This post is in regard to the Stables/Barn Swallow issue at the Fort River Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge (USFWS) in Hadley, MA. The Stables is the site of a very large colony of Barn Swallows, which nest in the abandoned Bri Mar horse stables on the property. I have been closely involved with this issue for five years, and I would like to share the history of this issue from my unique perspective, as a long-time Hadley resident and long-term volunteer at the Refuge. By sharing my experiences, I aim to shed light on what has been a somewhat convoluted story.
I have been birding the Fort River area for 18 years, since before it became Refuge property, and I have been a volunteer at the Refuge since 2009, shortly after it was purchased by USFWS. As a volunteer, I have donated over 2,000 hours, 360 of them in this last year alone, both on the Barn Swallow project and planning and installing a 3,600 square-foot pollinator garden. Three additional volunteers have also each donated approximately 300 hours of time on the pollinator garden. Additionally, I have donated approximately $8,500 to the Refuge this past year. I paid for tarps and minor repairs to protect the Stables roof, hired a structural engineer, purchased a camera, video and photography equipment, and office supplies. Finally, for the past two years, I supported an intern who conducted Barn Swallow research at the Stables for his college senior project.
In 2014 I became more involved in the Friends of Fort River volunteer group and the Barn Swallow project, after almost the entire active Friends group (approximately 30 volunteers) had resigned from the group because USFWS had demolished work they had done for the Barn Swallow project. At that time, the lead volunteers on project had donated hundreds of hours of volunteer effort and over $500 in personal expenditures. The few of us left in the Friends Group continued the effort to save the Stables, with personal time and donated funds.
In 2016, at a meeting attended by Andrew French, project leader at Fort River Refuge, the Friends group offered to raise funds for repair of the Stables roof and other minor repairs. Mr. French told us that we could proceed, and we started our fundraising efforts. Those of us most involved in swallow project—myself, one other volunteer, and the student intern—were given keys to the Stables, and had free access at all times.
Quite suddenly, in early 2018, we were told that we should no longer fundraise for roof repairs because that option was off the table and the Stables were going to be demolished. Simultaneously, a private donor came forward and offered to pay for all repairs and future maintenance of the Stables. At that time USFWS told us that, according to USFWS policy, private funds could not be accepted.
On August 16, 2018, USFWS held a public meeting, at which a community member asked why earlier in the year the Friends group had been told they could fund roof repairs. USFWS claimed that they had never told that the Friends group they could, clearly an untrue statement. They also reiterated that a private donation could not be accepted, also untrue, because at a meeting on September 26, 2018, attended by legislative staff, Fort River volunteers, and USFWS staff at Congressman Jim McGovern’s office in Northampton, USFWS staff stated that a private donation could indeed be accepted. Why the untruths?
Since that time USFWS has, against the promise given at the August 16 meeting, completely gutted the Stables in the name of “safety.” Making a building safe does not require removal of all inner boards. Additionally, if USFWS was considering all options presented at the public meeting they would not make such dramatic changes to the building, changes that compromise its structural integrity.
USFWS is claiming that the Stables is structurally unsound, however we do not know what type of inspection the USFWS engineer was hired to do. Was the inspection based on a standard for human habitation, as a storage building, as wildlife habitat, as a stables? USFWS has not shared any engineer or contractor reports to back claims they are making about the structure. In the spring and summer of 2018, the Friends group had hired one private engineer and two contractors who reported that, aside from the roof and some minor repairs, the building itself was sound.
On September 14, 2018, the Daily Hampshire Gazette published an article on the Stables that included photos of the demolition (gutting). Right after this article was published USFWS changed the locks at the Stables, but did not tell any of the volunteers that they no longer had access, even though some of us had items related to the Barn Swallow project stored there. Nor were any“No Trespassing,” “Do Not Enter,” or “Area Closed” signs posted anywhere on any of the buildings or surrounding areas at that time.
In mid-October 2018, after a month away on a trip, I visited the Stables and saw the destruction myself through the Stables windows and found it utterly shocking. According to our independent contractor the structural integrity of building has been compromised and unless the building is braced it is not sound, and may not stand under snow load during the winter. This appears intentional—if the Stables collapses, USFWS can claim that the building was unsafe all along, which is in direct conflict with what our contractors and engineer reported.
In late October I again visited the Stables and took photographs from outside the building, outside of the windows, and was seen doing this. Immediately after, “This Area Closed” signs were posted, and again, USFWS stated this was for safety. However, the signs were only posted after I was seen taking more photos. What is USFWS hiding? Why are they preventing us from seeing the inside of the Stables? And why, if all this destruction was done for safety purposes, as they are stating, are they concerned about us taking pictures? The stables area was not posted until the end of October, and no signs were posted on the Stables building, only the surrounding property.
If the Stables building was so unsafe as to be a hazard, why for over nine years has it been fully open for researchers, students, USFWS staff, and volunteers? There has never been anything stopping the public from accessing the Stables. There were no locks on any of the doors until this spring, after conflict arose over saving the building. Volunteers and interns were in and out of the building constantly. I myself was in and out this year, three times a day, four times a week or more since March. If the building was so dangerous why weren’t preventative measures taken before this time? No one ever said the building was potentially dangerous or unsafe until photographs of the gutted interior were published in the newspaper. The students, interns and staff all still had full access to the building until a few weeks ago. The only ones who did not still have full access to the barn were the volunteers. Why were the others still allowed in the Stables if it was a safety hazard?
This will be the second time USFWS has tarnished their reputation by treating their dedicated Friends of Fort River Refuge volunteers so badly that they all resign.
Setting aside the issue of habitat and Barn Swallows, the treatment of the public during this process is alone despicable in that USFWS, instead of using taxpayer funds to help wildlife and listen their supporters, instead bend the truth, waste our time, and use our funds for their own personal pet projects that have no scientific efficacy or are not supported by science or the community.
With 37 pairs, the Stables host what may be the largest colony of Barn Swallows in the state. This is all the more compelling because Barn Swallow populations are in steep decline in the Northeast. Community members, birders, and scientists have all spoken in favor of saving the Stables. Yet USFWS continues take actions that threaten the very wildlife they are charged with protecting, with their actions shrouded in secrecy.
Nancy Goodman, December 2018