At the Peak of Her Powers: Retired Bradford, Vt., Woman Helps Conserve Wright’s Mountain

Sunday, June 01, 2014
Bradford, Vt. — For someone who is ostensibly retired, Nancy Jones maintains an active lifestyle. In one recent eight-day period, she supervised a bus full of teenagers on a field trip to Burlington, attended a two-day conference for community leaders addressing climate change in Manchester, participated in an economic development meeting with the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Planning Commission (of which she is an executive board member) and made several dozen burritos to sell at the annual tent sale to support the Bradford Conservation Commission (which she chairs).

For Jones, 69, the motivation to stay busy after a 33-year teaching career — the last 20 at Oxbow Union High School, before her 2007 retirement — is simple.

“All of the stuff that I do needs to be done by someone, and now I have the time,” she said during the Conservation Commission’s annual yard sale fundraiser in downtown Bradford late last month. “Plus, I’m someone who doesn’t quit, so I’m not going to stop doing the things I love.”

Jones has been a member of her town’s Conservation Commission since 1991, and has served as its chairwoman for the last 11 years. The former science teacher spearheaded vigorous efforts over several years to establish what is now known as the Wright’s Mountain/Devil’s Den Town Forest, an 800-acre network of publicly and privately conserved land that includes seven miles of trails and an expansive, west-facing vista at a cabin near Wright’s Mountain’s 1,822­ foot summit.

Open to all forms of non-motorized recreation, the network has been featured in numerous Vermont recreation guides and attracts between 200-400 visitors a year, according to Jones.

On June 8, the Conservation Commission will celebrate the 20-year anniversary of Bradford’s acquisition of the 218-acre plot that includes the cabin and Wright’s Mountain’s summit, purchased from the Applegate family in 1994.

This year also marks the 10th anniversary of the addition of the 60-acre Devil’s Den plot, which includes a rollicking trail featuring lichen-covered rock outcroppings and two spacious caverns at its western terminus. The day will feature the fifth annual Race to the Top of Bradford, a 3.5 mile trail run to the summit. Added festivities include a kids fun run and a 1.5 mile group hike as well as live music and food at the Devil’s Den parking lot on Chase Hollow Road.

Jones, who founded the Oxbow Environmental Coalition and regularly brought her science classes to the forest on field trips, treasures the area for both its recreational and economic values.

“It’s a magical place. There are a lot of miraculous things that happen in the forest, even from a scientific standpoint. Take wood frogs, for example. They essentially freeze solid over winter and survive. They send glucose to their cell membranes so their metabolism stops and then they wake back up in the spring. That’s pretty amazing.”

The aesthetics at Wright’s Mountain can also be stunning, she said. “When you see cobweb with mildew and the light reflecting off it, it looks like jewels. There’s a certain spot on the mountain where the forest turns to softwoods, and I don’t know if it’s the shape of the mountain or what, but it’s always quiet there. The stillness of the forest is very peaceful.”

Jones’ biology class trips to the area included field studies to collect data on the presence of various species, which often was sent to the Vermont Fish and Wildlife department and other entities for their records.

One year, Jones said, her students discovered a foot-long mud puppy (an aquatic salamander) and had it registered in the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas as the northernmost of its species ever found in the state.

“I always tried to have the kids do real science, things that might be valuable to someone,” said Jones. “I always found it to be much more productive than busywork in the classroom.”

The data collection was serious business, but Jones also had plenty of fun with her students. Cindy Clemence, an Oxbow paraeducator and bus driver, often helped chaperon the classes on trips to Wright’s Mountain.

“There’s a lot of porcupine activity up there, and we used to look at their scat,” Clemence recalled. “So Nancy and I would put down powdered dates when no one in the class was looking. Nancy would say, ‘Hmm, I wonder what gender this porcupine was. There’s only one way to fund out.’ Then she’d eat the dates and say, ‘Oh yeah, this was a male,’ and the kids would just go crazy laughing, like, on the ground holding their stomachs. That’s Nancy. She wants kids to have a real educational experience, but also have a lot of fun while they’re learning.”

