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Fells' trail fight heats up again

Posted by Matt Byrne  September 9, 2010 10:04 AM

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Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

In the latest chapter of the ongoing dispute between users of the Middlesex Fellsway Reservation, the State Department of Conservation and Recreation has indicated that an upcoming draft plan for trail usage will focus on enforcement of existing rules at the Fells, education, trail closures, resource protection, and improving recreational experience for existing users, the agency said in a letter to the Boston Sierra Club. 

The trail system plan will not call for an expansion of the trail system, construction of new trails or the expansion of parking at the Fells, according to a copy of the letter provided by the Sierra Club, dated Sept. 2.

The DCR said that it will advance a plan to perform a broader, more rigorous study of the Fells, but it will not halt progress of the trail plan. Some groups are seeking to curtail use of the trails by area mountain bikers, and to protect what they say is uique biological diversity at the site.

The letter contains the most details yet about agency’s trail plan, which has been kept under wraps. The draft report will be unveiled at a Sept. 20 public meeting. The trail system has been sorely fought over by interest groups who seek to influence rules permitting who can use the trails for activities like mountain biking or dog-walking.

Since the agency asked the public for input about the trails nine months ago, mountain bikers and hikers have disagreed vocally about how much access citizens riding on two wheels should have to the network of paths traditionally used by people on foot. More than 500 comments were submitted to the DCR, according to the letter, which was signed by DCR Commissioner Richard K. Sullivan and was addressed to the head of the Boston Sierra Club.

In addition, the Middlesex Fells Dog Owner Group has lobbied for a legal off-leash area for their pets.

Currently only certain sections of the park, totaling about 40 miles of trail, permit bike riding, a fact decried by the New England Mountain Biking Association, the members of which are regular users of the trails. The bikers argue that the current system is unfair and does not provide the equal access found at many other parks.

The Friends of The Fells, a local preservationist group, says that increased cycle access could be dangerous to hikers, endanger rare animal and plant life, and may potentially harm the ecosystem there.

“The DCR is playing very close to the vest, and our concern is that most organizations like Boy Scouts or bird clubs, that they have no idea what is going on here,” said Mike Ryan, executive director of The Friends of the Fells, in a telephone interview. “This is a very well organized effort by one interest group. So if they give the bikers new trails, it will just be granting wider access, because bikers never stay on the trails.”

Adam Glick, president of the Boston NEMBA chapter, denied widespread abuse by bicyclists, and said Friends of the Fells is attempting to bully the DCR into rebuffing their request for equal treatment.

“The Friends of The Fells has essentially turned it into their private park,” Glick said. “We want to bring the Fells into line with other state parks” where bikers and hikers have similar or equal access to public trails.

The meeting to unveil the draft, to be held from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in the McGlynn School Auditorium located at 3002 Mystic Valley Parkway in Medford, will be the public’s first look at the draft.

In a statement announcing the meeting, DCR commissioner Richard K. Sullivan Jr. said the Fells is an extraordinary urban resource that offers a number of recreational opportunities and requires attention.

“But it also needs, and deserves, to be protected and managed to ensure its long-term sustainability,” Sullivan said.

A 60-day period of public comment will follow Sept. 20’s meeting, the DCR said.

The recent letter was a response to a May inquiry signed by the Sierra Club and a handful of other environmental advocacy groups imploring the agency to consider the wider effects of making changes to the reservation before it can be fully studied.

In the letter, the Sierra Club called on the DCR to go through the formal process to examine the Fells and its features, a legally defined process that culminates in a master document called a resource management plan.

“… We are troubled by what appears to be a planning process primarily driven by proposed expansion of trails and uses; we believe this is too narrow an approach given the concentration of both the range of recreational demands and the diverse natural, historical and cultural resources at the Fells,” the Sierra Club wrote.

At the Sept. 20 meeting, DCR staff members are expected to present an overview of the plan’s contents and recommendations, the DCR said.

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