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Monday, January 16, 2017

Some walking trails to end under controversial policy

Some walking trails to end under controversial policy

The state Division of Fisheries & Wildlife has implemented a controversial policy that some fear will have the effect of closing local walking trails that cross onto its lands.

The board of directors of the Westboro-based DFW unanimously approved the Walking Trails policy at its meeting in August without any public input, and has since slowly disseminated the complex rule only to a handful of organizations whose trails are affected.

According to the policy, only six major trails in the state will be considered for license agreements - which include analysis and surveys, as well as liability insurance - to be allowed to continue to mark, improve and maintain sections that cross onto Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs).

The entirety, or portions of some of the other countless number of trails that local volunteers, trails committees, land trusts and others have developed and/or maintained over the years that go onto WMAs, will be discontinued.

Bill Davis, longtime manager of MassWildlife's Central District, which comprises Worcester County, said people will be required to stop maintaining local trails that are on WMAs and let nature reclaim them with new growth.

"We're asking the folks that made the trails to simply abandon them and let them revert to their natural condition for the benefit of wildlife and take them off maps and websites," he said.
The purpose of the policy, Mr. Davis said, is to allow MassWildlife to get back to its statutory mandates: the biological protection and management of wildlife and rare species, and managing and providing opportunities for hunting, fishing, trapping and bird-watching. The impetus, he said, is seeing wild lands being fragmented by unauthorized trails and resulting changes to the wildlife habitat. MassWildlife officials said there are instances where unauthorized trails have been cut through rare plant communities, crushing and destroying them. Trails have also been cut through rare snake basking or nursery habitat, leading to them being captured or killed. Bridges and other crossing structures placed on streams or in wetlands alter water flow, affecting water quality and aquatic life.

"We're seeing challenges on our properties with various interest groups taking advantage of our properties. We're excluding no one from the property. We're just trying to protect the habitat values on the property," said Mr. Davis. "If people want to picnic, take their dog for a romp, we recommend they do that on town properties and at state parks."

Several requests by the Telegram & Gazette during the past two weeks to interview MassWildlife Director Jack Buckley, Fish and Game Commissioner George Peterson or Matthew A. Beaton, secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, which oversees DFW and Fish and Game, were denied by EEA Spokeswoman Katie Gronendyke. The agency also has not yet provided information requested in a Dec. 19 public records request. In the records request, the T&G was seeking copies of two draft trails policies that were considered, a review from district managers of what trails exist on Fisheries & Wildlife land and WMAs, results of a survey of Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife agencies regarding land use issues, a review of trails' impacts on wildlife from the Wildlife Section, and a list of senior staff that agreed on the policy.

Mr. Buckley, however, agreed to answer questions after a reporter attended the board's monthly meeting on Wednesday.

He said the policy has been discussed for about two years because Mr. Davis and the other four district managers have been having problems with unauthorized trails being developed on WMAs and unauthorized work being done on trails. Mr. Buckley and Marion E. Larson, MassWildlife's information and education chief, who was also at the impromptu interview, said some stewards of the six major trails knew the policy was coming. They said the policy creates a consistent way in which to work with people who manage trails that go onto WMAs.

"It's not like we're saying, 'As of the end of August, nobody can go onto our property.' It was to set a boundary on how we would deal with those people," Mr. Buckley said.


He said a public hearing was not required before implementation of a policy, which provides guidance both to the agency and the public on a given activity. Public hearings are required for regulatory changes, which have the force of a law.

But several people involved with local trails said they were surprised to learn of the policy and wish they could have been able to give input. They also question why it has taken DFW months before beginning to notify them. DFW does post notices of its meetings on its website. Ms. Gronendyke, the EEA spokeswoman, said local groups will be notified in coming weeks of the policy implemented in August.

Mr. Buckley said he informed the board at its June meeting that a policy was being drafted. A presentation on the proposal was given at the meeting in July and again in August when it was voted unanimously.

