Less than 20 minutes from Bostonís financial district, a 10-minute drive from the superstores of Route 1, is a place where coyotes have their dens and salamanders hatch in vernal pools. Bisected by Route 93, surrounded by cities and towns, the Middlesex Fells Reservation is 2,060 acres of wilderness in the middle of a densely settled urban area.
"I am within walking distance of a 2,060 acre natural playground," said Mike Ryan, a board member of Friends of the Fells, a private organization that works to protect the reservation. "Within the Fells there is so much variety — rocky areas, plateaus with panoramic vistas, quiet ponds, vernal pools, a skyline trail. It is a place for me to get back to a sense of peace, quiet, and the natural world."
Because the proposed Stoneham Executive Center would lie within the Fells and require taking fells lands for traffic improvements, the proposal drew quick attention from people like Ryan.
Last year, The Gutierrez Co. proposed a 914,000 square-foot office park on the site of the former Boston Regional Medical Center, a site which is private land but is completely surrounded by the reservation and its parkways.
The state rejected that plan, but Gutierrez is back with a very similar proposal which the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs must approve before the SEC can move ahead.
Private citizens sent over 230 letters protesting the development to the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs: most of the letters cited the possible impact on the Fells.
"I think people love living in this area," Ryan said. "I have had the pleasure of reading some of the letters, and many of the sentiments they expressed were similar: love of the Fells, how incomparable it is to other places."
The Middlesex Fells Reservation is a place of paradoxes. It is wilderness, yet it has been heavily tampered with over the years — both before and after it became a park. It is home to 10 rare and endangered species of plants and animals, yet it is cut through by busy streets. It is a place where deer slink silently away from human intruders, but return later to lick salt from the road.
For commuters returning home from Boston, it is a green belt that forms a natural gateway to Melrose, making the city seem much more than seven miles from the cares and concrete of the city.
But the fells serves as an animals highway, part of a green corridor that is slowly being lost to urbanization.
The reservation was founded in the 19th century to serve two distinct needs: To protect the water supply for the surrounding towns and to provide the inhabitants of those towns with a quiet place to enjoy nature. Over the years the reservation, which its founders envisioned as an oasis from the hubbub of the city, has faced encroachment from different sides, and today its very popularity is both a threat to its survival and the key to its salvation: While the increase in recreational use of the Fells threatens the wildlife that live there, the reservation has always had a solid group of supporters who have fought to preserve it from further development.
Another conflict is in the offing: The MWRA needs to build a covered reservoir near Spot Pond. The site of the Stoneham Executive Center would be an ideal location for the reservoir; "It is the only environmentally neutral site," Ryan said. The remaining locations are all within the reservation, meaning that the reservoir would destroy the habitat above and around it.
"Fells" is an old English word for rocks, and it is a good description of the reservation, which consists mainly of ledge covered with a thin layer of soil. Bare rocks break through in the highlands, while swamps have formed in the low-lying areas.
"Itís a typical New England oak-hickory forest," said Bob Steeper, a biologist at Bunker Hill Community College. "I havenít found anything that is super endangered, except there are vernal pools that provide a breeding habitat for salamanders and frogs." In some of those pools, Steeper has found a rare crustacean, the fairy shrimp.
Adele Dean, who organized the Biodiversity Day activities at the Fells this year, listed 10 rare or endangered species of plants and animals that have been spotted on the reservation.
In fact, the area seems to be getting less diverse. In 1894, when the reservation was created, a plant survey showed 422 different species growing on the land. A second study, done between 1990 and 1993, showed only 324 species, a drop of 38 percent. Some of the species may have disappeared because of natural changes. Much of the Fells was originally farmland, and as forest took over, the trees may have shaded out some sun-loving plants. But the researchers who did the study pointed to development and recreation as major culprits.
The trails that bring hikers into close contact with the woods also increase air circulation, which makes the area drier, and the hikers themselves may trample on plants or carry them away.
The busy roads that surround and cut through the park may prevent animals from dispersing seeds, and development of nearby land may mean that plants within the reservation may not get the pollen they need to reproduce.
The situation with animals is more fluid. In 1999, a professional tracker, David Brown, found signs of 17 different mammals, from eastern coyotes to chipmunks, in the Fells. Some were relatively new: coyotes, fishers, and white-tailed deer were not seen in the Fells before 1994. On the other hand, three other species that he expected to see, red squirrels, porcupines, and cottontail rabbits, were nowhere in evidence.
Brown speculated that these animals were missing because one of the routes that they take to the park, from the Lynn Woods to Breakheart Reservation, through Mount Hood and Pine Banks to the Fells, is being broken up by development. Animals can cross some developed areas, especially at night, but when more homes and roads are built, these natural areas become isolated.
Ironically, Interstate 93, which cuts the park in half, serves as another route for wildlife. Animals travel to along its grassy borders, protected from humans and predators by fences and shrubs, snacking on small rodents they find in the undergrowth.
The Fells also serves as an important rest stop for migrating birds as they fly through the city, Steeper pointed out.
Maintaining a number of species is important, because it keeps the entire ecosystem in balance, Dean said. "Everything is delicately balanced," she said. "If you remove one thing, you have a domino effect. When you chop an area into little pieces, the largest creatures canít meet their needs and they die out. Youíre left with the gray squirrels, the pigeons, the raccoons — the weed species that have learned to live with people on what we left them."
Although it seems like a natural area, the Fells is anything but. Early European settlers used it as a giant wood lot, which provided timber not only for the local farmers but also for George Washingtonís army. In the nineteenth century, Spot Pond provided not only the water supply for Malden, Melrose, and Stoneham, but also ice that was shipped around the world. Farmers had fields, orchards, even a piggery in the Fells, and the trees of Virginia Woods hide the remnants of a nineteenth-century rubber mill.
In the mid-19th century, the parks movement coincided with the need for a steady water supply for the growing towns around the area. Spot Pond, which was first considered as a water source in 1825, was surrounded by private lands, which threatened the purity of the water. Thus the Fells Reservation met two needs: It provided recreation in a natural setting and protection for the pond, which became part of the metropolitan water system in 1898. The first donation to the Trustees of Public Reservations was Virginia Wood. " It was the first land trust in the world, " Ryan said, and it became a model for similar donations throughout the country and in England.
Friends of the Fells sees its mission as protecting the reservation, Ryan said. Itís a mission he takes seriously because he has seen the alternative. "When I was younger, I lived on the Olympic Peninsula with my grandmother, who had a small farm," he said. "I love the Pacific Northwest. I was gone for 15 years, and when I went back I was shocked to see what had happened there. The urban sprawl had completely erased all the distinctions between the small towns I knew when I was there. I realized then how precious New England is — especially this green space."