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Class of 2021

When It Comes to Land Preservation, He’s Been a Trailblazer

Leah Martin Photography

Pete Westover says his appreciation of, and passion for, outdoor spaces traces back to a family vacation trip to, among other places, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, or Rocky, as it’s called, when he was 12.

The park, which spans the Continental Divide, is famous for its grand vistas, high alpine meadows, and dramatic walking trails, some of them at elevations of 10,000 feet or more. And, suffice to say, the park made quite an impression on the young middle-school student.

“There’s bighorn sheep and mountain goats and all kinds of great wildlife and flora,” he noted, adding that he’s been back several times since. “The road goes well over 11,000 feet, so you’re up there among the peaks.”

It was this trip that pretty much convinced Westover he wanted to spend his working life outdoors. And if he needed any more convincing, he got it while working in a hospital just after high school, at a time when he was still thinking about going to medical school and following in the footsteps of his father, who became a doctor.

“I realized, there’s no way I want to spend my time in time in a hospital or a clinic,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he instead pursued a master’s degree in forest ecology at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

“Pete has dedicated his entire career to conserving land and creating trails — the Valley’s forests and farms simply would not be as intact as they are today if Pete Westover hadn’t been a prime champion for their protection.”

Thus, as they might say in what has become his line of work, he took a different trail than the one he originally envisioned. Actually, those who know him would say he’s blazed his own trail — in every aspect of that phrase.

It has led to an intriguing and highly rewarding career that has included everything from work on a helicopter forest-fire crew in Northern California when he was in college to a 30-year stint as conservation director for the town of Amherst, to his current role as founder and partner of Conservation Works, a conservation firm involved with open space and agricultural land protection; ecological and land-stewardship assistance to land trusts, towns, colleges, and other entities; and other services.

Described as a “legend” by one of those who nominated him for the Difference Maker award, Dianne Fuller Doherty, retired executive director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network’s Western Mass. office (and a Difference Maker herself in 2020), Westover has earned a number of accolades over the years.

These include the Valley Eco Award for Distinguished Service to Our Environment, in his case for ‘lifetime dedication and achievement’; the Governor’s Award for Open Space Protection; the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission’s Regional Service Award; the Massachusetts Assoc. of Conservation Commissions’ Environmental Service Award; and even the Millicent A. Kaufman Distinguished Service Award as Amherst Area Citizen of the Year.

Pete Westover, center, with fellow Conservation Works partners Chris Curtis and Elizabeth Wroblicka

Pete Westover, center, with fellow Conservation Works partners Chris Curtis and Elizabeth Wroblicka in Springfield’s Forest Park, where the company is currently working on several projects.

And now, he can add Difference Maker to that list, a title that certainly befits an individual who has preserved thousands of acres of land, created hundreds of miles of trails, and even helped innumerable parks and other open spaces identify and hopefully eradicate invasive species.

“Pete has dedicated his entire career to conserving land and creating trails — the Valley’s forests and farms simply would not be as intact as they are today if Pete Westover hadn’t been a prime champion for their protection,” wrote Kristin DeBoer, executive director of the Kestrel Land Trust, a partner and client of Conservation Works on many of its projects, in her nomination of Westover. “The number of conservation areas and protected farms that Pete has been involved with are too many to name.”

While justifiably proud of what’s been accomplished in these realms over the past several decades, Westover stressed repeatedly that this work has never been a one-man show. Instead, it’s always been accomplished through partnerships and teamwork, especially when it comes to Conservation Works.

“This is such a great valley to work in,” he told BusinessWest. “There are so many dedicated people in our field; we’re just lucky to be in a place where there are so many forward-looking people.”

Westover is certainly one of them, and his work (that’s a broad term, to be sure) to not only protect and preserve land, but educate others and serve as a role model, has earned him a place among the Difference Makers class of 2021.

 

Changing the Landscape — Or Not

It’s called the Robert Frost Trail, and it’s actually one of several trails in the Northeast named after the poet, who lived and taught in this region for many years.

This one stretches 47 miles through the eastern Connecticut River Valley, from the Connecticut River in South Hadley to Ruggles Pond in Wendell State Forest. Blazed with orange triangles, the trail winds through both Hampshire and Franklin counties, and includes a number of scenic features, including the Holyoke Range, Mount Orient, Puffer’s Pond, and Mount Toby.