"I feel perfectly comfortable with the way we did it," said Mr. Buckley. But there are local critics.
Northboro Town Planner Kathryn A. Joubert, who also serves as staff liaison to the Northboro Trails Committee, said she was surprised when she heard about the new policy.

"We don't know how this was arrived at. I think all towns would have wished they could have participated in the discussions to find out exactly why this is happening," she said.

Officials in Northboro, which has an extensive trails system that goes onto MassWildlife lands, found out about the policy a few weeks ago, when Mr. Davis denied the local trails committee's request to be allowed to upgrade footbridges on some trails. The committee or local Boy Scouts had been authorized by MassWildlife to build the bridges. Mr. Davis said such bridges will not be maintained but will likely be grandfathered for their life.

"Then they contacted us and notified us of this new trails policy they adopted in late summer," said Ms. Joubert. "The policy affects a significant number of trails in our town. I think it's going to affect any town that has land that is owned and managed by Fisheries & Wildlife."

Ms. Joubert said the policy will also affect portions of a 30-mile Boroughs Trail that advocates in Northboro, Westboro, Marlboro and Southboro are working on. She said the local Trails Committee plans to meet this week to discuss the impact of the policy.

Mr. Davis, however, has already made it clear in a letter to Robert M. Mihaleck, chair of the Northboro Trails Committee, that no license agreements will be granted for local trails on the MacCallum WMA in Northboro and Westboro. Mr. Davis also directed Mr. Mihaleck to remove the trails depicted on the WMA lands on Mount Pisgah from maps and websites "and abandon any marking or maintenance of trails on state property...;"

Ms. Joubert said the town owns about 200 acres on Mount Pisgah and MassWildlife owns 107.5 acres south of the town's parcels. Hikers and other users of the trails park off Smith Road and hike through trails on the town's land to reach trails that go onto the state property. She said some of the trails on Mount Pisgah began as cart paths more than 100 years ago. The town maintained and named them.
Dana Perry, a former Scoutmaster in Westboro, said he understands the need for the policy. He said his older son coordinated with Mr. Davis with MassWildlife during an Eagle Scout project several years ago to build a footbridge on a trail that crossed onto a WMA. He said he was not surprised to learn from Mr. Davis about the problems caused by renegade trails.

"I fully understand what they're trying to do. It's not to keep people from using these areas. The intention is to make sure to uphold" MassWildlife's statutory mandate, Mr. Perry said. "From my perspective, they're doing their jobs."

Philip Keyes, executive director of the New England Mountain Bike Association, said it would be nice if MassWildlife allowed a broader use of its open space rather than just limit it to wildlife-related activity. One of the key missions of NEMBA is to steward and take care of public trails. He said people don't realize that when their tax dollars are used to preserve open space, in some cases, public access is limited.

Mr. Keyes called the new policy "unfortunate and somewhat shortsighted."

"The bigger issue is the impact this policy is going to have on everyone who enjoys open space. It's amazing how many people are not aware of this," he said.


MassWildlife owns about 208,000 acres throughout the state, most of which are WMAs that conserve wildlife habitat and provide wildlife-related recreation. About 37,200 acres of WMAs are located in Worcester County. The majority of funding for land acquisitions is provided by environmental bonds. The remainder comes from a $5 Wildlands Stamp fee that is added to each hunting, fishing and trapping license. Since its inception in 1992, this fee has generated $30 million to acquire 30,000 acres of wildlife land. In fiscal 2016, the agency acquired nearly 2,000 acres of wildlife habitat for $4.9 million. The acquisition included 400 acres that were donated.

Mr. Buckley said hikers and bikers are encouraged to continue using MassWildlife property as long as it stays in its natural state and wildlife is not affected.

"They can cross our property, but we don't want a lot of spur trails on our property ... building pathways ... cutting down trees," he said. Ms. Larson said the agency will ask that some of the spur trails be closed.

She said the agency will work with communities on a case-by-case basis, but there is a way for hikers who are trying to get from one side of some local trails that cross onto WMA property to continue onto the other side of local trails.

