It’s Time to Safeguard the Fells

Photo credit: Mike Ryan

A federal program that supported parks, forests and recreation programs with billions of dollars from energy company royalties died this month without much fuss from the general public. The circumstances illustrate how a decision benefiting narrow interests can take hold when most people stop paying attention. I’m hoping it can also be a cue for Middlesex Fells Reservation supporters to speak out about a massive proposed development adjacent to the Fells at a public meeting this Thursday.

The federal program, called the Land and Water Conservation Fund expired at the end of the government’s fiscal year on September 30. Congressional maneuvering caused the lapse and Washington must fix that problem. Here, just north of Boston, we’re encountering a different type of threat to a public forest and there’s still time to take action.

The 2,575-acre Fells has been protected conservation land starting with one parcel in 1891. Development is off limits in the state-owned property. Even so, the Fells is far from immune to the forces of change.

In the decades since the Fells became public land, a road through part of the property became a highway to Boston, surrounding parkways evolved into commuter routes and farmland transformed into suburbs. Societal shifts have turned the Fells into an unusual place in a generally urbanized region. Those changes also make the Fells a vital, irreplaceable treasure for the entire Boston area.


Photo credit: Mike Ryan

Any major changes to adjacent land parcels that increase traffic, noise and environmental threats would degrade the character of the Fells. That’s why many Fells users have resisted a proposed private development on Stoneham’s Woodland Road near Spot Pond for fifteen years.

The mixed use development proposal known as Langwood Commons calls for 310 residential units and 225,000 square feet of commercial office space. The residents and office users would generate an additional 4,500 daily traffic trips on Woodland Road and nearby travel routes. The developers have repeatedly rebuffed demands for a public environmental review of the project.

The Friends of the Fells and a group of area residents have a long-running state court lawsuit about that dispute. The case, which is now pending in the Massachusetts Appeals Court, asks the court to rule that the project must be reviewed for environmental compliance. It argues that the traffic demands would prompt developers to make major road alterations to the nearby parkway. Woodland Road is one of several parkways through and near the Fells that Frederic Law Olmsted and Charles Eliot designed in the late 1800s. They’re now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

This Thursday, the Friends of the Fells and other interested parties are holding a meeting to discuss ways the public can press the developers to conduct a public environmental review.

Meanwhile, the Land and Water Conservation Fund’s demise means that Massachusetts and the rest of the country have fewer resources to support outdoor places and recreation programs.

The fifty-year old fund collected payments from energy companies for their oil and gas drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf. The royalties paid for $3.9 billion in matching grant funding for recreation areas and parks, according to U.S. Department of the Interior data. They also funded a wide range of other efforts, including grants for forest preservation and conservation projects aimed at protecting endangered species.

That funding stream came to a screeching halt because of inaction in the U.S. House of Representatives. After Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah became chairman of the House’s Natural Resources Committee, he blocked the committee from considering reauthorization of the park fund.

Closer to home, we can still get this outsized project scaled back before shovels are put in the ground.

There’s still time for us to pay attention.