George R. McLean
Residents will have a chance to weigh in on future plans for the Middlesex Fells Reservation at a public forum hosted by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation on Monday.
The gathering, officially referred to as a trail planning workshop, will be held from 6:30-8 p.m. at the McGlynn School Auditorium, 3002 Mystic Valley Parkway, Medford.
During the meeting, residents are invited to share suggestions or concerns regarding the current and future use of the Fells reservation, which occupies 2,575 acres in Medford, Melrose, Malden, Stoneham, and Winchester. For those unable to attend, comments can also be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The meeting is part of the DCR's planning and assessment process for the Fells reservation, which will result in a Trail System Plan to guide future management of the park and its resources. A draft of the plan is scheduled to be presented to the public in April. If approved, the plan would go into effect by the summer months.
On its website, the DCR described the importance of creating the plan in order to preserve the natural qualities of the park, which experiences “high levels of recreational use, particularly trail use."
“All trail uses have impacts to soils, water quality, wildlife and vegetation,” the website states. “User-created trails, off-trail use, unsustainable trail designs, and redundant/overlapping trails compound these impacts.”
The Trail System Plan will draw upon a recent study of the Fells trail network, funded by the DCR, which used GPS technology to record the location of every trail, both marked and unofficial, along with its condition, width, surface, and type. Any trail damage was also recorded.
The information will be used to recommend trail restoration and closure as well as areas where new official trails could be constructed and how each trail should be used. The plan will also make suggestions related to educational opportunities and policy matters.
The DCR's decision to develop a Trail System Plan was made after community groups and visitors submitted concerns regarding trail conditions and enforcement of trail use policies.
In particular, the Friends of the Middlesex Fells group has spoken out against unauthorized use of trails by mountain bikers. On its website, the Melrose-based group points to efforts taken by the New England Mountain Biker Association to expand the number of trails open to bikers as one of the major threats to trail environment and public safety at the Fells.
“With the threat to turn the Fells into a bikers’ playground, the ability of the reservation to remain a natural oasis for plant and animal species – and to provide quality visitor experiences – is very much at stake.” the group states. “Now the push by NEMBA to build ever-growing webs of trails in the Fells poses serious problems of increased habitat fragmentation, increased erosion, and threats to wildlife, as well as increases in visitor conflicts and added concern about public safety.”
In the group's Winter newsletter, Executive Director Mike Ryan urged the public to submit comments to the DCR and attend Monday's meeting to ensure future plans for the park are focused on conserving its natural character.
“Trail damage from various uses will increase unless Fells advocates make their feelings known by emails, letters and attending the [February] public meeting,” he wrote.
On Thursday, Ryan said the DCR's trail study provides insufficient information on which to base its future management plans. Environmental studies of vernal pools and plant life, water quality tests and surveys of wildlife beyond the trails must be conducted to get a full picture of the park's condition, he said.
"We feel this is a partial study," he said. "The DCR should make no policies based on just one factor."
Melrose Mayor Robert Dolan, who sits on the Board of the Friends of the Fells, said the city wants to ensure the long-term preservation of the park for the enjoyment of all residents.
"It's really one of the cornerstones of the quality of life in Melrose," he said. "It's one of the reasons people move here."
Dolan said the reservation's current policies are adequate but not enforced due to the lack of staff. While other parks employ up to four full-time staff members, Middlesex Fells has only one, he said.
"The rules have been set, the problem is not the rules," he said. "The problem is that the rules are not enforced."
Since the beginning of December, 206 individuals have submitted comments to the DCR, Director of Greenways and Trails Programs Paul Jahnige wrote in an e-mail.
“I think it has been an effective way for individuals to submit comments,” he said on Wednesday, while noting that many comments were likely submitted as a result of encouragement by advocacy groups such as Ryan's.
“In some ways the comments reflect the interests of those groups perhaps more so than being representative of the 'general public' or 'average use,' Jahnige said.
Click here to view a list of guiding questions for comments compiled by the DCR.