What’s the Use of the Middlesex Fells?

Originally published (by me) at Union Park Press, September 2011.

After two years of study and fielding complaints and anxious queries by hikers and mountain bikes, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) has issued an 88-page draft Resource Management Plan about what to do withMiddlesex Fells, according to the Boston Globe.  In short: close 22 miles of trails, keep bikers and hikers away from each other, have dogs stay on leashes, and—this is the hard part—deal with “the culture of non-compliance at the reservation.”

That phrase comes from the DCR’S slides from a September 14 public meeting on the plan—the complete draft Plan is available on the DCR web site. According to the DCR’s meeting slides, that “noncompliance” takes several unfortunate forms: off-leash dogs, off-trail recreation, trespassing on posted lands, biking on pedestrian-only trails, even camping and setting fires (!).  The plan cites a “culture of non-compliance among nearly all users” with poor design, lack of enforcement, and lack of cooperation among stakeholders to blame.

How did we come to this? Is the Fells truly a haven for crazed packs of delinquent dogs and Mad-Max mountain bikers setting pedestrians on fire, and sweeping the ashes into the Middlesex Reservoir?

The answer is, we came to this state of affairs slowly, and from a rather mixed beginning. There has been tension between human convenience and environmental preservation at the Middlesex Fells for more than 100 years.

The Fells was one of the first properties acquired by Boston’s Metropolitan Parks Commission, established in 1892. From 1894-1897, the Metropolitan Parks Commission acquired 3,000 acres of the Fells, including “1200 acres of water bodies, 13 miles of wood roads, eight miles of town road, farms, private estates and the Langwood Hotel,” according to the Friends of the Middlesex Fells. There was also a silver mine, a quarry, and dozens of stone walls dating back as far as 1658. In short, the Fells was a lovely place, with plenty of wooded acres, pretty ponds, and grand views from rocky ledges, but it wasn’t untouched wilderness.

In any case, the Fells were actively managed from the moment they were acquired—and activists have been objecting to that management since it began. The Metropolitan Parks Commission rapidly built “parkways” to transport visitors to the Fells, and worked to maintain a “variety of landscapes” at the Fells; the Commission had 26 animals grazing in the Sheepfold in 1909 alone.

That maintenance apparently also involved chopping down entire groves of trees from time to time. In the 1906 “Appeals for the Middlesex Fells and the Forests,” Fells activists Elizur and Ellen Wright, who were instrumental in establishing the Fells, included an appendix titled “Concerning Protests Made Subsequent to the Republication of the these Appeals Against the Tree Destruction in the Fells and the Change of Purpose Necessitating it.” The Wrights charge that trees that were purportedly removed due to a gypsy moth infestation were actually chopped down “ to change the Fells from its largely forestal natural design to the usually adopted open view design of the architect.”  The cad!

In 1910, an ardent local birdwatcher Godron Boit Wellman also complained that the Fells was becoming overdeveloped:

“Again in the Fells man has also been at work and the last ten years the park has gradually assumed new appearances. To illustrate, take two birds of same family but differing in their habitats: the chestnut sided warbler and the black-throated green warbler. First of these birds, the chestnut sided warbler, desires open land, low bushes in which to nest, and sunny hillsides to feed upon. The second named bird needs tall pines, the dampness of the forest, and the shaded ways of primeval woods.

“This latter environment has almost ceased to be in the Fells whereas the former the open bushy land prevails. The consequence is that during the years that I have studied the birds in the Fells the chestnut-sided warbler has increased to be one of the commonest birds whereas the black-throated green warbler is limited to two or three groves It was formerly a bird as common as the chestnut sided is now. With such comparisons I could go right through all the birds which are resident in the Fells and show how the changes wrought by man have made corresponding revolutions in the bird distribution.”

Over the next hundred years, the Middlesex Fells continued to lurch between radically different sorts of “management” as the Fells became a premier “country” park for city folks. A trolley line began running from Somerville to Stoneham via the Sheep Fold in 1910, and the Appalachian Mountain Club built an observation tower at Bear Hill, attracting thousands more visitors annually. Then the state planted more than 500,000 trees between 1919 and 1930, giving the poor little black-throated green warblers new homes. In the 1930s, though, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) built more trails and roads and a tower on Pine Hill—none of which endeared the CCC and WPA to black-throated green warblers.