And while there are literally thousands of projects in Westover’s portfolio from five decades of work in this realm, this one would have to be considered his signature work, first undertaken while he was conservation director in Amherst, but a lifelong project in many respects.

Indeed, those at Conservation Works are working with Kestrel on an ongoing project to improve the trail. But the Robert Frost Trail is just one of countless initiatives to which Westover has contributed his time, energy, and considerable talents over the years. You might say he’s changed the landscape in Western Mass., but it would be even more accurate to say his work has been focused on not changing the landscape, and preserving farmland and other spaces as they are.

And even that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Indeed, Westover said, through his decades of work, he hasn’t been focused on halting or even controlling development, but instead on creating a balance.

“When I worked with the town of Amherst, our philosophy was, ‘we’re not trying to prevent development; we’re trying to keep up with it,’” he explained, adding that this mindset persists to this day. “For every time you see a new subdivision go up, it makes sense to address the other side of the coin and make sure there are protected lands that people can have for various purposes.

“When you see real-estate ads that say ‘near conservation area,’ or ‘next to the Robert Frost Trail’ … that’s important to the well-being of a town or the region to have that balance,” he went on, adding that it has essentially been his life’s work to create it.

Top, Conversation Works partner Dick O’Brien supervises volunteers at Lathrop Community in Northampton in bridge building on the Lathrop Trail off Cooke Avenue. Above, several of the company’s partners: from left, Fred Morrison, Dick O’Brien, Molly Hale, Chris Curtis, and Laurie Sanders.

Tracing his career working outdoors, Westover said he started at an environmental-education center in Kentucky, where he worked for three years. Later, after returning to Yale for a few more classes, he came to Amherst as its conservation director, a role he kept from 1974 to 2004. In 2005, he would partner with Peter Blunt, former executive director of the Connecticut River Watershed Council (now the Connecticut River Conservancy) to create Conservation Works. Blunt passed away in 2010, but a team of professionals carries on his work and his legacy, and has broadened the company’s mission and taken its work to the four corners of New England and well beyond.

But over the years, Westover has worn many other hats as well. He’s been an adjunct professor of Natural Science, principally at Hampshire College, where he has taught, among other courses, “Conservation Land Protection and Management,” “The Ecology and Politics of New England Natural Areas,” “Ecology and Culture of Costa Rica,” “Geography, Ecology, and Indigenous Americans in the Pacific Northwest, 1800 to Present,” and, most recently, “Land Conservation, Indigenous Land Rights, and Traditional Ecological Knowledge.”

He’s also penned books, including Managing Conservation Land: The Stewardship of Conservation Areas, Wildlife Sanctuaries, and Other Open Spaces in Massachusetts, and served on boards ranging from the Conservation Law Foundation of New England to the Whately Open Space Committee.

“When I worked with the town of Amherst, our philosophy was, ‘we’re not trying to prevent development; we’re trying to keep up with it. For every time you see a new subdivision go up, it makes sense to address the other side of the coin and make sure there are protected lands that people can have for various purposes.”

But while he spends some time behind the keyboard, in the lecture hall, or in the boardroom, mostly he’s where he always wants to be — outdoors — especially as he works with his partners at Conservation Works on projects across New England and beyond.

The group, which now includes seven partners, handles everything from conservation of open space and farmland to the development and maintenance of trails; from invasive-plant-management plans to what are known as municipal vulnerability-preparedness plans that address climate change and the dangers it presents to communities.

And, as Westover noted, teamwork is the watchword for this company.

“One of the things that attracted me to Conservation Works is that all of the professionals have very unique skills, and we all complement one another,” said Elizabeth Wroblicka, a lawyer and former director of Wildlife Lands for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. “Land conservation is multi-faceted, from the acquisition to the long-term ownership to the stewardship, and with the wildlife biologists we have, the trail constructors, boundary markings … I do the contracts, but we all have a piece that we excel in.”

Chris Curtis, who came to Conservation Works after a lengthy career with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission as chief planner and now focuses extensively on climate-change issues, agreed. He noted that, in addition to land preservation, trail-building and improvement, and other initiatives, the group is doing more work in the emerging realm of climate resiliency — out of necessity.

“We’ve been working with the town of Deerfield for four years,” he said, citing just one example of this work. “We’ve helped it win grants for more than $1.2 million worth of work that includes a municipal vulnerability-preparedness plan, flood-evacuation plans, a land-conservation plan for the Deerfield River floodplain area, and education programs, including a townwide climate forum that was attended by 200 to 300 people.”

