HANCOCK — It was the sale of a treasured childhood retreat that got Eleanor Briggs active in land conservation.
In 1966, she learned her father had sold the land around her grandparents’ summer cottage on King’s Highway in Hancock to a developer. She had fond memories of spending time there, wandering in the woods and finding solace in nature.
Worried it would be subdivided and sold off, she decided to start buying it back. “I woke up in a fit of anxiety one morning sort of picturing skyscrapers around Norway Pond,” she said at an event last month.
Briggs, now a Hancock resident, founded the Harris Center for Conservation Education there in 1970. Named after her cat Harris, the center has since led countless educational programs and outings and protected thousands of acres of land in Hancock and the surrounding towns.
The Harris Center — which last month kicked off a yearlong commemoration of its 50th anniversary next fall — is one of two local conservation organizations celebrating a milestone. This month, the Monadnock Conservancy turns 30.
The stories of the two nonprofits, though distinct, have some common threads. Concerns about development helped motivate their founding. They matured from efforts led by relatively green volunteers into more professional operations. Their missions have evolved and broadened. And their stories are a reminder that conservation isn’t just about land, but about people’s connection to it.
“You’re gonna get, a lot of times, some sort of family story” when you ask why someone preserved their land, said Rick Church of Nelson, a former board member of the Monadnock Conservancy who remains involved with the organization. “You know, ‘My family’s owned this place for four generations. We started coming here summers. This is where I grew up as a kid. I used to run in these woods. My grandkids are now running in these woods. I want my great-grandchildren to be able to run in these woods.’
“When you ask people why they did something nice,” he added, “you’re gonna get a very rewarding story.”
Working in concert
Various entities work to preserve land in the Granite State, from The Nature Conservancy and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests to local and regional groups. Ryan Owens, the executive director of the Keene-based Monadnock Conservancy, said the different players cooperate and complement one another.
“We all occupy unique enough mission spaces or geographic spaces that it’s usually pretty clear who ought to take the lead in a particular project,” he said.
For example, the Forest Society has extensive holdings on Mount Monadnock, much of it leased to the state for Monadnock State Park.
“When opportunities come up for additional conservation, building off the block that is Mount Monadnock, any of us operating in this region are going to look to the Forest Society to take the lead there,” Owens said. “It just makes a lot of sense. The Harris Center, for example, has their ‘SuperSanctuary’ around Hancock and Harrisville and Nelson, and one of their top priorities is building out this important block of wildlife habitat.”
That sanctuary is a 35,000-acre network of “clustered protected lands” in those and other nearby towns. It includes about 23,000 acres that the Harris Center has been directly responsible for protecting, through conservation easements — legally binding agreements restricting future development — and other means.
A major goal of the program is to protect large contiguous blocks of habitat that provide, as the center’s website puts it, “room to roam.”
At first, however, conservation wasn’t a focus of the center, which Briggs founded as an environmental education organization.
“It started out really with trying to create an organization that would lure us, convince us, cajole us into falling in love with where we live, becoming aware of it and starting to enjoy it,” she said at the Harris Center’s annual meeting last month. “Really having a good time in nature. So that we would then be committed to wanting to really protect what we have.”
The center’s second director, H. Meade Cadot, conceived the SuperSanctuary out of concern for bobcats, fishers and other wildlife, Briggs told The Sentinel recently. “We began to think about protecting contiguous pieces of land, so that it would add up to a huge amount of open space for wildlife,” she said.
The Harris Center started its land trust program in the 1980s with 3,000 acres in several areas, according to its website. It expanded by adding abutting land and connecting different blocks. Today, the sanctuary encompasses mountains, lakes, rivers, wetlands and more than 20 acres of hiking trails.
“It’s a very special part of New England, and I think the Harris Center helped keep it that way,” she said.
Briggs said it has been gratifying to see the organization continue and grow thanks to the contributions of “hundreds of people.” The annual meeting on Oct. 20, attended by dozens, featured a video tribute to Briggs and a half-hour interview in which she reflected on the center’s early days.
The Harris Center is celebrating its 50th with various events over the next year, including talks and outdoor outings.
30 years of conservation
The founding of the Monadnock Conservancy, in November 1989, was motivated by both concern and a sense of opportunity, as co-founder Betsey Harris of Peterborough tells it.
Some in the Monadnock Region were eyeing the development in the Nashua area with unease. “We’d been sort of protected by Temple Mountain,” Harris, then a Dublin resident, said. “But we had the feeling it was going to come flowing over Temple Mountain and ruin this part of the world.”
Meanwhile, a few years earlier, the N.H. Legislature had established the Land Conservation Investment Program to provide grants for conservation projects. As a result, Harris said, many communities identified parcels that were important to them — but not all got state funding.
“So there was a lot of land around that people had really focused on and knew they wanted to protect, but didn’t have the state to do that for them,” she said.
Harris founded the Conservancy with fellow Dublin residents Abe Wolfe and Bruce McClellan. Harris and her husband, John, donated the first conservation easement in 1991, protecting a property on Page Road known as Stonewall Farm.
According to the easement agreement, the 79.5 acres contained a seven-acre pond, more than a mile of Stanley Brook, a view of Mount Monadnock and “the foundations of Samuel Twitchell’s saw and grist mill, known to have been in existence in 1768.”
The Conservancy initially focused on the towns immediately surrounding Mount Monadnock. A Forest Society employee lent her expertise to help the group get going. For a while, they met in people’s homes. Harris said their first office was a primitive second-floor space in Dublin. “We ran up our electric wires through a hole in the floor.”
The organization evolved, shaped by people who joined the board or served on staff. “The guy who really put us on the map was Dick Ober,” she said of the Dublin resident who directed the Conservancy in the 2000s before becoming head of the N.H. Charitable Foundation.
Today, the Monadnock Conservancy has offices in Keene. It covers all of Cheshire County, the western part of Hillsborough County and recently added four towns in southern Sullivan County — Acworth, Langdon, Lempster and Washington — that were not in the service area of any regional land trust, according to executive director Owens.
He said the organization has conserved more than 21,000 acres since 1989.
One of the Conservancy’s focuses in recent years has been farmland conservation. “As an organization, we’ve recognized the specialness of the Monadnock Region’s farms, and the fact that they’re fairly highly threatened by just the difficulty of the business of farming,” Owens said.
Retiring farmers may not be able to find family members or buyers who want to keep working the land, leaving them no option but to sell to developers. By buying a conservation easement that allows continued agricultural use but restricts development, the Conservancy can provide farmers cash to retire or pay down debts, while ensuring the land keeps its character, Owens said.
Another relatively new factor is climate change. The Nature Conservancy has researched the characteristics that make landscapes best able to adapt, and the Monadnock Conservancy is starting to use that data, Owens said. “We are looking a little bit more strategically at conserving lands that are likely to be most resilient to the changes to the climate.”
The organization is also looking at new ways to bring nature closer to people, like working with the Winchester Learning Center to create a small nature park near the daycare.
“This is not the kind of traditional, deep-out-into-the-hinterlands conservation project that we would work on,” Owens said. “But it happens to be a patch of greenspace, of undeveloped space, right next to a school where kids are potentially benefiting from time in the outdoors in their early childhood development.”
Ultimately, the Conservancy depends on support from people, Owens said, and has to stay relevant.
“People now, I think, are more motivated by conserving nature for people’s sake, beyond just nature’s sake,” he said. “So for the good of children. For the good of community health. For the good of mental health. For the good of the character of a community and the culture of a community.”