Jones is also keen on assisting those in need. A year after retiring from Oxbow, she became coordinator of the Mentoring Project of the Upper Valley, a nonprofit organization matching students ages 10-18 with mentors in Bradford and surrounding communities. Modeled after the national Big Brothers Big Sisters organization, the pairs might hike, fish, or go to the movies and restaurants together. Occasionally, they join Jones on field trips. Last fall, Jones coordinated a series of stops at area business, including an apple cider farm in Thetford, a metalworks facility in Bradford’s Pierson Industrial Park and a maple farm in West Topsham.

On May 17, about a dozen members of the Mentoring Project visited the Echo Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington.

Amy Sherman, of West Newbury, Vt., has been a mentor with the nonprofit group for several years and has seen the way it can help.

“I’ve been paired with the same girl for three years, and she’s come a long way,” Sherman said. “I’m so proud of her. It’s because of her, not because of me, but sometimes kids just need a cheerleader, someone that isn’t one of their parents who will just listen to them and aren’t busy working and cooking and things like that.”

Jones uses her organizational skills and persistence to help keep the Mentoring Project going. She applies for grants, handles insurance paperwork and urges volunteers to follow through on commitments. It’s something eighth-year mentor Chris Jacobs appreciates.

“She gives us all the push we need to get things done and takes care of all the little things. There’s more paperwork than you might think,” the Piermont resident said. “All of the stuff we do, whether it’s the field trips or the one-on-one outings, it’s good for the mentors too. I know it’s good for someone like me. I don’t have any kids, so it gets me out doing stuff. Nancy puts it all together for us.”

Since Jones became coordinator in 2008, each of the youngsters who entered the Mentoring Project went on to graduate from high school, one of the organization’s goals.

“We have three in the group graduating this year, which is pretty exciting,” she said.

Jones’ work, particularly her efforts with the Conservation Commission, invites its share of skeptics and detractors.

At Bradford’s 2012 Town Meeting, residents narrowly defeated the commission’s annual $5,000 conservation fund allotment after several attendees complained that conserving land takes the properties off the town’s tax rolls. Of the approximately 800 acres of conserved land in the Wright’s Mountain/Devil’s Den area, about 500 are town-owned and thus not subject to property taxes. Plots added to the network in 2005 and 2006 are conserved, but are still privately owned and taxed.

At the last two Town Meetings, the Conservation Commission received its fund allotment, but the organization continues to receive what Jones called “pushback” from some residents.

“There is some misinformation out there, where people don’t realize that privately conserved land is still taxed,” said Jones. “And for the areas that are owned by the town, I don’t think some people realize how valuable it is to have land conserved forever. It’s free, healthy recreation for the community. Hiking, bird watching, horseback riding and hunting are all allowed there. The forest helps retain water and prevent soil erosion, which (aids in) flood control and keeps the soil out of our rivers. It reduces carbon dioxide in the air and has a cooling effect. You have to consider the value of the town owning that land versus … the value of property taxes on (unconserved) land.”

Bradford Conservation Commission member Tom Gray, who helps clear trails in the Wright’s Mountain/Devil’s Den area every spring, would like to see more Bradford residents take advantage of the area.

“If you look at the guest book at the end of the summer, I’d say 70 to 80 percent (of visitors to Wright’s) are from outside of town,” Gray said during a recent trail workday. “There might be people in town who have never taken a walk up to the cabin and seen how beautiful the view is up there, right in our backyard.”

Jones’ appreciation for the outdoors developed, in part, by force of circumstance. Raised on a cattle farm in Danville, Vt., she credits her parents, Reginald and Mabel Peck, for encouraging her to play outside on the family property, which included several acres of woodlands. There weren’t any neighborhood kids around, but there were plenty of animal friends.

“We had jersey cows, chickens, ducks, geese, pigs and a lot of cats — barn cats,” said Jones. “I spent a lot of time with them and walking around in the woods. That’s why I would say (my parents) were the most influential people in my life, not only because I was with them every day, but because they made me to go outside and enjoy the land.”

That land is now subdivided and developed. Jones acknowledges that it still bothers her when she visits Danville and sees the modern homes now stationed on the land where she grew up.

After graduating from Danville High School in 1963, Jones matriculated to Springfield (Mass.) College. Two years later, she was married to Marvin Jones, an African-American, and gave birth to her first son, Christopher.