Such efforts to address climate change are an example of how the group’s mission continues to expand and evolve, and how Westover’s broad impact on this region, its open spaces, and its endangered spaces grows ever deeper.

 

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Reflecting back on that trip to Rocky, Westover said that, in many ways, it changed not only his perspective, but his life.

It helped convince him that he not only wanted to work outdoors, but wanted to protect the outdoors and create spaces that could be enjoyed by this generation and those to come. As noted, he’s both changed the landscape and helped ensure that it won’t be changed.

He’s not comfortable with being called a legend, but Difference Maker works, and it certainly fits someone whose footprints can be seen all across the region — literally and figuratively.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Features

To Preserve and Protect

Pete Westover

For more than 30 years, Pete Westover served as Amherst’s conservation director and watershed forester, and over that time he worked with a host of others to preserve large tracts of farmland, create a system of conservation lands, and build roughly 80 miles of trails. In 2006, he left that post to, in essence, partner with others and take his conservation work to a higher, broader plane. The company is called Conservation Works, and it is changing the landscape — or not changing it, as the case may be — in a number of meaningful ways.

The red Prius (what else would he drive?) in Pete Westover’s driveway is not yet five years old.

But he has more than 165,000 miles on it already, by his estimates — he hasn’t looked at the odometer lately — and the number climbs steadily each week.

That’s because he’s on the road — a lot — in his work, and sometimes off the road as well. Indeed, from his home in South Deerfield, he’s packed up and trekked off to dozens of communities in the Commonwealth and beyond, doing work that, well, doesn’t seem much like work.

It’s more of a passion.

And it’s the same for all the partners at a unique company called Conservation Works, a name that doesn’t say it all, necessarily, but goes a long way to explaining what this is.

As it notes on its website, this company works with public, private, and nonprofit landowners to enhance land conservation and ecological resiliency. And it does so through work on everything from conservation of open space and farmland to the development and maintenance of trails; from invasive-plant-management plans to an upcoming workshop on climate-change resilience at Frontier Regional High School in South Deerfield.

“We focus on land — trails, ecology, and land-protection work,” said Westover, the company’s managing partner, who was appointed Amherst’s conservation director and watershed forester in 1974 — the first such position in the state as far as he knows — and held that position for 30 years.

In 2006, he collaborated with Terry Blunt, former executive director of the Connecticut River Watershed Council (now the Connecticut River Conservancy) to create Conservation Works.

Blunt passed away in 2010, but a team of professionals (more on this group later) carries on his work and his legacy.

A look at the portfolio of recent and current projects provides an effective snapshot of both what this company does and the challenges facing municipalities and individual landowners today:

• Providing assistance to the town of Dover for an open space and recreation plan;

• Working with the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game’s Natural Heritage & Endangered Species office on inventories of rare plants and invasive species on Mount Tom;

• Working with the town of Deerfield on phases I-IV of a municipal vulnerability (climate change) preparedness plan;

• Working with Amherst College on a host of initiatives, from replacement of nine red pine stands to invasive plant monitoring and control;

• Working with Fish & Game on breeding bird surveys in Southwick, Montague Plains, and other communities;

• Providing assistance to the Hilltown CDC on a farmers’ market and local food-promotion program;

• Conducting a wetlands assessment and planning project for the Orchards Golf Club in South Hadley; and

• Working with Lathrop Retirement Community in Northampton to improve trail accessibility at its facility.

And then, there are the projects involving trails and trail systems. The company has worked on dozens of them, from the Three Bridges Trail in Hatfield to the Willard Wood Trail in Lexington to the Robert Frost Trail, which winds its way through several communities in Western Mass.

Conservation Works will be working with the Kestrel Land Trust to overhaul the entire 47-mile Robert Frost Trail, which stretches from the Holyoke Range to Wendell State Forest. (Photo courtesy of Conservation Works)

But, as Westover noted, much of the company’s time and energy is spent on helping communities and individuals preserve land, especially the dwindling amounts of farmland in the Commonwealth.

“We just can’t afford to lose any more farmland,” he said, noting that the state’s Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) program has protected more than 80,000 acres to date — roughly a quarter to a third of “what needs to be protected.” Conservation Works has played a role in several efforts to preserve farmland, and has become a valuable partner in navigating what can be a daunting process.

