March 21, 2017 jamie

The High Road Campaign – Frequently Asked Questions

I don’t hike. Why would I support this High Road campaign?

Trails are the structural framework of the Berkshire High Road vision, but so much more will be accomplished by expanding and linking conservation areas. This campaign aims to conserve scenic views and wildlife corridors. It will conserve farmland, watersheds, stream corridors, wetlands, ridgelines and special landmarks both on and off the beaten path. Trails from town to town through conserved lands will link these elements together – but thousands of acres will be left to their own natural pathways. The High Road will enhance and protect the natural world’s role as the Berkshires’ essential – and irreplaceable – defining asset. Clean water, clean air, healthy wildlife, fresh food, beautiful views … whether or not you care to hike the Berkshire landscape, it benefits you, and the local economy, every day.

 

This sounds like a lot of land to protect. How many acres are you talking about?

In round numbers, approximately 250,000 of Berkshire County’s 600,000 acres are in some form of permanent conservation. We won’t have a precise acreage target until we complete our detailed High Road planning, but our rough projection is that conserving another 50,000 acres in the coming decades will finish the job. It won’t all happen overnight, of course, and BNRC won’t do it alone – collaboration is the key. And in some cases, we may opt to seek trail easements as opposed to a broad conservation strategy.

 

Fifty thousand acres! What will that cost?

That’s hard to say with precision, but here’s a ballpark answer: $100 million. Let’s peg the average acre at $2,000 … and multiply by 50,000. We’ll tap many sources to reach our goal: land gifts, bargain sales, public funding, private foundations, individual philanthropists. We’ll use your gift to leverage these bargains as well as greater public investment. The High Road campaign gets us started, but we’re going to need to sustain the effort for many years to come.

 

So what are you going to do with the $5 million you want to raise?

$2.5 million will be devoted to acquiring land and easements. $500,000 will be dedicated to creating new trails, trailheads, signage and other public access improvements. Lastly, $2 million will be used for long-term stewardship and care of land, trails and the High Road network.

 

Is BNRC capable of carrying this out?

Yes―but we need to build capacity. We currently care for over 21,000 acres, and 50 miles of trails. We know how to close conservation transactions with efficiency and respect for both ecological impact and landowner objectives. We have deep experience in designing and building trails that can be used and maintained in a way that is both enjoyable to the visitor and sensitive to plants and animals. We leverage resources and we collaborate with partners. So we’re capable―we simply need your help to seize opportunities and scale our activities up.

 

Have you prepared a map of the Berkshire High Road vision?

Yes—a first draft. Some caveats, however: First, it will be a “vision” map, not an engineered survey … we may have a goal of connecting Hill A to Hill B, but the exact route will depend on many variables. Second, we are continuing to solicit ideas for improvement and amendment. Our map is very much a living document, not the final word. We’ll be happy to share our vision with you and other partners to elicit feedback and explore possibilities for collaboration, but we won’t publish it publicly.

Does BNRC have strategic goals against which each potential project is evaluated, or do you acquire land haphazardly?

For many years we’ve followed a written evaluation process that assesses potential acquisitions against consistent criteria. For example, does the property include unusual plant or animal species? Would protection expand an existing conservation property, or enhance the protection of something essential such as a town water supply? Are there good farm soils? Recreational potential? The Berkshire High Road will articulate a countywide strategic vision based on those criteria. The queries that come in are certainly haphazard – the projects we pursue are not.

BNRC and other organizations talk about permanence and perpetuity – but how do we know that you’ll be around to make good on the promise?

BNRC is financially secure and conservatively managed. We are approaching our 50th anniversary and we are going strong. One of BNRC’s objectives in mounting this campaign is to strengthen its already formidable ability to endure – to conserve key tracts when the opportunity arises, to care for the land, and to deliver benefits back to the community. In the supremely unlikely event that we fold up shop, our bylaws call for all our assets to be offered to The Trustees of Reservations, a statewide organization that is well over 100 years old.

 

Land conservation is laudable, but doesn’t it restrict the supply of land available for economic growth and affordable housing, which are also necessary?

BNRC lives by this mantra: “Preserve what should be preserved, and develop what should be developed.” We focus our energies primarily on land that is often unsuited for development – wetlands, steep slopes, ridgelines. Forests and farms have important economic value even after they are conserved. In some cases, such as farms, we are indeed conserving developable – and coveted – land, and we must weigh the competing benefits of food, shelter and commercial development. Over the years, we’ve declined to pursue many projects where development appears the most appropriate future use. Always, we strive for balance. The Berkshire High Road will be created strategically, and with this balance in mind.

 

I already contribute to my local land trust (as well as The Trustees, Mass Audubon, The Nature Conservancy and others). Do I really need to support another organization doing the same thing?

First, keep supporting your local land trust. It’s a special group with unique impacts on your town. We frequently work together. Second, we salute the commitment you’ve made to other statewide, national or international conservation groups. Keep supporting them. They all do great work – but the Berkshires are not necessarily their first and only priority. We’re asking for your commitment to BNRC and the High Road, because we are doing things for the Berkshires that no other group can or will. We work everywhere in the county – and nowhere else. Every dollar you give will be devoted exclusively to the benefit of the Berkshires.

