hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues November 2016


Berkshires’ path to the future?

Group aims for 200-mile network of walking trails across county


Contributing writer



Olivia’s Overlook, which offers a sweeping view of Stockbridge Bowl from Richmond Mountain Road in Lenox, is among many properties conserved by the Berkshire Natural Resources Council. The group recently unveiled an ambitious effort to link these sites through a countywide walking-trail network. John Townes photo

To mark its upcoming 50th anniversary in 2017, the Berkshire Natural Resources Council is taking the high road.
This fall, the nonprofit regional land conservation group launched an ambitious initiative called the High Road Campaign to create what it calls a “100 percent walkable Berkshires,” with an interconnected network of publicly accessible walking trails extending throughout Berkshire County. Its ultimate goal is a network of about 200 miles of trails.

The effort will link and extend existing public trails by acquiring new property or obtaining easements from the owners of private lands. In addition to going through more remote sections of the county, the network would include access points and trail loops in as many of the county’s 32 communities as possible.

“There are already protected lands and trails in Berkshire County, but they are fragmented, and not all of them are easily accessible,” explained Tad Ames, director of the Berkshire Natural Resource Council. “The High Road will connect them throughout the Berkshires.”

Ames compared the basic concept to long-distance trail networks elsewhere, such as the California Coastal Trail, the Coast to Coast Walk in England, and the Camino de Santiago in Spain.

“This will make it possible for the residents of a town to have easy access to a nearby trail for a short walk -- or a longer hike to another point in the county,” Ames said. “People who are more ambitious could also take a week to walk the length of the county.”

Ames noted that trails and routes will be designed to accommodate casual walking, in contrast to more challenging routes like the Appalachian Trail that are oriented to serious hikers. The High Road trails also would make it possible for people to take multi-day hikes without sacrificing creature comforts.

“People who want to take long-distance hikes but don’t want to have to lug a heavy pack full of gear can spend the day walking on the trails, and then stop in a town and spend the night there,” he explained.

Ames said the system could create a new attraction for tourism and a new market for existing hospitality establishments, restaurants and other businesses.

He described the High Road as a long-range project – one that might take several decades to complete. His organization has prepared a conceptual plan and an initial list of specific potential new trail sites, but the ultimate shape of the project will evolve, Ames said. Individual sections of the trail network will be completed as land becomes available.


Pieces of a puzzle
Ames said the addition of new trails will depend on a variety of factors, including the location and ownership of specific sites and the ability to acquire land or obtain easements for the connector trails.

“It’s a comprehensive goal,” he said. “Some sections are higher priorities and are within reach in the short term. We hope to open certain sections in as soon as 12 or 18 months. Other sites are more in the category of ‘Let’s keep an eye on this for the future.’ Some might not be added for decades.”

Ames noted that about 80 percent of the land necessary to create the High Road network, including public trails, is already available. He pointed to estimates that 250,000 of the 600,000 acres of land in Berkshire County are in some form of permanent conservation.

The Berkshire Natural Resources Council currently oversees more than 21,000 acres of conserved land throughout the county. This includes about 10,000 acres that it owns as well as 11,000 acres under conservation agreements with other landowners. All of the land owned by the council, along with some of the other protected sites, is open to the public for walking and other forms of non-motorized access and recreation. These properties together contain about 50 miles of trails.

Other protected lands in the county include state and local parks and forests and properties owned by other conservation organizations, such as the Trustees of Reservations and local community-based land banks.

Completing the High Road network would require conservation of an estimated 50,000 additional acres – an undertaking that would involve many separate parcels and negotiations. Ames said his organization envisions a collaborative project that would be coordinated with other stakeholders.

“We’re meeting with local land trusts, statewide conservation organizations, state and local government to explain the concept, to ask them how this can help with their own goals,” he said.
Ames said the High Road reflects the council’s original long-term mission to protect the natural scenic landscape and environment of Berkshire County, and to integrate land conservation with economic development and other community goals.

“This is smack in the middle of the mission we have been pursuing since the organization was first established,” he said. “What is new is that it is taking it to the next step, and creating a specific focus and a more targeted, holistic vision.”