“I wasn’t really an activist against the Vietnam War or anything like that in the ’ 60s. I wasn’t really part of the ‘flower power’ movement, but you could say I was a rebel because I had an interracial child. That was kind of a rebellious thing to do, especially back then.”

The marriage lasted three years. By 1969, Jones was a single mother working full time, sometimes taking just one class a semester at Springfield. She earned her bachelor’s degree in education in 1971.

When her son was 7, Jones’ adventuresome spirit took them to the U.S. Virgin Islands and St. Croix, where she spent the next 13 years working as both a teacher and waitress in the town of Christiansted.

In 1979, she gave birth to a second son, Jason.

“We weren’t poor, but we also didn’t have a lot of money,” said Jones. “We had to be resourceful. When Chris was a teenager, he worked at a gourmet food store and they’d throw away whole cases of produce if any part of it was spoiled. We’d get to them before they threw it out and load it into the car. We’d go to the butcher and get the fish heads they were going to throw away. There’s still plenty of meat on the heads, so we’d boil it off and live off of fish chowder for a while.”

Her oldest son was crafty is his own right, picking mangoes from behind their apartment and selling them. “He’d bring them into town in his backpack and sell them to the taxi drivers,” Nancy Jones recalled. “Most mango trees only produced once per year, but ours did twice. I don’t know why they did, but I always felt fortunate about that.”

He also regularly performed household chores, so much so that by the time he attended college — also at Springfield — he knew more about basic housekeeping than many of his peers.

“It was just the way I was raised,” Chris Jones recalled in a recent telephone interview. “I remember freshman year at Springfield, a girl saw me ironing my clothes, and she was so impressed that a guy would be doing that, doing chores that stereotypically would be considered women’s chores. But those were the things I would do to help out mom. She was a really hard worker, working two jobs to make ends meet.”

After he went to college, his mother moved to Cabot, Vt., in part so they could be closer. Jason was 8 years old.

Landing a teaching job at Oxbow in 1987, Jones also enrolled at Johnson State College in pursuit of a master’s degree in curriculum development and environmental studies. Three times a week, she’d commute to Oxbow by day and then to Johnson for classes at night.

She moved to Bradford in 1989 and, while lightening her course load, continued to commute the 150-mile round trip to Johnson.

“Let me tell you, that wasn’t an easy commute, especially in the winter,” Jones recalled. “But it was persistence. That’s why when people tell me they lack opportunities in their lives, I tell them, ‘When it comes down to it, you have to make your opportunities.’ You have to make decisions based on what’s in front of you.”

In 1992, at age 48, she earned her master’s degree.

Jones considers her children her proudest achievements. Chris Jones worked for 21 years at St. Croix’s now­ defunct oil refinery, serving in engineering and supervisory roles. Today he works as an information technology specialist for the Virgin Islands Department of Labor. Jason Jones, 35, is a marine biologist in the research department at the University of Hawaii and has two sons of his own: 7-year-old Cody and 2-year-old Alex.

Their grandmother last visited them over Christmas. “I make it to Hawaii a little bit more than St. Croix,” Jones said. “It’s because of the kids.”

Jones acknowledges that her empty nest is part of the reason she stays as active as she does. At her home along the Waits River in Bradford Center, she cares now for her four garden plots and Jazzy, a three-legged black Lab she acquired from a rescue dog service.

“She may have three legs, but she’s not disabled,” Jones noted. “She moves around great.”

As do many environmentalists, Jones said she believes climate change is the most pressing concern facing mankind today. She’s also concerned about “Nature-Deficit Disorder,” a condition popularized by author Richard Louv in his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods.

And like Gray, her colleague on the Conservation Commission, Jones said she’d like to see more Bradford residents use and enjoy the Wright’s Mountain/Devil’s Den Town Forest.

“We’ve got this great resource right in our backyard, and not everyone values it. I think if more people took advantage, they’d realize how much of a special place it is.”

In the meantime, Jones continues to dedicate her retirement to the environment and her community.

Late last month, she helped the Bradford Conservation Commission raise money at its annual yard sale at Boch Park, at the base of Bradford Village’s waterfall and dam. Then she led a commission meeting, held despite the Memorial Day holiday, to prepare for more trail work dates, the upcoming anniversary celebrations and the Race to the Top of Bradford.

“I’ll be lucky to find a day off between now and the race,” she said.

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.