Article: Bennington, Connecting a Community to Nature


Vermont Land Trust
By Will Lindner
From our 2014-15 Annual Report

There are conservation projects that make so much sense for a community—projects that unite civic and environmental values and, above all, are achievable—that it is only a matter of time until they are ultimately realized.

VLT’s Donald Campbell says the Walloomsac headwaters natural area—165 newly conserved acres practically in downtown Bennington—was one such project.

Its informal trails lead hikers, runners, birders, and other outdoors enthusiasts through woodlands to an inviting network of wetlands that offers kayaking and forms the headwaters of the Walloomsac River. Wildflowers, butterflies, wetland flora, and wildlife abound, as do cold- and warm-water fish species; migratory waterfowl linger here during their biannual pilgrimages.

“What’s unique,” summarizes Dan Monks (pictured below), Bennington’s town planner and assistant town manager, “is that it’s a truly natural area that’s extremely accessible to densely populated neighborhoods.” Bennington has other parks, he says: ballfields, playgrounds, track ovals. “And now we have this access to nature, a really nice addition to our infrastructure.”

The realization of this project, says Donald Campbell, was a good dozen years in the making.

Around 2002, Dan Monks asked Donald if VLT would be interested in working toward conserving the property that was then owned by Norman and Selma Greenberg, who had had several businesses and properties in Bennington. (Another former Greenberg property associated with the One World Conservation Center outside of town had previously been conserved by VLT.)

It took several more years, and the leadership of Shelly Stiles (pictured below), whom Dan credits as “the mother of our park,” for the concept to jell.

In 2012, Shelly, director of the Bennington County Conservation District, helped assemble the Friends of the Morgan Street Wetlands. This group included representatives from local planning and conservation organizations, VLT, the town government, and interested citizens.

“A member of the Regional Planning Commission did some mapping for us,” Shelly says, “and we walked the site and brought the project to the community’s attention.”

Shelly Stiles and Dan Monks

Meanwhile, she adds, Dan “worked behind the scenes” with the Bennington Selectboard, because the idea was for the town to own the land if the Friends were able to raise the money for the purchase.

“Selectboards have to be careful and strategic when they allow the town to acquire assets that were formerly taxable,” Donald points out.

However, moved by Dan Monks’s conviction and growing public support for the project, the board voted unanimously to proceed. With that momentum, the
Vermont Housing & Conservation Board awarded the Town a $122,000 grant for the project.

That was a turning point. Another $100,000 was needed, but there was enthusiasm in the community to see it through. The Friends received support from the Whipstock Hill Preservation Society, the Mount Anthony Preservation Society, and other organizations.

Steve Greenberg, the son of benefactors Norman and Selma Greenberg, provided the largest private gift to the campaign, in memory of his parents. In the end, the effort exceeded its goal, so that when three additional, complementary properties became available the Friends were able to purchase them, too.

The town bought its new park and natural area in March 2015 without using any local taxpayer money. There were sufficient funds remaining for the Bennington County Conservation District to start work on a management plan, which is now underway.

“We’re doing all the things the Friends dreamed of two years ago,” Shelly says, “cutting trails, designing kiosks for viewing areas… And we’ve changed the name! It’s now the Norman and Selma Greenberg Headwaters Park.”

As the project took shape over the past two years, advocates touted the economic benefits that could accrue from having a new recreational attraction and wild area in Bennington. Dan Monks still finds those arguments persuasive, but for him that’s not the nut of the issue.

“The headwaters park is important from an economic development and tourist perspective,” he agrees. “But my thought is that this is a great asset for the folks who live here, first and foremost.”