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Proposal for more Fells' bike trails sounds alarm

Posted by Alix Roy  May 12, 2010 08:00 AM

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Conservation groups are up in arms after receiving a preliminary look at a draft trail plan proposed for the Middlesex Fells Reservation, which includes expanded access for mountain bikers.

middlesex fells 2.jpgA meeting hosted by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation last Tuesday offered stakeholders a chance to examine the draft before plans are presented to the public for comment. The draft plan is part of a yearlong assessment of the Fells trail system spearheaded by the DCR in an effort to quell the ongoing battle between user groups at the 2,575-acre reservation.
 
After viewing the document, representatives from the Mass Audobon Society and the Friends of the Fells group requested the DCR refrain from implementing the changes until a Resource Management Plan is completed. In a letter to DCR Commissioner Richard Sullivan, Mass Audobon public policy director John Clarke argued that opening additional trails to mountain bikers without a broad-based plan would increase trail damage.
 
"We urge you not to allow any increased access or opening of additional trails to mountain bikes or other uses where presently not allowed," he wrote. "The immediate focus should be on curtailment of illegal activities and development of an RMP."

Friends of the Fells director Mike Ryan said his group was “very concerned” by the draft, which is "fast-tracking" an increase in uses with no plans for conservation or stewardship of natural and cultural resources, he said.
 
"Without fully understanding what those features are it makes absolutely no sense to make a policy change," he said. "The people who are in charge of the trail assessment plan seem to just be completely oblivious to the harm they're proposing."

State law requires the DCR to submit management plans for each of its parks, reservations, and forests that "provide for the protection and stewardship of natural and cultural resources" while ensuring "consistency between recreation, resource protection, and sustainable forest management." According to the DCR website, "Resource Management Planning forms the framework for managing public lands."
 
On Tuesday, DCR Director of Greenways and Trails Programs Paul Jahnige said his office has always planned to develop an RMP for the Fells. Conducting a trail assessment is a step toward that goal, he said.

"A trails system plan, for the most part, considers the same agricultural and ecological data as a Resource Management Plan," he said. "It's just more focused on the trail aspect."

In a release inviting the public to a trail planning workshop in February, the DCR referred to the future plan as both "a stand-alone trails plan and a component of a future Resource Management Plan for the entire Reservation."

Adam Glick, Greater Boston Chapter president of the New England Mountain Bike Association, supported the notion that the two documents were not mutually exclusive. While NEMBA supports the need for an RMP at the Fells, the current draft plan addresses immediate needs by reducing habitat fragmentation through the elimination of redundant trails and expanding equal access, he said.
 
Glick chalked up the Friends' reaction to the draft as evidence of the group's unwillingness to work collaboratively with other user groups.

"They do not like the fact that any trails are being changed to shared use," he said. "Rather than participate in a constructive way they have chosen to subvert and obstruct the DCR process."

If the DCR heeds the Friends' advice, Glick worried that a vast portion of bikers who use the Fells would become disillusioned with the entire process. 

"Conditions on the ground are going to get worse," he said. "The feeling will be [that] the DCR can be totally derailed by this private organization."

Over 100 members of NEMBA attended the DCR's trail planning workshop in February alongside dozens of Friends members and concerned residents. Over 500 public comments on the issue were received by the state between December and the end of February.
 
On Tuesday, Jahnige said plans to present the draft to the public at a meeting this summer are "still in the works." The draft was originally scheduled to be presented in April but DCR spokeswoman Wendy Fox said the meeting would likely be held in late May. Details of the draft are still subject to change and have not been released.

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