Outdoors with Tom Venesky: Losing an icon of conservation

By Tom Venesky - [email protected] | September 17th, 2017 1:00 pm - updated: 3:58 pm.

“Hello, my friend.”

That’s how Dr. Doug Ayers always greeted me whenever I called or visited.

And by his tone I knew it was sincere.

For a person who did so much good when it comes preserving land, saving history and helping animals, Ayers cared about his fellow man as much as anything. He proved it as a conservationist, historian, humantiarian and by his occupation - veterinarian.

When Doug passed away earlier this week, it struck me just how much he accomplished and why he worked so hard to achieve what he did.

It was all for us.

I met Doug in 2005 while covering an event announcing the sale of Hillside Farms to a non-profit entity.

The sale was big news and the event attracted politicians and all the “important names” of the area. When I got there the I found a well-dressed crowd shaking hands and patting backs while standing on the manicured grounds of the historic farm.

Soon, speakers began to file up to a podium to give their brief remarks. They said the kinds of things one expects to hear at such an event. They thanked friends, lauded local politicians and spoke longingly about the rich history of the Conyngham family, which was connected to the farm for 125 years.

But there was one speaker - the last one at the podium - who spoke with such passion about things I cared about not as a reporter, but a person. This particular speaker talked about the importance of preserving the land that comprised the 400-acre farm, bringing back the dairy cows and repairing the barns to make it a farm again, and promoting a sustainable lifestyle by embracing the bond between nature and agriculture. He spoke about how much land has been lost to careless development, what society needs to do to become better stewards and promised to do his part.

While I wrote down a few sentences from the other speakers, Doug’s words filled my notebook verbatim. Others used their time at the podium to drop names, but Doug stepped up and delivered a powerful message: Take care of the land and it will take care of you.

He understood that preservation was a form of progress.

From that day in 2005, I became friends with Doug. We both loved nature, believed it should be conserved and we shuddered at how the area’s agricultural past was being lost.

But one of the things that impressed me most about Doug was rather than lament about the land and history that was being paved over and torn down, he did something about it.

He gave landowners an option to preserve their property when he co-founded the North Branch Land Trust in 1993. So far the organization has preserved more than 18,000 acres in the area - natural places that will persevere that way forever.

And in 2005, Doug worked tirelessly to help form a non-profit to buy Hillside Farms, an action that saved the landmark farm from crumbling into oblivion. But Doug not only saved Hillside, he revived it into a fully-functioning dairy farm that employs agricultural methods that date back more than a century when the impact on the land was softened by the need to be sustainable.

That’s what Doug was all about.

If you want to see it for yourself, take a ride out to Hillside. As you appreciate the bucolic view of dairy cows grazing on green pastures and historic barns bustling with activity, this is exactly what Doug wanted to share with us all.

Doug will missed, but what he accomplished - preserved land and a sustainable historic farm - will last. That will be his legacy.

I know that’s what he wanted.

Goodbye, my friend.


By Tom Venesky

[email protected]

Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky