Mount Grace and Mass Audubon Partner for Historic Conservation Victory
December 19, 2023
The Winchendon Select Board had a choice to make: allow a large-scale solar energy developer to purchase a huge parcel of forest and clear-cut 350 acres or protect that land forever. After hours of moving testimony from a standing-room-only crowd of Winchendon residents, the Select Board voted unanimously to allow Mass Audubon to permanently conserve it.
This decision is a monumental victory for wildlife, the climate, clean water, and the residents of Winchendon who will be able to recreate amongst these pristine forests and streams for generations to come.
Protecting this 1,350-acre parcel of land is possible thanks to a transformative $25 million dollar gift from MathWorks—a donation that serves as the foundation for Mass Audubon’s new $75 million land protection catalyst fund. We’ll be using the fund to help the state and our land trust and community partners achieve our shared goal of protecting 30 percent of Massachusetts by 2030, with a focus on lands rich in biodiversity and carbon. Our collective victory in Winchendon shows that this fund—and our new strategy to use nimble private financing to protect the Commonwealth’s most important lands—is a pathway to success.
Working Together to Protect Land
For decades, a private landowner owned this property under a conservation restriction that granted the Town of Winchendon the right to purchase the land before it could be sold. When a solar energy developer offered to buy the land for six million dollars, the Town had three options: allow the developer to make the deal and clear-cut 350 acres, match the offer and purchase the land, or assign the rights to purchase the land to a third-party conservation organization.
Purchasing the land outright wasn’t financially feasible for the Town of Winchendon. This is when Mass Audubon, Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, and a group of passionate residents crafted a strategy to give the town and its residents a real option to protect the land.
Thanks to the generous gift, Mass Audubon is in a position to purchase the land outright. But resources alone would not achieve the goal of protecting the land. The Winchendon Select Board still needed to vote to transfer the right to purchase the land to Mass Audubon. That’s where Mount Grace’s deep roots in Winchendon and grassroots organizing experience was indispensable. In just a few short months, Mount Grace worked with residents to spread the word about the threat to Winchendon’s treasured woodlands, and rallied hundreds of community members to attend a public hearing in support of Mount Grace and Mass Audubon’s conservation proposal.
Over the course of several hours, dozens of Winchendon residents took to the podium to speak of the importance of this forest for clean water and air, carbon storage, habitat for plants and animals, recreation, and natural beauty. While we expected a contentious discussion amongst the Select Board after the close of the public hearing, their vote was swift and unanimous; Winchendon would assign the right to purchase the land to Mass Audubon, and the land would be saved forever.
Ultimately, Mass Audubon will transfer the land to the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game as a Wildlife Management Area accessible to the public for recreation.
Balancing Conservation and Solar Energy
The benefits of conserving this forest are immense. In addition to capturing and storing carbon, this parcel connects to over 1,500 acres of other conservation lands to form a continuous wildlife corridor stretching from Winchendon across the New Hampshire border. It also contains portions of the headwaters of the Millers River and the watersheds of Sunset Lake and Lake Monomonac. Because of the increasing rarity of such interconnected forests in Massachusetts, the state Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program considers 85% of these lands to be among the most critical in the state for sustaining wildlife and biodiversity. And importantly, the Town of Winchendon had already approved significant solar development on developed lands at a much greater proportion than in neighboring towns.
Mass Audubon strongly supports more solar energy development in Massachusetts, but clear-cutting this forest to build solar panels doesn’t make sense for addressing our climate crisis or for protecting biodiversity and water quality. Our recent Growing Solar, Protecting Nature report shows that Massachusetts can meet its clean energy goals by building the vast majority of its solar energy on rooftops, parking lots, and other already developed lands. Given this fact, clear-cutting pristine forests for solar energy is terrible climate policy—forests and other natural lands absorb over ten percent of Massachusetts’ greenhouse gas emissions each year.
Towards "Thirty by Thirty"
Conserving this massive parcel of land will be the greatest leap we've made in years towards Massachusetts’ goal of conserving thirty percent of the state’s land by 2030—a target that is critical to our fight to contain the climate crisis and maintain our biodiversity.
With thousands of acres of land across Massachusetts facing development threats every day, it couldn’t be more important to have a tool to respond to breaking land protection opportunities. Our success in Winchendon proves that our new land protection fund can accomplish the kind of rapid, replicable conservation victories that we’ll need to reach “Thirty by Thirty.”
We couldn’t have achieved this extraordinary win for conservation without major support from our donors. Right now, we’re working to triple the $25 million dollar gift we just received from MathWorks so we can protect dozens more forests like this in the decades to come. We hope you’ll join us in this mission.
To learn more about how to get involved send us an email.
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