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Mass. DCR Keeps People Away from a Deserted Ski Trail

The home page of Massachusetts Dept. of Conservation and Recreation flashes scenic pictures proclaiming “It’s Your Nature.”

That is, unless it’s Mount Wachusett. The mountain dominates the central Massachusetts landscape, and is public land, administered by the state DCR. But since 1962, the Crowley family has been merrily carving up the east side of the mountain for their ski area. What started out as a small family-run ski lift, has mushroomed into a major scar with state-of-the-art lifts going all the way to the summit.

Crying poverty as they laugh all the way to the bank, the Crowleys have justified each expansion on the grounds that they’re necessary for them to stay in business. Instead of looking out for the public’s interest, the DCR seems more interested in accommodating the ski area.

The sign pictured above is at the summit, at the off-ramp to one of the ski lifts. It puts the authority of the DCR to keep hikers off the ski trails, with a touching concern for the fragile watershed.

This is a place that has clear-cut one side of a mountain; has tons of maintenance equipment riding up and down those slopes; pours on millions of gallons of water to make their snow; a huge lodge to accommodate the thousands of skiers who go there annually; they cleared land for overflow parking areas.

Think of all the fuels, fluids, solvents, and sewage that the place generates, where seepage and spills are inevitable. Where is the concern?

There is a citizen advisory council, ostensibly a forum for public input on matters concerning the mountain.
But, in 2007 when the ski area and DCR agreed to a new 30-year lease, the negotiations were done in secret, and the advisory council didn’t hear about it until it was a done deal. The new lease included re-drawing the boundaries of the ski area. It seems the boundaries were never clearly surveyed and mapped out, and in that time the ski area had expanded outside its original limits.

The ski area generously offered to draw up new maps and the areas that had been in violation were – unsurprisingly – up within the ski area’s new boundaries.

So how much does this multi-million dollar business pay to the state each year in return for this lease?

That’s not an easy question to answer. It doesn’t show up anywhere in a cursory search on the internet. I won’t claim it as a thorough search at this point, but if anyone knows where I should look, let me know. I’m going to keep looking, and I’ll post that information as soon as I find out.

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Some things never change.

The Conservation Law Foundation filed suit this week “alleging” (don’t you love it?) that the Salem Harbor Power Station continues to violate the standards of the Clean Air Act. So what else is new?

Located in Salem, Mass., the plant was built in 1951, and burns both coal and oil to generate electricity.

Today, it holds the distinction of being one of the two dirtiest power plants in the state. It’s been an ongoing campaign by various organizations to get them to clean up their act or close down.

It’s been a case of promises made, and promises broken.

Dominion, the current owners, took over in 2005 with promises to comply with clean air regulations. CLF’s lawsuit alleges they have repeatedly failed to do so.

CLF has had success in the past, let’s hope they prevail again.

Parts of the trail are getting overgrown

Mount Wachusett in Princeton, Massachusetts, is crisscrossed with a web of trails, but only one goes up the west side, hence the name West Side Trail. It’s neither the shortest nor the most scenic, but it’s well worth the hour-long trek to the summit.

There’s a small parking area at the trailhead on West Princeton Road, a mile north of the junction with Westminster Road. The trail is well-traveled, but not well-marked. There are some long gaps between blazes, and in some places old trails and blazes can cause some confusion. It also hasn’t been maintained recently, and parts of it, particularly the lower section, are becoming overgrown, obscuring the trail.

The west side of the mountain is the more rugged, with ledges and interesting rock falls that form sheltered overhangs and small caves. I’ve read that the first humans in the area – predating the known Native Americans – were primitive hunter-gatherers. Not much is known about them, they had few tools, built no structures, at least not permanent structures, and apparently lived in just these kinds of places.

Looking at them now, it’s not difficult to imagine.

Near the summit, the trail flattens out, and the first of the wild blueberries are ripening.

The view from the summit is spectacular, but the summit itself is one huge parking lot. There used to be a summit house there when I was younger, but it burned down. There used to be picnicking areas, too, but they seemed to be gone.

There are plans to “improve” the summit. It’ll be interesting to see what they do with it.

Wherever people go, they leave stuff behind – old tires, derelict bicycles, bottles. Usually I just shake my head and think low thoughts about the kind of people who dump stuff wherever it suits them.

Not Brandon Nastanski. The 32-year-old Boston artist is in the habit of walking around the sprawling Franklin Park. No shortage of junk there. But instead of shaking his head, he sees art. Over the last two years, he’s gathered up all kinds of stuff he’s found and built a shelter in one of the more remote sections of the park.

A picture of Henry David Thoreau (who else?) hangs at the entrance.

He calls it the “Unofficial Franklin Park Research Outpost.”

Enter the city’s park department. He doesn’t have the proper permit. It has to come down. The fact that it’s an art installation, albeit unofficial; that people who know about it like it and praise it cuts no ice with the city.

Luckily, the destruction may not happen anytime soon. The department doesn’t have the manpower or the money to do the dirty deed.

For his part, the artist is taking it all philosophically, with no apparent hard feelings. You can read more in this Boston Globe article.

Charles Baker, the Republican candidate for governor in Massachusetts, has decided to skip an environmental forum in favor of doing what Republicans do best: raising money.

