Jonathan Wiggs/Globe StaffStanding atop the craggy, wooded hillside in the Middlesex Fells Reservation, Friends of the Fells board member Dana M. Jewell swung his hiking stick at a river of upturned rocks descending below, shaking his head.
Up until this summer, a stately set of stone stairs helped hikers navigate up a hill and climb deeper into the wooded expanse. Located about a half-mile south from the Fallon Road trail head at entrance 21 on the Reservoir Trail, the walkway was built from suitcase-sized boulders dug into the hillside. It served as a bulwark against erosion on the steep slope, which borders an area of protected wetland fed by an intermittent spring that intersected the trail at a point farther from the steps.
But now the rocks have been upturned and strewn across the slope, obscured by tree branches and other debris left by workers looking to discourage passage on the now-closed section of trail.
The state Department of Conservation and Recreation, in line with a recently completed long-range plan to preserve and protect the Fells, sought to move the path away from the spring, which would gurgle over the trail bed and down the hillside near the steps.
The stone steps, completed in 2007 with a $5,000 department grant, did not intersect with the spring, but was destroyed by an agency work crew this summer.
“Somebody was in here with big crowbars, that’s for sure,” said Jewell. “Next time there is pouring rain, you’ll see some action here.”
The majority of the 2,575-acre wooded preserve — which in addition to Stoneham is surrounded by Malden, Medford, Melrose, and Winchester — is controlled by the conservation and recreation department, one of the more than 150 properties in the state the agency maintains.
But in a twist of jurisdiction mandated by state environmental law, oversight of wetlands is allocated to the local conservation commission, said Robert Conway, chairman of the Stoneham commission.
This spring, the agency agreed to exchange information on proposed projects with Conway and his fellow commissioners, and to apprise the Stoneham board before work was to proceed, Conway said. In an April 17 letter to the Stoneham commission obtained by the Globe, Jack Murray, Department of Conservation and Recreation deputy commissioner, said his agency would submit a written outline for review.
“We said, ‘Submit plans, let’s see it on paper so we can have a fruitful discussion of what to do here,’ Conway said. "DCR didn’t do that.”
Instead, the agency sanctioned a volunteer crew of students to reroute the trail, cutting a patch two-10ths of a mile long into untouched habitat, said Mike Ryan, executive director of the Friends of the Fells, a group that advocates for preservation of the natural habitat. After the trail was rerouted, the agency could have discouraged use of the steps by covering them with foliage and branches instead of destroying them, Ryan said.
“We did not [file plans with the Conservation Commission] and that was a mistake,” said S.J. Port, spokeswoman for the agency, in a statement.
Because of a shortage of staff, the work crew was unsupervised when it was performing the remediation, Port said, but she defended the practice of removing hiking steps as conforming with trail deconstruction practices.
“Had we known this would be part of their work, we would have consulted’’ the Conservation Commission, Port said.
For Ryan, the situation highlights the dysfunction that followed the recently completed Resource Management Plan for the Fells, an 88-page document that took two years to complete and required dozens of meetings, talk-back sessions, and input from a half-dozen user-groups, scientific organizations, and others.
Assembling the plan revealed some of the longstanding fissures among the groups, including mountain bikers, who wanted more equitable access to the miles of wooded paths; dog owners who sought the lifting of a ban on off-leash walking; and the Friends of the Fells, whose members have advocated against what they say are invasive and improper uses of the park, including off-trail walking, shared use of trails with mountain bikers, and what Ryan said is a shift by the state agency away from conservation to emphasize recreation.
Aside from those disagreements, the resource plan was largely an inventory of what is contained in the massive preserve, including 22 miles of trails deemed either illegally forged or unsustainable. Ryan and others said they will remain watchful of how the agency proceeds as it enacts its trails plan.
“If it gets real bad, it can undermine trees,” said Conway, of the possible erosion on the trail. “The potential is there for damage to the environment.
“DCR has volunteered to rebuild it to our wishes if that’s what our finding is. They have been very apologetic.”
Matt Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.