The 1950s and 60s brought still more building into the park. The Metropolitan District Commission built a swimming pool, a skating rink, and a soap box derby track; the little Fells zoo was enlarged and became the Stone Zoo; and Route 93 sliced the lovely Fells in half.

Today, there are still struggles between plans to pave and preserve the Fells. The Friends of the Fells Advocacy Page has details about several cases where developers seem set to widen Fells roads and run still more traffic through the park.

What’s worse, even inside the park, the Fells’ users and managers don’t agree on what the place is for. The vast majority of dog owners let their dogs go off-leash, even though that’s against park rules. (That’s a big problem for protecting the land off-trail because of the sheer number of dogs coming to the Fells. The Plan states,”Based on DCR trailhead counts at the Fells itself, we have approximately one dog for every two people visiting the reservation… This is an average of 16 dogs per trailhead per hour.”) According to the plan, Men who have sex with men (abbreviated MSM in the plan) seek privacy for intimate acts between the Sheep Fold and Bear Hill, even though less than one percent of the park’s land is more than 50 yards from a trail. People are passing too close to each other, being rude, and generally behaving badly.

Winter 2010-11 Antisocial behaviors at the Middlesex Fells:  Percentage of users reporting observing behaviors

Dog owners allowing dogs off-leash 77%
Dog owners not cleaning up after their dog 66%
Dogs misbehaving or threatening 33%
Hikers/snowshoers being rude 22%
Mountain bikers passing too closely 18%
Hikers/snowshoers disrupting winter trail conditions 16%
Skiers not giving warning on approach 11%
Mountain bikers not yielding 9%

Source: Resource Management Plan for the Middlesex Fells, Department of Conservation and Recreation

The Plan blames the current Fells lawlessness on three factors: the design and physical characteristics of the Fells, the lack of “enforcement presence” (that is, police and rangers), and lack of cooperation with stakeholders.

Some of the Fell’s design flaws can be solved, or at least improved. Right now there are 2,000 trail intersections at the Fells, guaranteeing that you’re going to run into somebody wherever you go. Re-routing and closing some trails would help reduce the number of run-ins where walkers and biker angrily cross paths. The DCR plans to improve kiosks and to try to educate users about why they shouldn’t be running around off-trail destroying habitats. The lack of “enforcement presence” can be solved by well, presenting enforcement: hiring more staff to give out tickets and tell people what the rules are.

That leaves the lack of cooperation among stakeholders. As the Plan puts it, “Unfortunately, at the Fells, various stakeholder groups have focused on competing interests rather than common ones, and there has been a lack of the kind of cooperation among groups that has proven so positive in other parks.”

Photo courtesy of David Monahan

Walkers, birdwatchers, dog walkers and mountain bikers have been battling over the fate of the Fells for years now. For a sample of the rhetoric, look for “Fells” and “Audubon” on  the New England Mountain Bike Association pages or the Friends of the Middlesex Fells site. The Middlesex Fells Dog Owners Group writers seem genuinely surprised and alarmed that the Fells is enforcing leash laws. The DCR Plan, though, doesn’t blame mountain bikers for damage to the Fells. It states clearly that mountain bikers don’t cause any more damage to trails than hikers do. What does damage the Fells, according to the plan, is off-trail use. Off-leash, off-trail dogs, naturalists looking for plants and birds, MSMs looking for privacy, people building stone labyrinths, shelters, camp fires, and monoliths—they’re doing the damage, not that sullen kid on the bike that costs more than your car, or the paranoid mother who thinks your dog will eat her children.

The Fells is used to giving different groups of avid park-goers something to fight about. But if we’re going to keep any trees free for the black-throated green warbler, or even a chipmunk, park groups need to start working together. Otherwise, the roads through the Fells will keep getting wider and wider as more businesses and residences get built nearby. All users need to unite to keep cars from taking over and to keep the Fells habitat functional. That means you, hikers, trail-runners, bikers, and dog-walkers. Or, rather, that means us.

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  1. Pingback: Hope for the Middlesex Fells | Green Space Boston

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