Loving Walden, but not to death

Pond’s popularity creates dilemma

A sign informed visitors late last May that a trail to Red Cross Beach at Walden Pond was closed due to spring flooding. Officials were forced to reduce visitor capacity at the state reservation until water levels receded. A sign informed visitors late last May that a trail to Red Cross Beach at Walden Pond was closed due to spring flooding. Officials were forced to reduce visitor capacity at the state reservation until water levels receded. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By James O’Brien
Globe Correspondent / March 3, 2011

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The protectors of Walden Pond want one thing: to make certain that the hundreds of acres around the glacial kettle hole widely viewed as the birthplace of the conservation movement live up to that reputation.

It is a spot where history resonates for many. It is also a place that people from all over associate with recreation.

“Its association with Henry David Thoreau makes it an international destination,’’ said Nathaniel Tipton, a resource management planner for the Department of Conservation and Recreation.

On the other hand, Tipton said, Walden is a “heavily used recreation resource for activities such as swimming, picnicking, and boating.’’

State conservationists are this month weighing their desire to protect the national historic landmark alongside the public’s ongoing desire to hike its popular trails and take a dunk in its waters.

While the pond’s popularity is an asset, Tipton said, the department must plan for its future. At a public meeting March 24, officials will hear from fans of the park, as well as proponents of its caretaking.

Among the issues Walden officials want to address: fluctuations in the pond’s water level. Heavy rains last spring swelled the pond, which has no natural outlets, until most of the area around it was under water. The waters have receded — and state officials said the pond was spared any serious damage from this winter’s heavy snows — but without a way to let excess accumulation out of Walden, flooding is a problem that is likely to recur if intense rainfalls return.

Department planners also want to head off the kind of use-related conflicts that can arise between hikers, swimmers, boaters, and those looking for a little history at Walden.

They want to improve handicapped access to the pond, and enhance communication with the public about when Walden is at full capacity. Now, after 1,000 visitors are counted in, attendants ask people to come back at another time later in the day.

There are traffic-related issues as well, such as alleviating peak-season backups on Route 126, which leads to the site, and adding pedestrian-safety measures around the roadway.

The effort is part of a state mandate to create a resource management plan for all of its Conservation and Recreation properties. The department is working on a separate visitors services master plan, meant to dovetail with the state outline as “a framework to protect and enhance the unique cultural and natural resources of the reservation,’’ Tipton said.

Since the department took up the new phase of planning, its first since 1994, officials have been looking at just how much use Walden gets.

From fiscal 2008 to 2010, the annual number of visitors to the park averaged about 438,000. All those people, and the cars that bring them, make the park a revenue generator for the state. Visitors pay a $5 entrance fee, and, in the same three-year span, that amounted to more than $1.3 million for the Massachusetts general fund.

Visitors also pose a problem, however: By wear and tear on their surroundings, they could love Walden Pond to death. And department officials are not just thinking about conservation of water, soil, and other natural resources, they are considering Walden’s literary and historical legacy.

Walden Pond is where author, philosopher, and naturalist Henry David Thoreau lived from 1845 to 1847, and where he gathered the experiences he would set down in the book “Walden.’’

Later, in the 1990s, the spot became a national topic again, when a high-profile conservation campaign by rock star Don Henley focused on Walden. That project involved the creation of the nonprofit advocacy organization: the Walden Woods Project.

Over the past two decades the project has helped protect new property and trails around Walden. The organization is currently in the early stages of trying to secure the conservation of about 36 more acres, land that used to be the town of Concord’s landfill.

The Walden Woods Project is, Tipton said, “an ongoing partner. We’re taking their input on this process.’’

Kathi Anderson, executive director of the Walden Woods Project, said her organization hopes the state will look at how to balance the daily visitor capacity of the pond so that both recreation-seeking and history-minded visitors can share the spot.

“What happens in the summer, when the carrying capacity is reached, and out comes a family who is here from Japan, visiting, and really wanting to see Walden and they can’t be let in?’’ Anderson said. “I don’t profess to have the answer, right away, but I hope that’s an issue that this study takes a look at: How to serve all the constituencies.’’

The answer to how the state can strike the numerous balances at Walden Pond — conservation and recreation, outdoor activities and history — is an equation Tipton hopes to help solve in the coming months.

“Part of the process is to have a more in-tune understanding of where that balance lies, right now,’’ said Tipton. “Part of this process is that we have to have an answer to that question.’’


Scenes from Walden Pond

Scenes from Walden Pond

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