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The struggle to find space for all in 2,575-acre Middlesex Fells

Posted by Marcia Dick  September 19, 2011 10:07 AM

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Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff

Trail bikers make up one of the groups that use Middlesex Fells Reservation.

After more than two years of study, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation has recommended the closure of 22 miles of trails, the improvement of historic structures, and increased enforcement of park rules and regulations at the expansive Middlesex Fells Reservation.

In a meticulous 88-page report, the agency made 75 recommendations aimed at protecting natural habitats and wildlife, while better defining recreational uses that have caused contention among Fells enthusiasts. The plan could be finalized by the end of the year.

The 2,575-acre property, surrounded by Winchester, Stoneham, Melrose, Malden, and Medford, is considered an oasis for many who seek solitude and enjoyment of nature with its wooded trails, mountain biking paths, and picturesque vistas, but it also has been a source of controversy for those competing for different ways to use it.

“The Fells is big,’’ said state Senator Patricia Jehlen, Democrat of Somerville, at a meeting Wednesday to unveil a summary of the plan, which was made available to the public the next day. “But maybe not big enough for all of us to love it our own way,’’ she said, striking a note of compromise.

In addition to trail closures, other proposed changes include new maps and signs, and a pilot off-leash dog area at the Sheepfold, one of the park’s most popular points of entry where dog owners have frequently ignored the ban on free-roaming pooches.

Mountain bikers, who have long complained of inequitable access to trails, will be able to pedal citation-free in the Dark Hollow Pond area, effectively repurposing an area of the park that was a magnet for public liaisons.

But patrolling the vast space to enforce regulations will require the department to muster more officers.

“There is just no way to deny it, presence is prevention,’’ said Curt Rudge, chief ranger for DCR, during the Wednesday meeting. “We do need to have some more bodies up there.’’

The ranger service, as well as local and State Police forces, has jurisdiction to write tickets for violations including illicit dumping, camping, drinking in public, off-trail walking or driving, and trespassing.

In an other change, mountain bikers won access to the Reservoir Trail. They will continue to be banned from Skyline Trail, one of the park’s most challenging, however.

Dogs will continue to be banned off-leash on all trails.

The recommendations are nonbinding and unfunded, which, for an agency whose budget has been slashed by about a third in the last three years, means implementation will take time, said Samantha Overton, acting director of urban parks and recreation. Now the process enters another 60-day comment period, before a state board is expected to review and possibly finalize the plan in December.

Overton said the state will peck away at the list as funding becomes available, but will first address the most pressing issue of trail use and user compliance, with the immediate commitment to hire two seasonal park rangers to supplement the single full-time ranger who patrols the vast area with 100 miles of trails.

Many of the trail closures will affect pathways created by users who strayed from the established routes. The illegal trails sometimes veer into habitats or vernal pools, where plant and animal life can be harmed.

The department has also recommended infrastructure improvements and maintenance of historical features, such as preserving the ruins of an observatory tower built in 1899, and archaeological sites that indicate the area was inhabited as early as 11,000 years ago and provided hunting grounds for Native Americans.

The public comment process on the plans drew more than 3,000 suggestions and criticisms.

David Monahan of the Fells Dog Owners Group expressed dismay that unleashed dogs still cannot roam trails, saying he believes pet owners will be disappointed. Others, however, were happy with the results of more than two years of cooperation between the state and residents.

Adam Glick, president of the Boston chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association, said he was pleased.

“DCR had a very tough problem here, they had a lot of people with strong opinions,’’ said Glick in an interview after the meeting.

Matt Byrne can be reached at

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