other common wildlife like white-tailed deer, wild turkey, porcupine, snowshoe hare, and ruffed grouse. The area also includes headwater tributaries that are valuable to coldwater aquatic wildlife.
“Kestrel Land Trust is grateful for the opportunity to partner with W.D. Cowls — the largest landowner in the State, the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game, and the U.S. Forest Legacy Program to protect this woodland. This is the kind of public-private partnership, fueled by major public funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, that is critical to achieving forest conservation on a landscape-scale in the Commonwealth,” said Kristin DeBoer, Executive Director of Kestrel Land Trust.
The appraised value of this Conservation Restriction was $3,350,000. The landowner agreed to sell for $100,000 less to facilitate the project. The $3.25 million acquisition of the conservation restriction by DFG and MassWildlife was funded with $2,037,750 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service Forest Legacy Program; $760,000 from the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Landscape Partnership Grant Program; $250,000 from private funds raised by the Kestrel Land Trust, including a grant from the John T. and Jane A. Wiederhold Foundation, and $202,250 from DFG/MassWildlife.
WD Cowl’s Commitment to Conservation
The Walter Cowls Jones Working Forest is named for Cowls’ 7th generation leader who was a significant tree, tobacco, and onion farmer, and a regional community investor. Walter C. Jones developed the country’s first electric sawmill in what’s today The Mill District in North Amherst and he was a co-founder and President of the Amherst Water Company—then a private entity. He built Amherst’s first community-scale affordable home building/buying opportunity with Grandview Heights (Harlow Drive area) in North Amherst; and created the town’s first affordable leasing opportunities as a founding member of the Amherst Housing Authority.
“My best memories of Gramp are driving around in the woods, all over the Valley, in that big Checker cab of his. We’d stop at farms and diners and see old friends and make new ones. His business deals were made on napkins and with handshakes,” says grandson, Evan Jones.
While WD Cowls will continue to own and manage the 2,038-acre Walter Cowls Jones Working Forest, the Conservation Restriction (CR) precludes future development (including residential, solar, cell towers and wind power), requires sustainable forestry practices, and assures public access to the land for hiking, hunting, and fishing—all consistent with family philosophy and long-standing practice.
“Responsibly managing a forest is more complex than deciding which tree should be harvested today and which tree should be grown for tomorrow,” says VP of Timberland Management, Shane Bajnoci. “We want our working forests to be productive and diverse. The same land that grows forest products also provides a variety of wildlife habitat; cleans air and water; and offers important recreational opportunities throughout the year. I owe it to my twin girls to leave tomorrow’s forests as productive and beneficial as the ones I manage today. These Conservation Restrictions are a source of real pride and purpose for all of us.”
Cowls’ combined 5,500 acres of conserved working forests in Leverett, Pelham, and Shutesbury are the heart of Cowls family’s 280-year-old sustainable forestry business. Today’s Mill District in North Amherst—featuring Cowls Building Supply; Provisions; The Lift; Jakes; North Square; and Riverside Park Shops—sits where the sawmill used to run.
The $1,650-per-acre conservation deal enables the family business to still own the timberland and maintain forestry operations while liquidating some much-needed funds to finish Mill District development obligations that were committed to before COVID’s economic downturn. Most importantly, this conservation investment reinforces the family’s commitment to a sustainable environment.
“Sure we could sell or develop this land and make more money, but Evan and I realize our responsibility to assure the planet’s environmental health. We’re dedicated to sustainable forestry; landscape level conservation projects; complimentary solar energy investments; and building community where infrastructure already exists,” said Jones.
This Conservation Restriction is adjacent to three exclusions totaling 130 acres that are optioned for solar farm development in Shutesbury.
“Clean air and water; access to recreation; and the ability to harvest local forest products are critical and finite. We’re making it our legacy to permanently conserve natural, cultural, and recreational values that natural resources hold in our community,” said Cinda Jones, the 9th generation and first female to run WD Cowls, Inc.
“We thank Kristin DeBoer of the Kestrel Land Trust for making it possible for us to do the right thing.”
Since 1741, Cowls has been sustainably managing timberland and building the Pioneer Valley from its Home Farm in North Amherst, MA. Over the past 280 years, Cowls’ Home Farm has produced and distributed onions, tobacco, and dairy products. From the Home Farm offices, Cowls built and ran a rock quarry; constructed the Amherst to Sunderland to Holyoke street railway system; created innumerable residential and commercial subdivisions; and ran a sawmill and a planing mill. Today Cowls’ Home Farm is called The Mill District and features Cowls Building Supply; nearly 200 units of rental housing; shops and restaurants; outdoor experiences; and Cowls offices from which the family business manages improved real estate and thousands of acres of timberland as the Commonwealth’s largest private landowner.