By Sheri Qualters
Dozens of Friends of the Middlesex Fells Reservation members gathered for the annual meeting last month to learn about the organization’s progress and spend time with old and new friends.
On May 23 at the Malden Public Library, the Friends heard an accounting of the prior year’s accomplishments and finances and were inspired by keynote speaker Eugene B. Benson, a noted conservationist, environmental lawyer and scholar. Benson is currently the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions and an adjunct faculty member of both the Boston University Metropolitan College Graduate Program in City Planning and Urban Affairs and the Boston University School of Public Health.
Treasurer Mike Oliver reported that revenue for the 2016-2017 fiscal year, which ended on April 30, rose by more than 100 percent over the prior year total, even though membership and general donation revenue declined by some 50 percent.
Oliver cited three factors that contributed to the revenue climb: the $100,000 Cummings Foundation grant, increased fee money from additional Forest Kindergarten enrollments, and diverse fundraising efforts. Long-running issues with the organization’s membership database, which were fixed last fall, contributed to the membership revenue dip, he said.
Executive Director Neil O. Anderson spoke briefly about the Friends’ use of Cummings grant funding to expand the Students of the Fells program for middle and high school students and other youth programs.
In his talk, “Protecting the Public Trust: A Role for Friends of Public Lands” Benson made the case that groups committed to preserving public land must focus their efforts on two areas: “inside the lines,” by limiting activity that takes place on the preserved land, and “outside the lines,” by representing the organization’s position on proposed developments beyond a preserve’s borders.
Benson explained that Article 97 of the state’s Constitution, added in 1972, explicitly gives residents the right to “the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic qualities of their environment” and declares the conservation of natural resources a “public purpose.” Although that language is very strong when compared with protections in other states, as a practical matter, Benson said, groups face many challenges when attempting to curtail the development of public lands. The limitations of Article 97, competing interests and lack of funding are a few of the hurdles, he said.
As an example, Benson detailed the circumstances surrounding the 1950’s construction of the part of I-93 that bisects the Fells. A few years later, activists prevented the addition of an inner highway belt that would have disrupted other public lands. Had a group championed keeping the Fells intact, the highway might have been built west of the Fells, Benson argued.
Benson advised the Friends to meet challenges associated with preserving the forest by boosting membership and teaming with allies, like land conservation organizations. He also led a lively brainstorming session by calling on the crowd to offer examples of ways the Friends could “amp up” their power.
The Friends honored seven individuals for their volunteer service to the organization over the past year, including:
- Elizur Wright Award: Brian DeLacey, Lenny Merullo and Bill Ricker
- Wilson Flagg Award: Charles Saulnier, Zachary Maffeo
- Fells Service Award: Rita Balfour
- Friends Service Award: Sheri Qualters
The wood frames—many of which were naturally adorned with lichen—crafted by board vice chair Lindsay Beal and the certificates designed by volunteer Diana Lomakin delighted award recipients.
After the formal program, members chatted and enjoyed refreshments organized by board member Carol McKinley and provided by the board. The spread included customary and creative appetizers (cheese and crackers, hummus, crackers with salmon and even seaweed strips), home-baked desserts and beverages.
It was a night for friends to reconnect and learn how to be better Friends to the Fells.