January 31, 2016

Jane Winn, Grassroots Leader
Safeguarding our communities and the ecosystem frequently depends on extraordinary people such as Jane Winn, executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team (BEAT) in Western Massachusetts.

Jane Winn is an inspiring grassroots leader whose extraordinary sense of responsibility, persistence and courage is dedicated to advocacy and stewardship for a safe quality environment. Jane is gifted at building community power to oppose pollution and advance sustainability. She inspires a broad constituency of knowledgeable, caring activists and stewards.

In October 2015 Clean Water Action Massachusetts awarded Jane the John O’Connor Award “For leadership in the fight against the construction of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, continued pressure on gas utilities and expanding labor and community partnerships to the Berkshires."

(John O'Connor, 1955 - 2001, was a founder of the National Toxics Campaign in 1983. He helped lead efforts to pass the Superfund legislation and was author of ''Getting the Lead Out'' and ''Who Owns the Sun?'')

Anything that harms human health will harm wildlife and visa versa.

Jane Winn’s interest in protecting wildlife and the health of natural systems lead to the creation of BEAT. Winn says, “I received my bachelors in biology and masters in zoology, but it was not until we formed BEAT that I really put those degrees to good use.”

“I always loved nature and could never understand why big companies were allowed to pollute our air, land, and water. In college, Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, made a huge impression on me. I admired Carson’s dedication to speaking out for what’s right.” I grew up on the banks of a very polluted Housatonic River downstream of the General Electric plant. We held our noses going over the bridges. The river caught on fire outside my house one time, and we all went out and breathed in the PCB (polychlorinated biphenols) as we watched.

I thought I was good at catching frogs until I went away to camp and found out frogs can really jump.... fast! It is my belief that PCBs depress amphibian and reptile startle response leaving those living in polluted areas seeming lethargic and easily caught.

“We all have our voices. we should be using them.”

“In 2002-2003 a group of us were outraged as we tried to have the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act enforced during a proposed construction project and found that the law and its regulations were being ignored at every level.”

“It is shocking how our government, supposedly of the people, by the people and for the people, is nothing close to that. Big monied polluters of all kinds are either above the law or the laws do not exist to protect human and environmental health.”

On the BEAT website is a well-documented in-depth case study. It tells how students, faculty and citizens organized to try to stop the Berkshire Community College’s soccer field that would destroy the hydrology of a vernal pool. Environmental faculty offered to show how to do it right but the BCC administration resisted.

Why was no one was willing to stop project?

Jane learned that every step of the process violated existing regulations including the public records law. The project was out of compliance with standards, regulations and required procedures but there was little enforcement or accountability from the local conservation commission or state agencies. Jane and her colleagues discovered deficiencies with maps, filings, and permits and pointed out discrepancies in the submitted plans that the agency staff didn’t see.

Jane and her colleagues had to keep learning about the law and how to use it. In spite of a hard fought battle, BCC built the soccer fields.

Lessons Learned

When a new fracked gas pipeline was proposed for the area, BEAT started holding meetings and giving presentations. In a small town of Cummington (pop. 900), they packed the church hall. People were spilling out into the hallway and adjacent library, and they came from seven counties across the state. The crowd immediately start organizing. Working with Massachusetts’ Clean Water Action and other organization they got thousand of people to call legislators.

Once you realize you can make a difference, it’s addictive.

The lessons the environmental advocates learned in the effort to stop the BCC soccer fields were not wasted. BEAT has organized campaigns against environmental degradation, inappropriate development, habitat fragmentation and other threats to wildlife. As part of the Citizens Coordinating Council, they advocate for higher standards for cleaning up GE’s contamination of the Housatonic River.Through its projects and campaigns BEAT reaches thousands. BEAT monitors, watchdogs, informs, surveys, tracks, educates, trains, organizes and advocates. BEAT has a free weekly newsletter, a website (with a great tutorial on the Wetlands Protection Act among other resources ) and hosts Pittsfield Green Drinks, a monthly gathering of environmentally-minded individuals.

BEAT has organized forums and workshops on certifying vernal pools, has trained more than 350 volunteers in various projects from wildlife habitat assessment to river clean ups to road/stream wildlife crossings, and serves on the organizing committee for the Northeast Wildlife Trackers Conference – as well as organizing many other smaller walks, talks, and information sessions.

Opening Doors

BEAT began videotaping the Pittsfield Conservation Commission hearings which are now broadcast by Pittsfield Community Television. BEAT also videotapes for broadcast the Berkshire Metropolitan Planning Organization meetings, and many other meetings about environmental activities. These meetings are broadcast on local community access television.

Environmentalist of the Year Jane Winn

In 2007, Jane received awards from the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions, Pittsfield Community Television, and the Housatonic Valley Association for her tireless efforts to protect the environment.

“Long an environmental advocate and mobilizer of community interest and involvement in wetlands permitting deliberations and open space preservation in the Berkshires, Jane Winn is fierce in her determination and seldom willing to take “no” for a final answer. She has demonstrated many times over that perseverance is a powerful advocacy skill. With the creation, fundraising, nurturing and day-to-day management of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team (BEAT) and the weekly e-publication of The BEAT News, Jane has become a leading spokesperson on environmental issues. Her courage, dedication, and boundless energy have already produced stunning successes – and are creating a broad constituency of knowledgeable, caring activists and stewards to carry the work forward.”