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Paying It Forward:                      
Our Local Legacy of Land Conservation

By Jim Behnke

It was almost 30 years ago when my wife Connie and I first came to Cape Ann in search of a home that would eventually house our three daughters and a menagerie of pets, both warm and cold-blooded.  As we drove east on Route 128 past Exit 17, I remember wondering how a stretch of uninterrupted wilderness like that could exist so close to Boston.  Then we took Exit 15 and headed north on Southern Ave past Cedar Swamp, Agassiz Rock, and Bothway Farms.  By the time we turned onto Apple Street it seemed we had turned another type of corner.  We decided this was where we wanted to raise our family.


As an avid nature lover, I wanted my daughters—now in their twenties—to grow up in a place where nature began at their front door even as their father disappeared into a jungle of concrete and glass each day.  And experience nature they did!  Vernal pools.  Wild blackberries. Wild turkeys.  Cacophonous choruses of coyotes.  The midnight hoots of the Great Horned Owl.  Those were the sights and sounds of their Wonder Years.


But as much as I appreciated the natural beauty of this area, I hadn’t stopped to investigate how it came to be.  It is a rare place where the interests of conservation and development are harmonious.  And it doesn’t happen by accident.  The land protected by conservation trusts and the towns of Essex and Manchester were preserved for us to enjoy today thanks to the efforts of many committed and visionary people.

The First Conservation Trusts

In 1878 a 24-year-old summer resident of Manchester named Alice North Towne—believing action was needed to protect the land along the lovely, wooded road to Essex—convinced two Boston Brahmins, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge and Henry Lee, to act as trustees in purchasing narrow parcels of land along the road to preserve the trees for shade and visual appeal.  Over the next 25 years, under the imprimatur of The Woodland Park and Essex’s Coolidge Trusts, these gentlemen bought and gifted numerous parcels of land to the town of Manchester.  Even then, conservation efforts were embraced by these trusts and the town government.


According to Helen Bethell, a Manchester resident since 1968 and former Executive Director of the Manchester Essex Conservation Trust (MECT), “In those days of Victorian sensibilities and horse-and-buggy travel, afternoon drives into the countryside were very popular among summer residents.  A favorite route was the narrow, curving, heavily wooded road that linked the villages of Essex and Manchester,” the precursor to the School Street/Southern Ave corridor.


One of the most treasured areas protected by these trusts was a stand of old-growth white pine and hemlock known as Cathedral Pines, along the old Manchester/Essex Road.  According to George Smith, a retired civil engineer who spent his summers growing up in Manchester during the 1940s, much of Cathedral Pines was destroyed when Route 128 was constructed in the early 1950s, trust protection notwithstanding.  And many of the great trees that remained were wiped out by Hurricane Carol in 1954.  Today, what’s left of Cathedral Pines is an 11-acre parcel owned by the Town of Manchester with just a few surviving giant white pines.  Ironically, those trees can be found near a plaque erected in 1879 with the inscription, “To the Glory of God and For the Benefit Of Man These Woods are Preserved Forever.” 


It was a different world here before Route 128 when the only auto route into Manchester from points west was Route 127 along the coast. George remembers “as kids, we used to ride horses up Pine Street and all the way out to Chebacco Lake, where the horses liked to swim.” And Southern Ave “with its closed canopy of trees was like driving through a tunnel.” 


Route 128 changed everything. Helen Bethell noted that “it brought upheaval and many residents feared the permanent loss of important open spaces, wildlife, glacial outcroppings, and recreational opportunities,” as well as threats to our water supply.  The Exit 15 interchange permanently altered the route of School Street/Southern Ave to its present route and “Old School Street” became an unpaved dead end accessible only from the Essex side. The completion of 128 and the commercial development it stimulated--from Danvers to Gloucester--triggered the next wave in conservation activism.

The Second Wave

From 1957 to 1963 the Trustees of Reservations created the Agassiz Rock Reservation in Manchester, and in 1974 the Crane Wildlife Refuge in Essex.  The Essex County Greenbelt Association was established in 1961 and later protected 106 acres of woodlands and wetlands accessible from Apple Street, and in 1974 established the Allyn Cox Reservation. 


