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Massachusetts

Westfield River Highlands Program


You’ve just stepped from the canoe onto the riverbank and are standing on fragrant moss in a quiet forest, listening. Amidst the whoosh of wind breezing through huge trees, you hear the echoing call of a lone bird — a wood thrush — calling to its mate among the heavy branches, bowed with age. You see signs of a black bear, but none of any human being.

You paddled a long way to experience the tranquility of this forest — one of three vast, intact forests spanning over 15,000 acres in the Westfield River watershed. The watershed, located between the Berkshires and Interstate 91, contains a vibrant network of rivers and streams that flow beneath the unbroken forest canopy.

Why the Watershed Matters

The forest tapestry, woven of leaves above and roots below, filters and cleans the stream water that flows into our reservoirs. The dense woodland also buffers the wetland ecosystems and provides important habitat for wide-ranging mammals like black bear, mink, fisher and bobcat, while sheltering birds that seek safety in the forest cover.

These forests also support a local wood products industry, help heat homes in nearby communities, provide a backdrop for cultural events like Chester on Track and the Sevenars Concerts and, as you’ve discovered, allow hikers and tourists to explore an almost unbroken stretch of woods from Maine to the southern Appalachians.

The Westfield River, nationally designated as a Wild and Scenic River, also boasts some of the healthiest waters in Southern New England, and its headwater streams still support wild Atlantic salmon in addition to native species such as trout. Flowing into the Connecticut River watershed, it also has some of the longest connected stretches of river in the state.

Threats to the Watershed

While the Westfield River watershed’s clean waters and pristine forests are invaluable resources for both people and animals, it is rapidly succumbing to development pressures. The watershed has already been fragmented by far-flung roads and poorly planned development. In addition, about 80 percent of the forest land is owned by individuals — many of whom will be making critical decisions about the future of their lands over the next decade.

In a landscape that’s broken into a mosaic of small, private ownerships, the Conservancy is tapping the expertise of local citizens to protect the landscapes they love and helping landowners make informed decisions. When forest land is transferred across generations, it often gets divided into smaller pieces with multiple owners, making it more difficult to manage responsibly and more vulnerable to threats like invasive species and the impacts of climate change.

Recognizing the watershed’s need for protection, The Nature Conservancy developed the Westfield River Highlands Program in 2003, joining community efforts to protect and responsibly manage the watershed’s forests and rivers. Many towns along the river are hoping that it can be further connected and restored, and that the clear streams coursing through its forests will always be there for fishing, canoeing and seeking solace at the water’s edge.

How We Work

To protect valuable forest land and clean waterways, like those in the Westfield River Watershed, the Conservancy is:

  • Working directly with landowners to conserve important lands and waters
  • Creating public-private partnerships to increase the pace of forest land acquisition, ensure that management of publicly and privately owned forest lands is based on the best available science and develop town and state policies that support land protection
  • Finding the stretches of forests and rivers best able to withstand the impacts of climate change and ensuring that these areas are connected to each other
  • Building creative partnerships that build commitment to land conservation, enhance resource-based economic activities, focus new residential and commercial development in already developed areas and provide information that helps landowners effectively steward ecologically important lands.

Explore the Westfield
Explore the nature of Westfield at one of our nearby preserves!

McElwain-Olsen
Reed Brook
Hawley Bog
Stacy Mountain
Greene Swamp
Gobble Mountain

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