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DCR hopes Middlesex Fells users can find common ground

Posted by Marcia Dick  February 24, 2012 09:51 AM

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Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Park rangers will be on the lookout for those who let their dogs roam free on the trails.

After the state this month released new rules for the Middlesex Fells Reservation, dog-walkers, naturalists, and mountain bikers will have to find a balance regarding how the massive woodlands can be shared.

Distributed after the Department of Conservation and Recreation  completed a lengthy study of the Fells this year, which called out some users for largely ignoring the 2,757-acre preserve’s bylaws, the 21-point guide is the first step toward enforcement, the agency said.

The major change is the closing of 22 miles of trails, either because they encroached on sensitive habitats or were created by users without the agency’s authorization.

Other than the usual hours of operation (dawn to dusk) and permissible uses, the rules include an etiquette guide, which suggests visitors be friendly and courteous, respect natural habitats, and anticipate and respect other people’s right to enjoy the landscape in different ways.

But doubt has lingered among some enthusiasts of the Fells, which is surrounded by Malden, Medford, Stoneham, Melrose, and Winchester.

‘‘I think these rules are like a paper tiger. They don’t really have the enforcement capacity to back them up,’’ said Mike Ryan, executive director of the Friends of the Fells, a nature group that has advocated for tighter controls on recreational use such as mountain biking.

Ryan said the DCR’s system of ticket-writing for violations — which must be carried out by a park ranger, who are scarce in the large preserve — has no viable way to enforce the fines levied on violators.

S.J. Port,  a spokeswoman for the DCR, disputed Ryan’s claim, and said state law gives rangers full police powers on agency land. Although they do not carry firearms, rangers can stop anyone in the park and demand identification or write citations.

Port said the work to police the expansive site is ongoing, and will continue into the spring, when the larger effort to close trails begins. Rangers on patrol also will begin educating visitors on the rules, Port said.

‘‘DCR continues to work with other partners, surrounding communities, the public and sister agencies to coordinate a plan that would encourage regulations compliance,’’ Port said.

Fines can range up to $200 for violations such as damaging natural habitats, illegal dumping, and trespassing on private priority that abuts the reservation, according to the agency, and can be levied by the rangers or State Police troopers who patrol the surrounding roadways.

Still, the expansive, 88-page Resource Management Plan approved by the DCR in January noted a culture of rule-breaking, including dog owners roaming trails with their animals off-leash, hiking or mountain biking outside designated pathways, and even illicit sex, a tide the agency said it hopes to stem.

‘‘It was kind of like the wild west,’’ said Jack Clarke, director of Public Policy and Government Relations at the Massachusetts Audubon Society, whose group supported the resource plan’s approval.

Clarke said the plan is one of the agency’s first big steps toward reconciling conservation ideals with the unique situation of the Fells, an oasis of flora and fauna packed among highly developed suburban communities.

‘‘DCR has the challenging job with a dwindling budget to manage that [balance]. We commend them on doing such good work with challenges,’’ Clarke said.
 
Michele Biscoe, leader of the Somerville Dog Owners Group,  said she believes the enforcement efforts could be for naught, especially because owners are still barred from off-leash trail walking, a practice many hold dear.

‘‘People don’t want to break the laws. They want accommodation to do what they have been doing for years,’’ she said.

Mountain bikers won legal access to the Dark Hollow Pond section, effectively repurposing an area of the park that was a magnet for illicit public liaisons. But now the two-wheeled riders are banned for the month of March, when conditions are too muddy for biking.

Philip Keyes, executive director of the New England Mountain Bike Association, said he is glad the planning process is complete so his members can get back to work helping to improve the wooded preserve.

‘‘I think we have to look at this as a new day, and how we can work together,’’ he said. ‘‘We’ll see. I know the mountain bikers right now are very excited to get involved, really looking to help people change their attitudes.’’

Matt Byrne can be reached at MByrne.Globe@gmail.com.

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