When asked about what’s in the business plan for Conservation Works, which he described a low-overhead company — everyone works out of their homes (when they’re not working in the field) — Westover implied that the goal is to be able to do more of the above, as in all of the above.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Westover about Conservation Works, the many types of work it undertakes, the importance of conversation, and even the already-visible signs of climate change. While doing so, that passion mentioned earlier is clearly evident.

No Walk in the Park

When Westover talks about an MVP, he isn’t referring to most valuable player in the NFL or NBA.

In his world, that acronym stands for municipal vulnerability plan, like the one Conservation Works is finalizing for Deerfield. Such a plan involves climate change and what such developments as rising temperatures and rising rivers — which are both already happening — mean for communities.

No community had an MVP until a few years ago, and most still don’t have one now, but the number of cities and towns looking into getting something down on paper is growing, said Westover, because more municipal leaders are coming to understand that climate change is real.

Conservation Works has partnered with the New England Small Farm Institute on a long-term land-preservation plan for the 420-acre Lampson Brook Farm in Belchertown, one of many initiatives to preserve dwindling farmland in the region. (Photo courtesy of Conservation Works)

And Deerfield’s plan, now in the latter stages of development, could become a regional and even a national model.

“It’s state-funded,” he told BusinessWest, “and the state’s been putting a lot of money into not only phase one — which is an analysis of what the vulnerabilities are in each town with such things as flooding and agriculture damage from temperature changes, and damage to town facilities — but also with follow-up programs that give money for actual improvements.

“Every town is now expected to come up some kind of municipal vulnerability plan in response to climate change,” he went on, noting that he’s now talking with officials in Bernardston about such a plan, and he expects others to follow suit.

Thus, MVP becomes part of the alphabet soup of acronyms one finds in this realm — from DFG (Department of Fish & Game) to MDAR (Mass. Department of Agricultural Resources) to FCROG (Franklin Regional Council of Governments) — that the partners at Conservation Works will use as they go about their work.

And, as Westover noted, it’s a talented team with members who bring specific areas of expertise to the various projects on the to-do pile. That team also includes:

• Fred Morrison, who brings expertise in everything from geology to freshwater mussels to dragonflies;

• Laurie Sanders, a naturalist, writer, and former host and producer of Field Notes, a weekly natural history series that aired on NEPR;

• Christopher Curtis, retired chief planner and section manager for the Land Use and Environmental Section of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, a consulting environmental planner for the company;

• Dick O’Brien, former regional director for the Trustees of the Reservations and director of the Buck Hill Conservation Education Center, who brings to the table extensive experience as a conservation land manager and specialist in the design and construction of sustainable and ADA-accessible trails; and

• Molly Hale, who worked for 10 years as an independent contractor and owner of Molly Hale Wildlife Biologist before joining the company in 2010. She has completed detailed habitat assessments and surveys for rare plants and animals on more than 3,000 acres.

Together, the partners are working on more than a dozen projects at any given time, said Westover, adding that there is a consistent pipeline of work.

And, as noted, much of that work involves land preservation, an often time-consuming and difficult process with a number of steps, beginning with a landowner willing to seek restrictions on his or her property. The company has created a strong niche helping landowners work with the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources to complete Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) applications, assemble supporting materials, obtain funding assistance, and make the case for approval to local town boards and committees and the state Agricultural Lands Preservation Committee.

Such work, and the company has undertaken a lot of it, takes on a heightened sense of urgency as the challenges for farmers mount and the value of real estate — especially in the eastern part of the state — continues to rise.

“We’re losing a lot of dairy farms; 20 years ago, we had something like 650 dairy farms, and now we’re down to under 200,” Westover said. “And our orchards are under pressure. Land is in extreme demand here in the Valley, so if land is available, people are going to bid on it.”

Since the APR program began roughly 40 years ago, more than 30,000 acres have been preserved in Hampshire County alone, said Westover, adding that there have been some recent success stories, including a project he worked on — the Szala Farm in Hadley.

“We had been concerned about that property because the owners had been approached by developers regularly,” he said. “Fortunately, that won’t become a subdivision.”

Growing Pains

But more subdivisions are needed, he said, adding that there must be a balance between preservation efforts and needed new commercial and residential development.

“Land preservation has to go in parallel with land development,” he explained. “We’re not trying to protect everything; we’re trying to create a balance. In Amherst, for example, the balance is pretty good; there’s a lot of protected farmland, a lot of open space, but there has been a lot of development as well.”

