NEFF Landowner Outreach Coordinator Lisa Hayden reflects on the challenges and rewards of protecting family land, and the progress NEFF has made in helping landowners
Writing by Lisa Hayden
From the brow of the hill, when the leaves are off the trees, you can see the silver glint of the brook twisting S-like through bogs and a small grove of white cedars. It courses through the swamp and the mill pond before tumbling over rocks in a break of the earthen levee at the old saw mill site—no longer standing—where my great grandfather hauled timber with a team of horses from the woodlot across the road.
Walking down the gently sloping hill to the fallow field that was my Dad’s vegetable garden for five decades, you might spot a Mallard with a half dozen ducklings floating down the stream in spring, or a row of turtles sunning themselves on a downed log at the edge of the pond in summer. Moths, butterflies and dragonflies alight on the little bluestem grasses that grow in sandy soil. Bluebirds visit, Turkey Vulture nest in a big pine snag and owls hoot at night.
This is the place where I was lucky enough to grow up: a 50-acre former sheep and poultry farm owned for generations of my family in East Putnam, Connecticut. The conservation of 30 forested acres of this land in 2014 was the realization of a goal held passionately by my family, and the result of a deep love we all had for this place.
But it wasn’t simple. My parents had left everything equally to their five children—including the land. This was fair, but without a plan for disposition of the property that would allow the whole to be valued as more than the sum of five parts. Even though we didn’t all have the same vision, luckily, there was a willingness among my siblings to communicate. It took more than two years for us to come up with a plan to split the old farm property into multiple uses, keeping some land in the family for those who wanted it, but selling the old home and barn. The compromise left enough forest to set aside a permanently protected wildlife corridor owned by the Wyndham Land Trust, thanks to the altruism of my sister and her partner, who were able to buy out the other siblings and then donate about 30 acres for conservation.
My family’s experience has made my work on landowner outreach for New England Forestry Foundation all the more meaningful. Since joining NEFF’s staff five years ago, I’ve shared my family’s story with other landowners who nod knowingly because their family faces similar challenges.
Collaborating with the MassConn Sustainable Forest Partnership and American Forest Foundation, NEFF conducted a multi-year project in the MassConn Woods—38 towns straddling the Northeastern Connecticut and central Massachusetts border—to test a variety of tactics for reaching and engaging with woodland owners in decisions about their land.
In addition to outreach about conservation, forestry and estate planning, since 2016 the project has incorporated visits by foresters trained in climate change adaptation. With support from two grants, NEFF and partners have so far conducted 90 visits to private owners of more than 5,500 acres to provide climate-informed forestry advice to help woodlands remain resilient in the face of changing conditions. We’ve also connected owners to funding opportunities to make conservation more feasible.
NEFF will soon share a report on outreach learnings from our MassConn Woods experience and is now focused on expanding communications about climate-informed forest management to the Berkshires and The Last Green Valley further into Connecticut.
Forestry offers rich opportunity for conservation, but we need to do more to help landowners take action sooner. If you and your family are thinking about your land’s future, great resources are available like MassWoods, the guide “Protecting the Land You Love,” and My Land Plan, a website where owners can connect with professionals and begin planning to meet the needs of their families while also protecting the land that they love. Find more resources at at newenglandforestry.org/learn/resources/landowners.
I’m grateful to have met so many landowners who are passionate about their land. It’s incredibly rewarding to help other owners understand their options and ultimately realize their goals.
Top photo: NEFF Landowner Outreach Coordinator Lisa Hayden explores land once owned by her family that is now protected by a land trust. Photo by Ken Heidel.