by Barbara Walvoord
We 13 resident members of the Lathrop Land Conservation Committee remove invasive plants, establish native wildflower gardens, map trails, and bring speakers about nature. We don’t necessarily picture ourselves reading pages of government regulations, filling out complex forms, appearing before a government commission, or guiding commission members on an inspection of our land.
But recently, that’s exactly what we’ve done–once for each town. That’s because wetlands benefit everyone–preventing storm damage, providing wildlife habitat, and renewing the aquifer. So the state’s Wetlands Protection Act requires that, before we alter our wetlands, we get permission from a town “conservation commission” whose members are citizen volunteers.
We appeared before the town commissions around 6 p.m. The members had come from their regular jobs, perhaps eating a candy bar in the car or stopping for a burger, and then giving their time for the public good. So the real question is not “What is the gov’mint doing on our land?” but “What are these citizens doing on our land?”
It was citizens, in fact, who began the conservation commissions in Massachusetts. In 1956, a small group of Ipswich residents organized to oppose a housing developer’s proposal to drain and fill a marsh. Relying on a law about industrial development, they argued successfully for the public acquisition and protection of the marsh to enhance the community’s values. The next year, the state legislature gave communities the option to establish conservation commissions that would advocate for the natural environment, prepare conservation plans, manage conservation lands, and, later, enforce environmental protection laws. By now, every community in Massachusetts has a conservation commission. A common association serves more than 700 of them with training, instructional handbooks, and conferences (www.maccweb.org/about_us.html).
Our conservation commissioners have considerable expertise–for example, at the Northampton meeting about our proposal, there was a lively and informed debate about methods we should use to document the results of our treatment of invasives. Real scientists stretch lines across a terrain and identify every plant along the line. Moderating their scientific precision, the biology teachers on the commission agreed we could use photographs.
The Easthampton Commission did a site visit to our land one Monday night in the rain. They slogged through the tall, wet grasses to see how our contractor had blue-flagged the “jurisdictional wetlands.” They asked about the methods we would use in different areas.
What was common to both town commissions was their enthusiastic support for our project–proposing to restore the native habitat rather than pave it, drain it, or build on it.
And their visit helped to spread the word about Lathrop. “I never knew this was back here,” said one. Well, we are back here, and we are also out there, interacting with the dedicated and knowledgeable citizens who give up supper with their families to be stewards of the land–as are we. The gov’mint is us.