Pittsfield — Maintaining and expanding the beauty of the Berkshire landscape has led to the creation of many local organizations. Some, like the Laurel Hill Association in Stockbridge, have been around for well over 150 years. Others, like Berkshire Environmental Action Team (B.E.A.T.) are much newer.
B.E.A.T. evolved from the efforts of Jane Winn, an environmental activist in Pittsfield, when she and others protested the proposed destruction of a vernal pool on Berkshire Community College’s (BCC) campus as officials planned to remodel a soccer field. Although vernal pools are protected by law, the project was proceeding anyway. “We had to fight the system to enforce the law,” says Winn.
As the plans continued for the soccer field, B.E.A.T. began videotaping the Pittsfield Conservation Commission (ConCom) hearings. They learned the value of videotaping public meetings, and today they continue doing so at ConCom and other public meetings when there is an environmental issue at stake. For example, B.E.A.T. was able to stop the Riverside Transfer Station from being built on South Street next to the Housatonic River. Despite the fact that placing it there was illegal, once again B.E.A.T. had to prove that a project was illegal.
B.E.A.T. has been around for more than a decade, and most of the original seven members of the B.E.A.T. board are still active in the organization. B.E.A.T. is not a membership organization. “We have a lot of constituents” say Winn, “but we don’t call them members,” Instead, B.E.A.T. relies heavily on volunteers who turn out in large numbers for river cleanup, invasive removal, advocacy against intrusive development, wildlife tracking, and other activities generally considered an integral part of land stewardship. Their efforts are sustained by contributions and grants.
B.E.A.T. has three major areas of concentration. The first is “watchdog,” which is how they get started. Watchdog activities, such as attending public meetings, occur year-round.
Then there is stewardship, currently overseen by Elia del Molino, a recent addition to B.E.A.T.’s staff. Stewardship involves a lot of volunteers engaged in a variety of activities. One important project involves volunteers who survey stream crossings to oversee fish passage. B.E.A.T.’s vigilance on this issue has resulted in state-mandated river and stream crossing standards that are quite protective of wildlife. But, as Winn notes, “As we get storms like Irene, the crossings should be replaced with much better ones that can withstand big storms.” By collecting these data, B.E.A.T. has been able to raise money for replacing these crossings when necessary.
Along with The Nature Conservancy, B.E.A.T. has recruited about 60 volunteers who use tracking cameras to monitor big wildlife moving throughout the county. B.E.A.T. would like to see an overpass over the Mass Pike for wildlife, particularly where the Pike crosses the Appalachian Trail. There is a huge amount of intact forest on both sides of the Pike with no way for wildlife to cross safely.
The third component of B.E.A.T. is their outreach, the heart of which is their widely read weekly newsletter. Indeed, their website has far more information than a casual visitor can absorb in a single visit. About 7,000 “unique visitors” check out their website each month, quite a feat since the average for environmental sites is 6,000. Then there’s their newsletter, which goes to about 900 people. If you are interested in local environmental issues, this is the site to see.
No Fracked Gas in Mass is a relatively recently initiated B.E.A.T. program. Organized by Rose Wessel, their opposition to the proposed pipeline is based on the damage it would do to the Berkshires forests, waterways, and wetlands.
A new program for B.E.A.T. is removal of hardy kiwi, “a really nasty invasive.” In general, hardy kiwi is not invasive, but for unknown reasons it is a big problem here in Berkshire County. Indeed, Kennedy Park in Lenox is rife with it. “It is the only living plant that pulls down mature trees,” Winn says. B.E.A.T. is working with the Lenox Conservation Commission and Mass Audubon to try to get control of the problem there. And B.E.A.T. is developing a tracking system with smart phones to identify where this noxious weed proliferates. One of the problems with controlling the plant here is that it is sold at nurseries because it seems to be invasive only in the Berkshires.
And then there’s “BioBlitz,” a once-a-year 24-hour program where scientists document every living organism they can find, such as trees, lichen, mammals, birds, and so forth. The lead organizer of Bioblitz is entomologist Lisa Provencher of Dr. Augie’s, a children’s education organization in Pittsfield.
Last year B.E.A.T. initiated a Berkshire Natural History Conference, a one-day conference featuring Waldo Bailey, a leading Berkshire County naturalist. That conference was held at the Berkshire School in Sheffield. This year it will be held in north county.
Most of B.E.A.T.’s volunteer activities are in Pittsfield, but they work throughout the entire county. Their volunteers include students from MCLA, Williams College, and the BART charter school.
If protecting our local environment matters to you, check out B.E.A.T.’s weekly newsletter, which features a calendar of events of everything happening in western Massachusetts. You probably won’t have the time to attend all of the meetings, workshops, and maintenance events available to interested environmentalists, but you’ll be relieved to know that we have such responsible citizens dedicated to our landscape and infrastructure.