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Postby Paul » Tue Jun 21, 2011 3:25 pm

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

BELCHERTOWN - Land once envisioned as an equestrian community with 124 expensive homes will remain in its natural state.

Purchased for $1.4 million by the Trust for Public Land, the 335-acre tract is expected to be turned over to the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) this summer or fall, and eventually be open to the public for hiking and viewing wildlife. It is just east of the Holyoke Range State Park, whose acreage will increase by 10 percent.

Just as every cloud has a silver lining, an economic downturn can have a green lining, said Christopher LaPointe, project manager for the Trust for Public Land. The property became available because of a threatened foreclosure on the land, followed by a bankruptcy filing by Deep Woods Development of Smithtown, N.Y., which bought the 380-acre former Ingate Farm for $1.7 million in 2004.

"It came together in a fortuitous way for conservation," LaPointe said.

While development has to continue, protection of land must occur at the same time, said Edward Lambert, the DCR commissioner.

"The quality of life people can enjoy depends on being outdoors, getting back to nature and taking advantage of recreational opportunities, especially in a time of fiscal distress," Lambert said. "Most of us don't have the opportunity to jet off on expensive vacations, and properties in our backyards are incredibly important for people who want to get out and enjoy the peace and quiet."

Future trails

Lambert said he hopes to add to the 30 miles of existing hiking trails in the state park. DCR will assess the potential for such activities as cross country skiing, snowmobiling and horseback riding, he said.

Although the agency is responsible for half a million acres in Massachusetts, "this parcel is a big acquisition for us," he said.

The purchase involved a collaboration of the Trust for Public Land, which donated $50,000, the Friends of the Holyoke Range, which contributed $100,000, and Massachusetts Audubon, which directed money from a grant toward the purchase. The Kestrel Land Trust worked on the project for many years.

DCR is expected to buy the land from the Trust for Public Land for $1 million, said Kristin DeBoer, executive director of the Kestrel Land Trust. She was disappointed to lose the right of first refusal on the property when the developer of the proposed equestrian community bought it in 2004, she said.

"This is in keeping with Kestrel's overall focus of making a wildlife corridor between the state park and the Quabbin Reservoir," she said.

Most of the land is in Belchertown and 40 acres is in Granby, LaPointe said.

The site provides a habitat for the marbled salamander, which is classified as a threatened species, and for the Jefferson salamander, spotted turtle and box turtle, which experts are concerned about, he said. The state park already consists of over 3,000 acres of forested ridgeline, wetlands, vernal pools and streams. The mountain range has an unusual east-west orientation.

The goal of conservation planners is to create tracts of landscape and corridors rather than islands of protected land, LaPointe said.

"I'm struck by how nice it is to have such a large block of protected and wooded and in some cases wild land so close to so many people in Belchertown, Amherst and Northampton," he said.
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