Dassler, Van Nests honored as Land Trust celebrates 30 years

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NORWAY — The Western Foothills Land Trust is celebrating 30 years. 

The trust, founded in 1987 by Mary and Bob Van Nest, holds 32 conservation easements covering 4,190 acres and owns 19 parcels that make up about 3,100 acres. The trust’s board of directors has dedicated a plaque to the Van Nests and to Executive Director Lee Dassler to commemorate their commitment to the preservation of the land and their hard work.

The trust encourages agricultural and recreational uses, such as community gardening, hiking and hunting, while slowing the spread of commercial and residential development. It does occasionally harvest timber in selected areas with the proceeds going to support the trust, as it recently did. 

The trust “protects farmlands, wetlands, forestlands, unique natural resources and open space,” according to its mission statement. It also is involved as a sponsor and benefactor of the annual Norway Triathlon and is holding the eighth annual Snowshoe Festival in February.

Among the trust’s holdings is the Roberts Farm Preserve, acquired in 2007 from the Growth Council of the Oxford Hills. These 165 acres were first purchased by Dudley Pike in 1787. He transferred them to his son Henry in 1818, who in turn bequeathed the farm to his daughter Carrie and her husband, John Roberts. 

Under Roberts’ management the land saw great success as a dairy farm and the preserve bears the family’s name today.  The farmhouse left the Roberts family in the 1970s; sold by John’s grandson John Roberts Jr., the rest of the property changed hands by the time the fields had reforested in 2000. In 2007, the trust bought the land and in 2009 acquired the homestead constructed in 1823 and is planning the home’s reuse.

The former dairy farm is active beyond trail hikers and birdwatchers. The farm holds a summer program that reinforces local students’ familiarity with STEM skills (science, technology, engineering, and math) through hands-on activities such as gardening, cataloguing species, and assisting younger students through their transition into middle school. 

The Oxford Hills School District has established an “outdoor classroom” that not only teaches students traditional agricultural practices but places them on a competitive edge with its latest hydroponic greenhouse that is fed by nutrient-rich water pumps and relies on computer coding to function. The coding is also done by Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School students and will run all winter with the other greenhouses on the farm. The produce is donated and used for district lunches.

In the winter, visitors to the preserve can exchange hiking boots and hoes for snowshoes and ski poles. The trust will hold Nordic skiing events from Dec. 27 to New Year’s Day, starting with beginner classes for all ages and getting progressively more advanced until the culminating event, which hiking Streaked Mountain with staff from Stephens Memorial Hospital.

The farm not only has skis and snowshoes for visitors to borrow, but recently completed a warming hut and deck for chilly patrons to warm up and socialize. 

The trust has continued to expand. Its 30th anniversary celebration will commemorate the purchase of Noyes Mountain by the trust earlier this spring by holding its annual meeting on Noyes’ upper field on July 27.

The Board of Directors for the Western Foothills Land Trust will dedicate this plaque to the Van Nests and Lee Dassler at Roberts Farm.

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