Friday September 28, 2012

WESTMINSTER WEST -- From the very start it was always about much more than just preserving a piece of property.

About 25 years ago, The Pinnacle, in Westminster West, was owned by Arthur Ranney, who used to run his heifers across the land.

The ridgeline view, a rocky outcrop at an elevation of about 1,683 feet which looks over a large chunk of Windham County toward the Green Mountains in the west, was open to the public.

It's access from Old Athens Road did not appear on most maps but many people in Westminster and around southeastern Vermont knew about the land and used the popular trail to walk to the cabin and silo that stood at the top of Windmill Hill.

So when word got out that Ranney was going to sell the land a group came together to pool resources and try to purchase the property.

"A lot of families around here used it all the time," said Bev Major, who was one of the original members of that group, and who still serves on the board of directors. "It was a very important part of this town and a few of us thought it was important to preserve it."

It would take a few years to finally gain access to the ridge top, and now the group manages more than 20 miles of trails on about 1,800 acres that straddle five towns.

In November 1991, the group, now known as The Windmill Hill Pinnacle Association, was formally established.

And on Saturday, Sept.


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29, the organization will celebrate 20 years of conservation with a morning full of guided walks along the trail system.

Major said from the start there was a feeling that the group had to do what it could to make sure the Pinnacle was accessible for the public.

When Alison Latham's son, Jamie, died in 1991, the family asked that contributions in his name be made to a land conservation fund.

That fund would eventually grow into the account that allowed the group to purchase access to the Pinnacle, and in turn, the more than $2 million that has been raised through donations and grants over 20 years to buy land, complete the land deals and build an endowment.

"That was the starting seed," Latham said. "We wanted to preserve his memory."

With the Pinnacle, and access to the ridge secured, the group thought it had completed its charge, but fellow board member Judy Anderson convinced the board to think beyond the approximately 400 acres it had acquired.

"I remember right where she was sitting when she said that," Latham said. "She said we should think big and not just think about preserving the right of way. She said people who think big get big things done."

WHPA has been able to acquire parcels of land as they came on the market thanks to an ambitious board, local donations, and large grants.

The group partners with the Vermont Land Trust, which retains the easement rights, and ensures that the land is conserved in perpetuity.

Vermont Land Trust Vice President for Stewardship Dennis Shaffer will be at Saturday's celebration.

Shaffer said 20 years is a long time to work on a project and a long time to piece together a chunk of land that will forever be open to the public.

"When you look at the map and see the land they've protected, it's really a reason to celebrate," Shaffer said. "This has all come about because a local group said it wanted to preserve this land, and they stuck to it. They've become a model for other groups around the state to identify opportunities and reach out and partner with statewide organizations like us."

Camila Roberts, who is the chairwoman of the 15-member board, said the group is spending its time and resources now looking toward the future, and developing management plans to preserve the land.

There might more parcels that come on the market to consider, and there is still a gap in the trail between Athens and Westminster, but Roberts said the board is working on issues such as preventing the spread of invasive species and maintaining the natural ecosystems.

"The board is shifting its focus toward the long haul," she said. "We are shifting our energies toward becoming an established community organization and enhancing the experience for everyone who uses the trails."

Throughout the Pinnacle's 20 years of work, the organization has built a strong relationship with the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, which has supplied about $1.4 million through 11 separate grants to help the group acquire and conserve the land.

VHCB Executive Director Gus Seelig, who is also scheduled to speak at the event Saturday, agreed that the group's work might be most appreciated when viewed through the lens of time.

"The work that the Windmill Hill Pinnacle Association has done will benefit future generations. This is an incredible resource they have developed that will serve people far in to the future," he said. "This is work that benefits everyone and it epitomizes what can happen when people come together to work to make their community a better place to live."

For a full schedule of the guided walks go to www.windmillhillpinnacle.org.

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer.com or at 802-254-2311 ext. 279.