Five decades of conservation
The Berkshire Natural Resources Council was founded in 1967 by Donald and Pete Miller, the brothers who owned The Berkshire Eagle newspaper, and George S. Wislocki, a land conservation advocate. They assembled a board and a network that included local business and community leaders, environmentalists and other supporters of the group’s goals. Wislocki led the organization as its director until 2002, when he retired and was succeeded by Ames.

The council has pursued a variety of strategies over the years. It has acquired properties outright through purchases or donations by landowners. It collaborates with local and state governments and other entities on conservation initiatives, and it has helped communities to establish local land banks.

The council also has helped the state to buy development rights for farmland protection. And it provides expertise and support to landowners on donating parcels for preservation, transferring development rights, and other matters. Property owners who work with the group may do so mainly for philanthropic reasons, but the council also helps them to achieve pragmatic benefits such as estate and tax planning to protect family assets.

Ames said the council takes a strategic approach to conservation and focuses its efforts on sites that meet specific criteria. In addition to hiking and other forms of non-motorized recreation, its priorities include protection of scenic views, hilltops, slopes, water systems, wildlife habitat and other environmentally sensitive locations. It also works to preserve farmland.

The council also aims to integrate land conservation with other goals such as economic development and community needs.

“We don’t just snap up land arbitrarily,” he said. “We are very judicious, and will turn down offers that don’t meet our guidelines or which are better suited to development. We need to make sure that conservation land benefits the community.”

The properties the council has acquired are of varying sizes and characteristics. Among others, they include Olivia’s Overlook, a prominent viewpoint above Stockbridge Bowl on Richmond Mountain Road. The council also has adjacent lands with trails to the south and north along Yukon Ridge, a line of mountains extending from Pittsfield to Stockbridge.

Another of the council’s conservation properties is Hollow Fields, an area of open meadows and woods off Route 41 in western Richmond. Also in Richmond and West Stockbridge is a site known as Stevens Glen, a wooded area that includes a waterfall through a rock cleft.
Additional sites in the southern Berkshires include Bob’s Way in Monterey, Alford Springs in Alford, and land along the Housatonic River in Great Barrington.

In the central and northern Berkshire, the council’s properties include land on Constitution Hill in Lanesborough and a corridor of land and trails along the Hoosac Range above North Adams.
One goal of the High Road initiative is to make it possible to walk from one conservation site to another, such as from West Stockbridge to Pittsfield.


Overarching vision
The concept of connecting protected land to create preserved corridors has become increasingly popular in the Berkshires and elsewhere around the region.

For example, efforts are under way to create a bike and walking path along an old railroad right-of-way from Vermont through eastern New York state. There are also ongoing efforts to protect the Taconic ridgeline along the border of Massachusetts and New York, and another effort to create an east-west trail from the Pioneer Valley into New York.

“The High Road can tie in with regional conservation partnerships and connections that straddle state lines,” Ames said.

He noted that his organization began to invest in a system of public trails in the 1990s.
The specific theme of the High Road originated in 2012, during a staff assessment of the organization’s status and goals. The concept was presented to the organization’s board in early 2013, and the board adopted it as the basis of a strategic plan.

“The catalyst was the upcoming 50th anniversary,” Ames said. “We wanted to hit that at the highest level we could.”

Ames said one impetus for the High Road campaign was a desire to pull together the organization’s activities under a clear goal to which the public could relate.

“We’ve always worked from project to project,” he said. “That has been effective. But from the outside, there did not seem to be an overarching vision. The High Road gives our work … a more coherent public focus.”

Ames added that the High Road will complement, but not pre-empt, the organization’s other goals and activities.

“Other values will continue to factor into our land conservation activities, such as protecting scenic views, habitats and agricultural land,” he said. “We will also still work to preserve land that may not be appropriate for trails.”

A quiet $5 million fund-raising campaign to provide seed money for the High Road initiative was launched prior to the recent public rollout. This effort already has raised $4.5 million, and the group is now turning to the general public to solicit the rest.

Donations to the effort will be designated for three purposes, including $2.5 million for short-term acquisition of essential lands and trail easements; $500,000 to build trails, parking areas, signs and other elements; and $2 million for long-term stewardship of conservation lands and trails.
The $5 million is a starting point for the overall project, which ultimately is projected to cost at least $100 million.

The Berkshires Natural Resources Council has set up a new Web page (www.bnrc.org/the-high-road) with more information about the initiative.