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Berkshire Native Plant Nursery, Sanctuary Comes To An End

A picture of flowers and a butterfly.
Facebook: Project Native

An environmental nonprofit in the Berkshires focused on the stewardship of native habitats has come to an end.Since 2000, Project Native has operated a 54-acre native plant nursery and wildlife sanctuary in the village of Housatonic, drawing 4,000-5,000 people each year. But financial straits and failed mergers over the past few years have rolled back some of the nonprofit’s programming. Project Native president Erik Bruun says the organization elevated the use of native plants in the area, including as wildlife habitats.

“The ones that came alive at Project Native that were visible for anyone who went there were the birds, butterflies and the bees,” said Bruun.

After putting out a request for proposals in October 2015 to generate ideas for a sustainable future, including acquisition, the board agreed to sell the land to Bridghe McCracken, founder of Helia Land Design. The company and McCracken have been working with Project Native since 2006. McCracken has been Project Native’s chief landscape designer.

“I really saw my work as being the next steward of the land,” McCracken said. “Continuing the vibrancy of the native plant nursery and farming the peripheral land to a higher capacity than it had been. So creating a model farm with native plants at the heart of it and chickens, goats, bees and maple syrup on the rest of the land.”

But since the 54 acres are part of the state’s Agricultural Preservation Restriction program, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources retained a right of first refusal, which it acted on this spring by blocking the transfer. From there the agency opened the land for bids from interested parties. McCracken submitted an application, but it was not chosen. After three months of questioning MDAR, Bruun says the agency noted that the proposal did not come from a farmer and that it didn’t have the maximum commercial agricultural use.

“We did not pay close enough attention to the desire for a strictly agricultural description of what was going on,” Bruun said. “There are overlapping ways in which use of native plants for wildlife purposes can correspond perfectly well with agricultural ones, but those were not sufficiently articulated.”

McCracken and Bruun say after meeting with MDAR, another reason given was that paperwork for the proposal for the land and the transfer of the land had different names on them, but both involved McCracken.

“What it means now for Helia is that I have no plant source and nowhere to grow plants,” said McCracken.

Asked for comment, MDAR reiterated that the proposal from Sky Meadow Farm LLC did not meet the agency’s definition of a farmer and did not indicate the land would be utilized to the fullest extent for commercial agriculture. Out of three applications, the state selected a bid from farmer and Great Barrington Select Board Chair Sean Stanton to use the land to expand his farm. Stanton says his farm utilizes about a dozen properties to support its organic operations, which he says has similar ideals as a native plant nursery.

“We’ll graze the back pasture and some of the front pastures as well,” Stanton said. “We’re a certified organic farm so there is a lot of sensitivity to the soil.”

Bruun says he is disappointed at what he says is a lack of a real appeal process.

“Project Native spent almost 15 years working on this property, developing it as an agricultural resource when it was essentially a wasteland beforehand,” Bruun said. “That a small committee in Boston with eight pages of paperwork in front of them will make a decision in a single meeting and then not have any reasonable recourse to think about or give the opportunity to extend the work and the investment that’s put into it is pretty outrageous.”

McCracken says thoughts of a further appeal have been exhausted over the past few months.

“To destroy a unique resource for a common use seems to me to be a terrible use of our state’s resources,” said McCracken.

Raina Weber founded Project Native as an offshoot of the Railroad Street Youth Project when she was 19. It’s had a year-round staff of four people and a seasonal staff of eight. Its annual budget is between $300,000 and $400,000. After Weber left as executive director in 2012, the organization shifted toward education, building a butterfly house and hosting a film festival.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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