Conservation, Woodland Narratives

Beavers Transform a Massachusetts Forest

Jan. 14, 2019
Heron nest

NEFF uses conservation easements to protect a diverse array of private lands. Learn what sets a particular Massachusetts property apart.

Writing and photography by Tinsley Hunsdorfer

Four generations of Alan Field’s family have explored and nurtured their 200-acre Valley Farm woodland in Shirley, Massachusetts. For the past 10 years, another multi-generational family has joined them—a family of industrious beavers.

On a recent crisp October afternoon, Alan Field met a few New England Forestry Foundation (NEFF) staff members at a historic house that sits near the wilder stretches of Valley Farm forest. Once everyone had strapped on their boots, he led the way into the trees.

The group trekked up a ravine carpeted in fallen yellow leaves, dropped into drainages to explore beaver dams topped by prickly greenery, and walked along trails shaded by well-managed woods. All the while, Alan told stories about the land and explained how welcoming a beaver population was in keeping with long-held family values.

While Alan, his two siblings, and their respective families now share property ownership and management, these stories and values have their beginnings in the previous generation.

“Our father, Hermann Field, bought the then 110-acre property in 1932 for $3,000, which his uncle considered a foolish and reckless expenditure,” said Alan. “It was a bargain in retrospect, and our father’s love of the wildlife and the land nurtured him throughout his long life.”

Over the years, Hermann purchased abutting land threatened by development or degradation to build up Valley Farm to 200 acres, and in 1980, he established its first forest management plan.

“Our primary interests have been to maintain the health of the forest, maintain it as a wildlife area, and sequester carbon in the trees,” said Alan. “We also realize the carbon-sequestering value of producing local lumber for local use, and have held a number of limited wood harvests.”

New England Forestry Foundation entered the picture in 1989, when the family put Valley Farm’s first parcel of land under a conservation easement with NEFF; they went on to place two more parcels under NEFF easements in 1995 and 1998.

Around 2008, the story of Valley Farm became a little less human-centric—the beavers had moved in, and immediately began to leave their mark. Over the subsequent 10 years, they transformed a winding stream and its nearby forestland into a vibrant wetland complex by constructing a series of more than 10 sturdy dams—some of them dozens of feet in length—and a tiered pool system that now supports multiple beaver lodges.

This activity posed a potential conflict between the family’s dual management goals of wildlife habitat and carbon sequestration—carbon-storing trees were lost to the wetlands—but the Fields have found a balance by focusing on sequestration in the still heavily forested portions of their land while leaving the waterways to the beavers.

Heron nestBalance has been found in other ways, too. Many of the trees claimed by expanding waters still stand tall over the wetlands, where they also continue to store some carbon, and their bare trunks and branches have been repurposed by stately Great Blue Herons as a rookery, a communal nesting site they return to year after year.

“The beavers have benefitted the area in many ways, including providing heron habitat, slowing runoff, retaining ground water and creating ponds rich with wildlife from frogs to waterfowl,” Alan explained.

The Fields plan to continue providing habitat and haven to native wildlife while enjoying the property as a family. Alan particularly enjoyed a recent kid-centric gathering.

“I am so happy when I see young members of our family exploring and enjoying the place,” said Alan. “Given the environmental challenges we face now and in the future, I think it is super important that young people experience nature and form a bond with it so they reach adulthood as advocates for the environment—and places like Valley Farm.”

NEFF and the Power of Conservation Easements

Writing by Andrew Bentley

Land conservation is popularly associated with well-known parks owned by government agencies or non-profit land trusts, and NEFF itself owns more than 145 Community Forests that total more than 27,000 acres. However, we can also effectively protect vital forestland without owning the property through the use of conservation easements.

At their core, conservation easements are legal agreements between a landowner and a conservation organization that provide permanent land protection, while allowing the original owner to keep their land and pass it on via sale or inheritance. They typically limit or prohibit future development in favor of preserving the natural resources and conservation attributes of the property. Land protection organizations have conserved more acreage nationwide through easements than ownership, and NEFF is in line with this trend. Through the 147 easements we hold, NEFF is providing protection to 1.1 million acres of forestland.

NEFF views conservation easements as an essential tool that results in inspiring partnerships with private landowners. These relationships advance a shared vision of healthy and protected New England forests, and our easement terms are uniquely designed to meet the needs of each landowner and enable sustainable forestry. Staff members visit each property annually to track changes on the land and learn about recent management activities and the owners’ goals for the forest. In turn, NEFF staff members are available throughout the year to answer landowners’ questions and provide advice. Learn more.

A stream running through a Massachusetts

A portion of Valley Farm forestland upstream from beaver activity