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Doubts linger over Middlesex Fells' plan

Posted by Matt Byrne  September 15, 2011 10:04 AM

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Matt Byrne

A member of the audience speaks her mind after state planners outlined how the agency will tighten regulations at the Middlesex Fells.

Since the advent of the sandbox, there have been disputes over who may play in it. The Middlesex Fells, after years of infighting, meetings, and now the release by the state of a long sought after planning document, appears to be no different.

The tension continued Thursday night at a meeting to unveil the Resource Management Plan, in the works for more than two years, that some groups have hoped would settle, at least for now, the competing interests of the many user groups who frequent the Fells's 100-plus miles of trails.

"The Fells is big," said state Senator Pat Jehlen, a Democrat of Somerville. "But maybe not big enough for all of us to love it our own way."

Aside from the slew of rare wildlife, more than 860 plant types, and dozens of historic buildings, the state found another unique feature at the expansive, 2,575-acre park: Controversy.

The agency dedicates an entire section to the use of the Fells by walkers, hikers, mountain bikers, dog owners, birders, and naturalists.

The plan makes 75 recommendations in all, spread over seven different goal areas, including protecting water resources and wetlands, securing rare species' habitats, preserve cultural landmarks, enhance recreation, increase compliance by users, interpreting the Fells's history, and fostering better partnerships.

The recommendations, which are non-binding and contain no timetable or requirement for implementation, will go into effect as financial and other resources become available to the agency, the report says.

Among some of the more dramatic changes suggested are the renovation of the Sheepfold parking area to improve access and parking, and to close more than 20 miles of unauthorized trails.

Also expected are new maps and improved trail markings for ease of navigation.

In addition to two new seasonal rangers, the DCR also calls for occasional mounted patrol to enhance compliance with trail rules and regulations, including the possibility of performing a "sweep" of the park if needed at peak times of noncompliance.

The agency also seeks to form memorandum of understanding with major user groups, a formalization of relationships that have developed over the extensive comment periods and input sessions held by the state.

These steps, the agency hopes, will create a culture of compliance.

"DCR rangers will write citations for flagrant or repeated" rule-breaking, said Curt Rudge, DCR's chief ranger.
 
The sharpest disagreement has long been between members of the Boston chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association, who seek more equitable access to trails for riding, and the Friends of the Fells, a nature group that advocates for stricter rules on preservation.

The state found that hiking or walking have similar environmental impacts as mountain biking, and that while a "potential for conflict" exists between the camps, the report says, officially sanctioned areas for each use should be expanded.

"I have friends who are dog-walkers. I have friends who are mountain bikers," said Bryan Hamlin, the chairman of the board of directors for the Friends group. "No matter what the plan is, it won't work unless we make it work."

Adam Glick, president of the mountain bikers' Boston chapter, said that his members may still be skeptical, although more trails for riding around the Dark Hollow area are planned, as well as some single-track loops in the eastern section of the park.

"If this plan is perceived to not offer significant change, you won't get compliance," said Glick.
 
Also miffed were some dog owners, who scored a victory earlier this year when a preliminary finding by the DCR promised a trial run of an off-leash dog area at the popular Sheepfold meadow.

But the state requires that all other areas of the park remain on-leash, including on all trails, which drew criticism and disappointment from some dog owners who said they sought off-leash trail walking.

"I think dog owners are going to be very disappointed," said David Monihan of FellsDOG, who lamented the continued off-leash trail ban.

While much of the attention has been focused on the feuding user groups, the state's plan for the Fells is largely aimed at natural preservation.

The state calls for protection of the expansive adjacent watershed that supplies Winchester with drinking water; the rare wildlife and their habitats; the historic buildings and structures that dot the landscape; and of the rare swaths, five in all, of 10-acre patches of untouched forest.

To achieve the goals, the agency plans to close more than 20 miles of redundant, damaging, or unauthorized trails, and slice the reservation into three tiered zones that correspond to the sensitivity of the surrounding wildlife.  

Enforcement will be ramped up, as well. Two seasonal park rangers will be hired, said Samantha Overton, acting director of urban parks and recreation.

More rangers, more ticket-writing, and a beefier presence is on the way, said Rudge, the chief ranger.

Echoing the sentiment of exasperation that seemed to ripple through the crowd, Hamlin, of the Friends of the Fells, struck a conciliatory note.

"We can't always get what we want," he said.

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Melissa Bennett

New signage at the Fells Sheepfold hails the coming of a legal off-leash dog area.




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