This vast, mostly unbroken forest is a challenging patchwork quilt of ownership.
Imagine being a bird flying over the northern corner of Sunderland abutting Leverett and Montague. You would see a blanket of green forest, rising and falling over a cluster of small peaks, valleys, and rocky cliffs. This 6,000-acre largely roadless area is bordered to the west by the Connecticut River, Route 63 to the east, and Route 116 to the south. While Mount Toby is the highest point, the area also hosts Roaring Mountain, Ox Hill, and Bull Hill to the south. Cranberry Pond is a well-known feature, and streams with waterfalls crisscross hiking trails and logging roads.
On the ground, this “blanket” is one interconnected ecosystem. According to the Massachusetts Natural Heritage Program, priority habitat for at least 16 species of special concern can be found around Mt. Toby, particularly on the rich, moist forest slopes. Species include rare plants, reptiles, and amphibians like the eastern box turtle, wood turtle, and Jefferson salamander.
Yet on a map, it’s a large, unfinished, patchwork quilt of parcels. Some of these pieces are protected, but many more are not. Stitching them together into one green quilt is an effort that Kestrel is focusing on with support from a dedicated fund for Mount Toby, raised through the Promise to the Valley Campaign.
Stitching the Pieces Together
The patchwork of conservation landowners around Mount Toby ranges from local universities to regional land trusts to state and federal conservation agencies. In total, about 2,500 acres of the area’s roughly 6,000 acres are protected, including UMass Amherst’s 750-acre demonstration forest, The Nature Conservancy’s 150-acre preserve, and smaller parcels Kestrel has conserved. The majority of protected lands are owned by the MA Department of Conservation & Recreation, the MA Department of Fish and Game or the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The rest of the parcels around Mount Toby are owned by private individuals or families. The fate of those remaining several thousand acres depends on each of those landowners’ goals and decisions.
Over the past several years, Kestrel has worked with landowners and communities to protect more of the patchwork around Mount Toby. In 2021, Kestrel purchased a critical 40-acre forested parcel for the Town of Sunderland to protect groundwaters vital for drinking water, as well as priority wildlife habitat and climate change resilience. The land had been at risk for development of estate lots, which would have compromised both water quality and wildlife.
Most recently, as private land has begun to change hands from one generation to the next, Kestrel worked with the Kolodziej family to purchase and conserve 19 acres at the end of 2022. This parcel hosts a portion of the Robert Frost Trail—which runs throughout the Mount Toby area—and abuts land owned by The Nature Conservancy.
And in March, Kestrel purchased and conserved another 29 acres of intact interior forest after it had been placed on the market when the landowner passed away. This piece abuts a Mass Wildlife Management Area, as well as Sunderland water supply land, and has the potential for new hiking trail connections. Protected as forever wild forest, this land is now part of the “quilt” of large blocks of woodlands and wildlands in this important forested region in the Valley.
Header photo by Jamie Malcolm-Brown.