Sherry Himmelstein: Creating a Land Trust to Make a Difference

Sherry Himmelstein

It was the biggest turn out ever to be seen at Hampden Town Meeting. A 93-acre portion of Minnechaug Mountain on the south side of Main Street was at stake. Either the funding for the conservation purchase of the land would be approved by town meeting voters, or a new road would be built clear across the mountain and the scenic view from town permanently altered.

When the moment of truth came, the crowd was wildly supportive of conserving the land at stake! The vote to buy it for conservation passed.

It was “Hampden Land Project,” a non-profit organization created by Sherry Himmelstein, that rallied the townspeople of Hampden to conserve that important land. The motivation for originally establishing the organization was her desire to help families have access to planning tools that could protect their land. She had heard the sad story of a family who lost their land when their elderly father passed away without any estate planning, and the beloved family farm had to be sold to a developer to cover the estate taxes. The sadness of that situation for both the family and the landscape was what inspired her to try to help her neighbors and town avoid similar outcomes.

Hampden Land Project became much more than a means to provide information about the importance of land conservation and estate planning. It became the vessel through which Sherry rallied the community into conserving the 93-acre parcel along Main Street, and it later enabled her to organize the community to conserve even more of Minnechaug Mountain. Two years after the 93-acre parcel was protected, Sherry and Hampden Land Project helped the town conserve an additional 166-acre property on Minnechaug Mountain. Today, as you drive into town and look to the south of Main Street, there is a lovely view of the mountain that is permanently conserved thanks to Sherry.

That big town meeting was the first major success of Sherry’s land conservation career, and many more have followed. A few years after Hampden Land Project championed the conservation of Minnechaug Mountain, Sherry was contacted by the neighboring town of Wilbraham which was facing a similar threat on their own town—a very important 240-acre scenic property was at risk of development.

The need for Wilbraham to have an organization like Hampden Land Project to lead the charge to conserve the important property was obvious. And since Wilbraham and Hampden are neighbors that share a high school (Minnechaug Regional High School), the decision was made to expand the territory of Hampden Land Project into Wilbraham and to rename the organization “Minnechaug Land Trust.” They did just that, and then got to work in Wilbraham. The result was the successful conservation of the critical 240-acre parcel.

With its changed name and broadened scope, Minnechaug Land Trust has been serving an essential role in conserving the landscape and character of both Hampden and Wilbraham. “Creating Minnechaug Land Trust out of Hampden Land Project was a wonderful move all around—we gained great board members and have strengthened the organization tremendously” said Sherry. As president of a small land trust without paid staff, she has turned to Mass Audubon, whose Laughing Brook Wildlife Sanctuary is located in Hampden, for expertise and technical assistance several times, leading to the successful preservation of the Kibbe Farm, Sterling property, and Goat Rock. ”One can’t help but be moved by Sherry’s energy, dedication, and commitment,” notes Mass Audubon Land Protection Specialist Charlie Wyman. “Every town in Massachusetts should be so lucky as to have a Sherry Himmelstein fighting for its landscape.”

Sherry’s passionate conservation efforts far from ended with the expansion of the land trust into Wilbraham. “I had to mortgage my own property more than once to get enough money to save land. I actually had to put up personal assets for three different properties. My wonderful husband agreed to all of it, but he drew the line when I suggested it for a fourth time,” she said with a chuckle.

Sherry says she is most grateful for the tremendous support from the communities the land trust serves, and for the remarkable board members of the land trust. “I couldn’t do this without our terrific board or all of the support we get—we have hundreds of active and dues-paying members.”

The biggest challenge they face, she says, is managing the land after it is protected. Dealing with invasive species and working through task lists and wildlife management plans are costly and there never seems to be enough money or manpower to handle it all. “But, whenever we get discouraged, we always get a lot of reaffirming support from the community; they stand behind us and that keeps us going.”

Sherry is an active veterinarian and wildlife rehabilitator who says she loves her job and has no intention of retiring, from either her day jobs or as President of Minnechaug Land Trust. Mass Audubon wishes her the best in all of her admirable pursuits!