"What we're suggesting in many cases is that they use some informal roads and cart paths we maintain for managing the property," she said "... redirect people to the parts of lands we're maintaining instead of cutting new trails."

The only six existing major trails that MassWildlife said it will work to try to get license agreements for are Bay Circuit Trail, Wapack Trail, New England National Scenic Trail, Robert Frost Trail, Mid-State Trail and Tully Trail. Mr. Davis said those trails were selected to maintain connectivity to a lot of conservation land in several communities.

The latter two, the 22-mile Tully Trail and the 95-mile Mid-State Trail, run through Central Massachusetts. Mr. Davis said MassWildlife is working with North Quabbin Trails Association, the steward of Tully Trail, to try to come up with a license agreement for the portion of the trail that crosses the Fish Brook Wildlife Management Area in Royalston. That license would be used as a guide when they subsequently work with proponents of Mid-State Trail.

Bobby Curley of Athol, president of the Orange-based NQTA, said the 200-plus member group was formed in 2012 with the specific goal of connecting a 250-mile pre-existing Quabbin-Monadnock Trail to Tully. Because about 20 miles of the trail is on MassWildlife land, he and others spent two years getting easements signed by private land owners. The group has also been waiting two years to get permission from MassWildlife to reroute a two-mile part of Tully Trail from a dangerous roadway less than 100 yards into the woods onto neighboring MassWildlife land. They were told two years ago that they would have to wait until after the development of a trail policy, which was expected in a few months.

Mr. Curley said he and Allen Young, a NQTA consultant, found out the policy had been implemented a few days before Mr. Beaton, the EEA secretary, and state Sen. Anne M. Gobi, D-Spencer, came out to discuss their two concerns while they hiked Tully Trail on Oct. 24. Ms. Gobi was co-chair of the Joint Committee on Environmental, Natural Resources and Agriculture. She did not return several telephone calls seeking comment.

Mr. Curley said that in early November he and Mr. Young met with MassWildlife officials at the Belchertown office to review the policy. The state has had license agreements for Tully and Mid-State, but nothing to the extent that is required. The license for Tully was revoked in 2014, when NQTA did more trail clearing in an area along Millers River than was authorized by MassWildlife. The group was required to replant the area with native vegetation, paint over trail blazes and remove trails that crossed over MassWildlife lands from printed maps and websites.

"The reauthorization we're going through right now is extremely, extremely complex," said Mr. Curley. "It took four of us sitting around a table over half an hour just to figure out how to start the paperwork and I'm very versed in doing this. We have three successful recreational trail grants."
He said that MassWildlife should have asked for input from the public and trails groups even if a public hearing was not required.

"This goes back to their rattlesnake issue of lack of transparency," Mr. Curley said, referring to the uproar from some people after learning that Fisheries & Wildlife planned to establish a timber rattlesnake colony on Mount Zion at Quabbin Reservoir. The agency has since set up a working group to review all aspects of the rattlesnake plan.

"I don't understand why there couldn't have been a public discussion, as a public courtesy. Look at how many trail groups ... hikers they're affecting," Mr. Curley continued.

As "cumbersome and technically overwhelming" as it appears to try to get the new license agreement, Mr. Curley said he is determined to do it. Once that happens, he said NQTA will try to help other groups to continue to have access to public lands.

But Mr. Buckley, the MassWildlife director, said the agency is willing to work with trail groups.

"We're not trying to put unrealistic requirements out that will shut them down," he said.

Mr. Curley said the Tully Trail is an economic driver in the area. In 2016, more than 132,000 people visited the area to hike the trail, generating $2.1 million in local revenue, according to the North Quabbin Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau. Most of the hikers were from New England, New York, Pennsylvania and Ontario and Quebec.

"This trail brings viability to an undeveloped area that needs it," Mr. Curley continued. The 59-year-old former member of military special forces is an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker who has served as a photographer and consultant for the popular Maine to Georgia trail. "I've seen what benefits hiking on the Appalachian Trail brings. The amount of revenue is stunning."


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