The Board of the Woodlands Partnership of Northwest Massachusetts voted unanimously to expand its membership to include representation of Indigenous Peoples at its annual meeting held at Berkshire East Mountain Resort in Charlemont, MA, on June 20, 2023, an action that was greeted by applause from those in attendance. The Ohketeau Cultural Center of Ashfield, MA, a local, multi-tribal organization that seeks to provide a safe space for the Indigenous community, will join the Partnership Board and have full voting rights as of Nov. 1, 2023.
Rhonda Anderson, Iñupiaq, Co-Founder and Co-Director of Ohketeau Cultural Center, will serve as Board representative to the Partnership.
"Ohketeau Cultural Center is honored to be voted unanimously on the Woodlands Partnership of Northwest Massachusetts Board,” said Anderson, who grew up in Plainfield, MA, and serves as Western Massachusetts Commissioner on Indian Affairs. “We have worked closely with the Woodlands Partnership to increase Indigenous voices, perspectives, education, and inclusion. Our relationship is essential in furthering reciprocity between the state and town forest management, land conservation, sustainable ecological practices, and accessibility with Indigenous communities. We look forward to our future together.”
In introducing the measure at the Board meeting, outgoing Chair Henry Art of Williamstown, said the Board has had several conversations about building relationships with Indigenous members of the community and reached out to tribal organizations and individuals. The Executive Committee of the Board voted unanimously on April 25 to recommend to the full Board adding the new seat representing Indigenous perspectives through a local organization rather than specific tribal governments. Several grants the Partnership has received with regional partners are also funding educational events with Ohketeau Cultural Center related to Traditional Ecological Knowledge, cultural awareness and forest stewardship.
The vote on expanded Board membership and the goal of reaching out to Indigenous community members also followed a unanimous vote by the Partnership last October to change its operating name to the “Woodlands Partnership of Northwest Massachusetts” from the “Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership” name that was included in the 2018 state law creating the public body. The Partnership has requested state legislators and federal agencies to recognize the new operating name by changing it in the law. The name change was in response to feedback from local Indigenous residents that the “Mohawk Trail” name did not accurately reflect the Native Peoples who lived (and many of whom continue to live) in the Partnership region (Mohican, Nipmuc, Pocumtuck and Abenaki), and also that the Route 2 highway does not run through all of the Partnership towns and the organization may expand in the future.
The Woodlands Partnership is focused on forest conservation, sustainable forestry, natural resource-based economic development and financial stability of the member municipalities. Currently, 19 of 21 eligible towns in western Franklin and northern Berkshire Counties have voted to join the Partnership, with Buckland’s Town Meeting vote, and the Florida Select Board’s vote, both recently occurring in May 2023.
Henry Art is stepping down from the role of the Board’s first Chair, which he held since January 2020, but will remain as the Williamstown representative. Under his leadership, and that of Vice Chair Rick Chandler of Ashfield, the Partnership has grown and evolved greatly – setting its priorities for the next ten years in a Partnership Plan, organizing standing committees to set goals and launch projects, and continuing the important work of solidifying the Woodlands Partnership both in local communities and with state and federal partners.
“Over the past three and a half years the Woodlands Partnership has had a large impact on the member communities and organizations as well as the northwest Massachusetts region,” said Art. “We have been able to channel over a million dollars of State and Federal funding to support efforts in forest conservation, ensuring high-quality ecosystem functioning, and economic development through sustainable forest practices while advocating for municipal financial viability. Our Woodlands Partnership 2022-2032 plan gives us a roadmap to continue down this route for the coming decade.”
Dicken Crane of Windsor was voted in as the new Chair of the Partnership, along with Art Schwenger of Heath as the new Vice Chair, and Jeffrey Thomas of Lever, Inc. as the new treasurer. Alain Peteroy of Franklin Land Trust will continue as Clerk.
“There are more trees per capita in the Partnership region than in most of the country. The Partnership is about more than trees and people as separate entities – rather it is about how we are connected, dependent on each other and part of a shared ecosystem,” said Crane. “The goal of protecting these natural resources and the communities that live among them benefits the entire state and beyond. Expanding the Partnership to include the wisdom of Indigenous people who have long inhabited this landscape is an important step to achieving this relationship.”
Guest speakers at the meeting included Lindsay Nystrom, Forest Legacy Program Director, Department of Conservation and Recreation, and Peteroy, Director of Land Conservation, Franklin Land Trust, who both discussed the Forest Legacy Program (to which the 21-town Partnership region was recently accepted to be eligible to submit proposals).
*On Oct. 11, 2022, the Board of the public body created in 2018 voted unanimously to change its name from the “Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership” in its bylaws to operating as the “Woodlands Partnership of Northwest Massachusetts” and requested the state legislature and USDA Forest Service to officially establish and recognize the new name.