June 14, 2023

Preserving Vital Amphibian Habitats at Chesterwood

For 35 years beginning in 1896, Chesterwood in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, served as the summer home and studio of Daniel Chester French, the sculptor who created the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., as well as an array of other prominent public monuments in the United States. But French is hardly the only seasonal visitor that this historic 122-acre site in the Berkshires has hosted over the years.

Chesterwood, which encompasses the buildings and formal gardens that French commissioned alongside a tangle of ancient New England forests, harbors at least seven native species of amphibians that migrate each spring from the surrounding woods. Their destinations? A pair of vernal pools—depressions that fill up in the spring with water from rainfall and melting snow, forming shallow ponds that dry up in the summer—located on the Chesterwood grounds.

A wide angle view of the landscape at Chesterwood with fall trees and mountains in the background.

photo by: Chesterwood

The majestic landscape at Chesterwood, a National Trust Historic Site.

Among those amphibians are the blue-spotted salamander and the yellow-spotted salamander, both of which are categorized as “threatened” in the state and therefore protected under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. The seasonal wetlands are also important for bears, deer, moose, and other mammal species that drink water from the pools and feed on amphibian eggs and larvae, as well as on aquatic vegetation.

With the support of a Climate Action Grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which owns and operates the site, Chesterwood has taken several steps to preserve the two vernal pond habitats and the vital ecosystems they support.

“We'd never really had a proper study on the animals that live at Chesterwood and what we are doing to make sure that they're conserved. This has really been the first step,” said Chesterwood’s interim executive director Margaret Cherin, who noted that the initiatives align with French’s interest in the land—he was an avid birdwatcher and was determined to make sure that the land around Chesterwood was self-sufficient.

“The landscape of Chesterwood was important to Daniel Chester French in creating a site for him to have a creative retreat, and a place to share with his family, his friends,” she said.

Preserving a Natural Habitat

In 2022, Chesterwood received a Climate Action Grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation worth $5,000. The purpose of these grants was to help the historic sites adapt to the effects of global warming and climate change as they manifest locally.

According to Mark Stoner, the Graham Gund architect at the National Trust who oversaw the project, Chesterwood initially applied for the grant to install solar panels to help power the site. It was during research conducted to prepare for the installation—the National Trust conducts assessments before breaking ground on new projects to ensure that historic artifacts or habitats aren’t destroyed in the process—that the vernal pools were uncovered.

“We could have just as easily not done our research and taken out this habitat and put up photovoltaic panels and thought we were doing good,” said Stoner, adding, “As soon as we discovered that we had a site that’s a vernal pond for threatened species, we changed directions and said, ‘Okay, well, the most sustainable thing for us to do … is to protect this natural resource.’”

A black and white image with two men standing in a garden.

photo by: Thomas Shields Clarke

Daniel Chester French and William Brewster in the garden at Chesterwood.

The grant underwrote the creation of a management plan—by Jessica Martinez, who was a graduate student in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst—for Chesterwood’s vernal ponds in the summer of 2022. The management plan identified core habitat that should not be disturbed in the future if further development were to take place on the site, such as the construction of a new building. “We now have an actual management plan that we can follow, to make sure that we don't build or disturb these protected areas, and to make sure our visitors don't disturb them,” said Cherin.

The Climate Action Grant also allowed Chesterwood to create and install a permanent sign in the visitor’s parking lot that includes images and information about each of the seven amphibians that rely on the vernal pools for survival. The goal is to “use this as an opportunity to further educate people that visit us the importance of these wetlands,” said Stoner.

To that end, Cherin is also in conversation with local conservation groups to develop programming for visitors focused on the landscapes and local wildlife. It’s all part of “making sure that we're doing all we can to conserve this beautiful nature sanctuary,” said Cherin.

A view of some vernal ponds at Chesterwood. A lush verdant green landscape.

photo by: Chesterwood

A view of the vernal ponds at Chesterwood.

Preservation in a Time of Climate Change

The National Trust awarded Climate Action Grants to seven of the 28 sites it owns and operates across the country, distributing around $103,000 in grants for projects totaling just under a million dollars. Some of the projects also received additional funding for their projects through either private donations or other grants.

The Climate Action Grants supported a variety of projects that varied widely in their nature and scope. For instance, at the Edith Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, an iconic example of the International Style of architecture, the Climate Action Grant was used to replace a black sugar maple tree that died, leaving the building it once shaded much more exposed to sun and consequently sending energy bills soaring.

An interpretive sign outlining the different amphibians who migrate at Chesterwood.

photo by: Chesterwood

Chesterwood used the climate action grant to develop interpretive signage at the vernal ponds.

Meanwhile, at Brucemore, a Queen Anne-style mansion in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a Climate Action Grant funded a study that preceded the installation of a geothermal heating system. And at Filoli in Woodside, California, considered one of the finest remaining 20th-century country estates in the country, a Climate Action Grant was used to explore a hydrological survey to find additional natural wells on the property, rather than continue to stress the public water supply in an area prone to water scarcity.

According to Stoner, it’s all part of the National Trust’s efforts to ensure that “we’ve been as good stewards of our climate as possible.”

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Nathalie Alonso is a freelance journalist and children's author based in New York City. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Outside, Refinery29 and TIME for Kids. She holds a B.A. in American studies from Columbia University.

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