In 1963 the Manchester Conservation Trust (now MECT) was founded by Al Creighton, Frances Burnett, and Gid Loring, and has since protected approximately 1,500 acres of land in Manchester and Essex.  Some of its most visible accomplishments include much of the Wilderness Conservation Area along the west side of Southern Ave and the large network of well-marked trails throughout the Manchester-Essex Woods and Powder House Hill Reservation. 


From the beginning, MECT’s strategy for identifying parcels of land to acquire and/or protect has involved a considerable amount of cartographic sleuthing.  From colonial times through the mid to late 19th century, residents of Manchester and Essex owned woodlots, many accessible only by primitive cart paths.  With the emergence of coal as a primary source of fuel during the Industrial Revolution, the need for wood for fuel declined dramatically, and many of those woodlots became historical footnotes--their precise locations and ownership often ambiguous or unknown.  Manchester Conservation Trust co-founder Frances Burnett pored over land records and ancient deeds to try to determine the owners of woodland parcels, and Helen Bethell continued that research for decades.


Enter Fred Wales who has lived in Manchester since 1977 and is now a MECT Trustee.  A retired civil engineer and U.S. Navy veteran, Fred honed his mapping skills on ice breakers in the polar regions and aboard navy submarines.  He combines the precision of an engineer with the field work of an archaeologist.  Using 21st century mapping devices from satellites along with ancient land deeds, Fred and Amy Blondin (Land Records Manager at MECT) have been able to discover and correctly plot the property boundaries of woodlots dating back to the 1700s.


But Fred is not all about the details.  He thinks local residents need to consider the big picture. “Cape Ann is a gold mine of protected wildlife habitat,” he said.  That view is shared by Jim MacDougall, a biodiversity consultant from Topsfield who is highly respected throughout the state.  “The Manchester-Essex Woods is one of the most remarkable places in Essex County.  It’s home to nesting wood warblers and several insect species found nowhere else in the county.”


The area Fred and Jim are describing has been identified by the BioMap2 project, initiated by the Mass Department of Fish and Game in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy in 2012.   The project has identified habitats critical to the protection of biodiversity throughout the state.   It’s intended to guide strategic conservation efforts “by focusing land protection and stewardship on the areas most critical for ensuring the long-term persistence of rare and other native species and their habitats, exemplary natural communities, and a diversity of ecosystems.”  The Manchester-Essex Woods meets all of those criteria.  Customized reports have been published for every town in the state.  According to those reports, Essex and Manchester have 2,432 acres (26.7%) and 1,140 acres (22.9%) respectively of their total land area protected in perpetuity.

Paying it forward

It’s difficult to place a monetary or aesthetic value on those figures and someone might reasonably ask why the towns should continue to place more land into conservation trusts.  I posed that question to Steve Gang, MECT Trustee and chair of the Manchester Conservation Commission.  “I think taxpayers and voters need to understand three things,” he said, “First, these woodlands and freshwater marshes provide the watershed that’s the source of our drinking water.  Second, there’s the natural beauty and recreational value for hiking, birdwatching, walking dogs, or just finding solace.  And third, these woodlands provide resilience in the face of climate change by storing huge amounts of carbon in the ground.  Protecting these lands is a gift we can give our grandchildren.”


And what about collaboration between the town and conservation trusts?  “In Manchester over the last five years,” Steve added, “I’ve seen a really impressive shift to balance sometimes-competing interests.  I applaud the efforts of the Manchester Selectmen and the Finance Committee members who have to weigh these considerations as new developments are proposed.” 


The local history of conservation activism was written by some inspiring people who set a high bar for folks currently working to “pay it forward” so the natural beauty and resilience of our woodlands and wetlands are maintained for posterity.

Jim Behnke is a local resident, naturalist, and retired science publisher.  

Hamilton-Essex-Manch-Glou woods w-Biomap, USGS.png

This map of Essex and surrounding area was produced by Amy Blondin of MECT using data obtained from the BioMap2 project.  Green crosshatch areas indicate core habitat for protected species, and larger green areas indicate critical natural landscape and buffer zones, but neither designation indicates what land is currently under conservation trust.

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