Conservation Works built a 450-foot boardwalk in Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary in Wales, one of hundreds of projects in its portfolio. (Photo courtesy of Conservation Works)

Helping communities create such a balance through open-space plans, trail creation, and other initiatives is a big part of the portfolio of services offered by Conservation Works, which has many types of clients. These include municipaliti; private companies and institutions, like the Orchards Golf Club, Lathrop Communities, and Amherst College; and a host of land-conservation trusts.

These include the Amherst-based Kestrel Land Trust, perhaps the company’s biggest client. Indeed, Conservation Works is now assisting Kestrel with a number of initiatives, including wood turtle habitat monitoring in Agawam, work on the Robert Frost Trail, construction of the Holland Glen Trail in Belchertown, and land negotiations in collaboration with the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge.

Trail work has become a big part of the portfolio, with work in communities across the state, from Newton to Westfield (Stanley Park) to Fitchburg.

“One of our hopes with trail development is that everyone will have, within walking distance, a trail they can use, whether it’s a 10-minute walk or a 20-minute walk,” Westover noted, adding that the company is working on a trails project in Southampton and continues to assist Lathrop Communities with trail development on its properties.

One of the better success stories in this broad realm is the Robert Frost Trail, which now stretches 47 miles and runs from the Holyoke Range to the Wendell State Forest.

“It goes through a lot of public lands, town-conservation lands, state forests, and state Fish & Game land, but it also goes through a lot of private land, by permission,” noted Westover, who helped conceive the initiative decades ago. “It’s a wonderful asset, a real recreational resource, and we worked with the Kestrel Land Trust to completely overhaul the trail because maintenance tends to fall behind; we’re going to go in and replace bridging, get rid of downed trees, replace signage, and more.”

Meanwhile, a growing amount of work falls into the category of invasive-species inventory and subsequent action to control those species, he said, adding that some of these problems are directly linked to climate change.

As an example, he cited frangula alnus, commonly known as glossy buckthorn, a tall, deciduous shrub native to Europe and parts of Africa and Asia.

“It expands exponentially once it comes into an area, and it’s one of about a good half-dozen invasive plants that have absolutely taken over the landscape,” he explained, noting that many of these plants were brought in as landscaping elements and then quickly spread well beyond their intended perimeter.

Forest Park in Springfield is one area that is being threatened by these plants, he said, adding that it is urging the Parks Department to consider some type of action, but there are many others as well.

“I was in Westport, Mass on a project recently,” he recalled. “The multiflora rose down there is so bad you literally cannot walk through the woods. It’s super aggressive — it will take over the landscape, and it’s very hard to get rid of, and that’s true of bittersweet, swallowwort, and many others.

As for climate change, there is plenty of evidence that it is already impacting communities in Western Mass., he said, citing, as just one example, the severity of floods on the Deerfield River.

“The Deerfield has gotten hammered; the farms along the river have been really hit hard by silt that washes up over the farms and smothers the plant growth,” he explained. “Historically, it has always flooded, but the flooding is getting worse, and they’re expected to be even more so.”

Meanwhile, temperature records continue to be set, there are other extreme weather events, and invasive plants, which benefit from hotter, wetter weather, have gained a foothold, which is why communities need an MVP.

Looking ahead, the company, as noted, is looking to expand. Westover and other team members meet periodically with officials at the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network for advice on to take the venture to the next level.

“What we’re hoping to do is broaden the number of projects that involve our whole team,” he said, adding that, in addition to larger-scale initiatives, he would, of course, like to expand the portfolio of clients, especially with the region’s colleges and universities, and also entities specializing in land development.

“We’re pretty busy dealing with what’s right in front of us,” he said, noting that he’s working on perhaps 15 projects at the moment. “But we have one eye on the future, and we see opportunities to grow.”

On the Right Trail

That other eye is on everything from migrating birds in the Southwick Wildlife Management Area to needed work on the Robert Frost Trail, to that dreaded glossy buckthorn taking over the region.

It’s a job that takes him all over New England and even beyond and puts hundreds of miles on that red Prius each and every week.

But for Westover and his partners at Conservation Works, it’s only work in the sense that they get paid to do it.

It’s really a passion, and one that is helping to change the landscape in this area — or not change it, as is very often the case — in very positive ways.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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