 

Are any groups besides BNRC working on the High Road?

BNRC is the driving force behind the High Road, but from the start it’s been conceived as a collaboration with local land trusts, statewide conservation organizations, and governmental agencies. Each one of these groups protects and cares for vital properties. Each has its own special priorities, goals and practices. It’s a diverse group, but it shares the goal of making sure that nature continues to function in a healthy way forever. One of our goals for the High Road is to build stronger connections and collaborations between people and institutions … land trusts, towns, state agencies, businesses, and private landowners, to name a few. To make this real, we are meeting with colleagues at all levels, asking for feedback, listening to guidance, adjusting our thinking, and looking for ways to use the High Road to meet our common objectives.

 

What kind of uses will be allowed on the High Road?

The High Road is a walking trail only. Pedestrians are the only users who will be able to travel every mile. It may be, over time, that multi-use rail-trails become part of the network, or that certain legs could be traveled by canoe or kayak, or that rural roads get incorporated to make bicycle touring part of the High Road experience. Some property owners along the way might allow other activities like dog-walking, or hunting. But the High Road starts from a basic principle: It’s a walking trail for people.

 

This Berkshire High Road concept is all well and good, but I’ve been watching BNRC for a while now and I’ll be honest, this seems pretty bold for a modest organization like yours. What’s really going on?

Nature is the Berkshires’ cornerstone. Our work helps to shape the future of this region. What’s more, it’s our job to ensure that that “shape” endures permanently, otherwise all the benefit will be lost. We have a compelling and exciting vision, but we also have awesome, sobering responsibilities. We are striving to build the financial and programmatic strength to achieve our ambitions and meet our permanent obligations. In the process we are raising our sights, improving our practices and working to evolve into an organization for which anything less than audacity would be negligent.

What assumptions can we make about the future at a time when global warming and economic globalization is bringing about environmental change on a huge scale and at a swift pace? What if 100 years from now the land would be better used for something else?

We are trying to expand and connect conservation blocs specifically to build resiliency and adaptability into the Berkshires as we face global warming. Bigger truly is better when it comes to diversity of species. Conserved areas that rise from low to high elevation, that protect river corridors and that align on a north-south axis all support resiliency of species as well. That said, your point is taken. We can’t predict our ecological or economic future. Until the true apocalypse arrives, however, we will not consider the release or disposition of conservation land.

“Resiliency …” Is this just more jargon about things we can’t see?

Yes, while we try not to use insider “jargon,” on one level this is about keeping natural systems and food chains healthy and functioning – from the microbial life in our streams and soils, to the largest and most sophisticated predators – humans.

 

I don’t need to contribute to environmental causes – I drive a Prius and I’ve reduced my carbon footprint in dozens of ways.

We applaud every step you’ve taken to keep the planet healthier. BNRC’s mission of conservation and stewardship complements your personal commitment, and extends the benefits to the community as a whole – permanently. We need your leadership to ensure a sustainable future for all of the Berkshires – not just individual households.

 

Once the original donors of a conservation restriction are gone, wealthy people could buy the land and legally challenge the restrictions. Does BNRC have the financial and political strength to resist those challenges?

This is a very real concern, and the answer is yes. Starting with the “ounce of prevention” principle, we work hard to build trusting relations with the landowners who succeed the original donors. We are practiced at saying “no” when that is the appropriate answer. Building (and broadening) our own financial strength is one way to strengthen ourselves politically. Finally, we are part of state and national land trust networks that team together when core principles are under assault. Many have tried to break restrictions. They have failed.

 

Land owned by BNRC is removed from the tax rolls. Sometimes even CRs result in reduced tax revenues for the towns. Doesn’t conserving land just make everyone else’s property taxes go up?

By some increment, the overall answer is probably yes. But it’s complicated. We don’t pay property taxes, but the state makes Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) for its lands. Many landowners are finding that towns do not reduce assessed values or tax bills once a CR is in place. Developed land often demands far more in town services than it generates in tax revenue. Every case is different. But the bottom line is that conservation plays a much smaller role in local fiscal struggles than we are sometimes led to believe.

 

It sometimes seems to me that conservation is all about wealthy people – giving them tax breaks, protecting the view from their second homes, keeping the little guy out of the neighborhood.

The majority of the families we work with are not wealthy by any measure – they may be land rich, but as often as not they are relatively cash poor. They’re pursuing conservation for personal reasons and as a way to leave a legacy for a community they love. BNRC’s operating philosophy is all about conserving remarkable places and opening the door for community benefit and transformative experiences in nature – without charging a dime for entry. It’s true, in real estate money is the fuel that turns passion into achievement. We need donors to make this work, and we understand that everyone has their own private motivations for making donations. Naked self-interest may be motivation for a few people, but in 99.9 percent of our experiences, it is dwarfed by a desire to give back and to make the Berkshires a better place to live, work and visit, for now and for the future.