By Alex Cornacchia, Contributing Writer
Grafton – One night in 1958, a group of men met in the basement of the Grafton United Methodist Church to form what they called the Grafton Forest Association, which would later come to be known as the Grafton Land Trust.
Or so the story goes.
The veracity of its origin tale aside, the Grafton Land Trust (GLT) has been doing important conservation work for over 50 years. Its main mission is open spaces – acquiring them, conserving them, and educating people about them – with an additional focus on community engagement. GLT likes to remind people that these spaces are there for them to use and enjoy.
But as Michael Urban, who serves on GLT’s Board of Directors, was quick to point out: “We’re not just an environmental group that’s building trails.”
He believes that definition is too simplistic, that it wouldn’t do justice to the wide range of projects the volunteers who run GLT have undertaken over the years.
GLT’s most obvious project is land acquisition, a topic Urban acknowledges lacks sexiness. Yet there is a certain drama that comes with attempts to secure land – the landowners who’ve owned property for many generations and aren’t keen on handing it over for conservation; the developers who are always eager to snatch up land to build more houses. Even when a piece of property falls into GLT’s hands, the group doesn’t just take it without question: sometimes it’s not financially viable, or it makes more sense for another group to secure it.
Despite the waiting games and tricky navigations, GLT has acquired over 800 acres of land since its founding, much of it coming from donors.
Once the land is with GLT, “it’s legally protected forever,” said Urban, something that, for him and others, makes it a battle very much worth fighting.
Once land comes into the possession of GLT, the question becomes what the group should do with it. Sometimes the answer is creating trails or performing habitat management.
And sometimes the answer is kestrels.
Kestrels are small, colorful falcons whose population in Massachusetts has been declining for the past few decades, largely due to habitat loss. Kestrels are pretty about their housing: they nest in cavities but will not build their own, and their homes must be next to wide open fields so that they can easily spot and seize the insects they feed on.
After hearing about efforts to increase kestrel numbers at last year’s Mass. Land Conference, Troy Gipps, vice president of GLT, decided to launch The Kestrel Project. Wide open fields are something of a GLT specialty, after all; if they installed nest boxes around town, perhaps they could attract some nesting pairs.
Ten boxes now stand tall, overlooking GLT properties across Grafton. They silently await the arrival of their feathered tenants, who with any luck will be swooping in, two by two, come spring.
With spring also comes signs of new life in another GLT project, a unique partnership that’s bringing a property in Grafton back to its agricultural roots.
It was a bit of a gamble on GLT’s part when they gave their Potter Hill property to Jeff Backer. In 2010, the group placed a call for proposals to turn the land into a working farm. Despite Backer’s lack of farming experience, his was the winning proposal. All GLT asked in return was that he care for the land.
Five years later, Backer’s vision for ecologically responsible and community-oriented farming continues to play out on Potter Hill Farm. He grows vegetables and raises cattle and pigs; he runs a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm, goes to farmer’s markets, and does pick-ups at the farm.
In terms of land conservation, Backer said he recognizes that farming is an inherently destructive act. Through practices like planting cover crops to prevent erosion and using pigs as natural recyclers of bitter or rotten food, he demonstrates a mindfulness of this fact.
“I like to think of myself as an ecosystem manager,” he explained.
It’s exactly the kind of respect for the land GLT had hoped for when it made its call for proposals.
These projects are just a small sampling of the work GLT does, but they demonstrate two ideas that seem central to the group: a common goal to keep Grafton green, and an understanding that there is never just one way to achieve this.