A coalition of environmental groups have organized this forum so that the candidates for governor will have a chance to explain their views on environmental issues. Gov. Deval Patrick and Green Party candidate Jill Stein will be attending the June 29 event. Baker and Independent candidate state Treasurer Timothy Cahill have sent their regrets.

Cahill says he will be in California raising money, which raises other interesting questions. Doesn’t anyone in Massachusetts support him? But then, Mitt Romney got most of his campaign funding from out-of-state so maybe Cahill’s onto something.

The organizers really wanted Baker to take part. His claims to fame include being a health insurance executive who presided over huge cost increases, and he was a major figure in the notorious Big Dig project/debacle that took a decade longer than expected to complete and had cost overruns in the billions of dollars. Do we see a pattern here?

Not a lot is known about Baker and the environment, other than he doesn’t want to talk about it. He opposes the Cape Wind project. No surprise there. Maybe he’s afraid it will ruin the sailing for him and his friend Tony Hayward, all those nasty wind turbines getting in the way. Who would want those when you could have oil gushing out instead?

In fact, Baker is so averse to discussing the environment that when the organizers said they would hold the forum on any date that was convenient for him, he said he was too busy to meet at any time between now and November.

My first full day of summer vacation, and what better way to start it than to go strawberry picking?

So, bright an early this morning, bucket in hand, I headed out to one of favorite pick-your-own fields. These places are something of a treat for me. For years I’ve thought about putting in my own strawberry bed, a few blueberry bushes, but … you guessed it. I just haven’t gotten around to it.

Picking berries is a delight all its own, and it dates way back to my earliest memories. There’s something about the quiet, methodical movement of pushing back the leaves, looking for the fruit that’s just the right shade of red. Not overripe, or underripe, but just perfect. And there’s the satisfaction of the gentle thunk as the fruit drops into the bucket, the satisfaction of watching as it gradually fllls up.

This year it looks like it’s going to be a real bumper crop. My bucket was full in less than 20 minutes. It was a little disappointing to be done so soon. But I’ll be back.The season’s just getting started. And besides, it got me home in time to watch the US-Slovenia World Cup game.

It hasn’t received a lot of publicity, but there’s a huge relocation of all species of wildlife from a part of the Thames estuary near London. Tens of thousands of birds, newts, voles, snakes are being trapped and moved to new habitats, all to make way for a giant new container port.

Nothing on this scale has been attempted anywhere in the world, and so the question is, will it work? That, of course, remains to be seen.

The economic argument is that the project, known as London Gateway, is being funded by DP, previously known as Dubai Port (note the resemblance to the former British Petroleum becoming the more anonymous BP), and will provide a much-needed economic boost. And it’s being built on derelict land that nature has gradually reclaimed.

To answer the environmental concerns, DP is footing the bill to give each creature a new home. It could be worse. They could probably have gotten the go-ahead for the project without that. After all, they’re dangling thousands of jobs and billions in revenue in an area that sorely needs both. What’ a few newts here and there?

Apart from the principle of the thing, relocating some wildlife to man-made habitats has a poor track record. Then there are those that are being relocated to existing wildlife sanctuaries and conservation areas. Upsetting the existing ecological balance doesn’t seem like an exceptionally good idea either.

What worries me is what kind of precedent is being set? Here in Massachusetts we already have a few dubious practices that “legitimize” a developer’s disruption of habitats. Setting aside green buffers, some-small scale relocations, even modest donations to the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program can smooth the way for a major development.

Do we want to open the door to large-scale relocations every time some developer shows up with a grandiose plan? I don’t think so.

There’s an article the UK’s paper The Independent has more info on the Thames project. You should be able to link from here.

The Swamp's Newest Resident

I went for a walk through the swamp down below my house the other day. It was the first time in quite a while. It’s been a busy time, and I haven’t had much chance for walking, nature study, or writing.

I couldn’t get over how lush the vegetation was. Greenery in every conceivable shade surrounded me. The trees and shrubs were full of birds in full song. Deer tracks led down to the side of the pond. It was full of life, and I felt better just standing there, taking it all in.

I noticed a moving ripple on the surface of the pond. At first I thought it might be one of the beavers. I could just make out a small nose poking through the surface of the water. It was headed toward a small cove at the mouth of a brook. The trail I was on led to the same spot, and so I went quietly along.

I stood a few feet back, waiting, and sure enough it rounded the end of a log and headed straight for the cove. It was too small for a beaver. Then it got to the really shallow water, and I could see it was a muskrat. The first I’d ever seen in the swamp.

I decided to try to get a good picture. But, I’m still clumsy with the camera, and my movements were too abrupt. I was only able to get this one shot, which wasn’t bad, but I should have set the lighting better. I also could have take more time, watched it for a longer time. Enjoyed his presence. Instead, I spooked him. In all the rushing around of the past few weeks, I’ve lost the art of patience.

Not a total loss. I walked home feeling energized, determined not to let myself get unfocused again, and keep the really important things where they belong.

A bill now before the Massachusetts House would step up enforcement against illegal Off-Highway Vehicle use on public and private lands. It’s about time.

I should say at the outset that I’m no fan of SUVs, OHVs, ATVs, snowmobiles, dirt bikes or anything else that wantonly tears through the landscape. That being said, they’re legal in designated places and that’s where they should stay.

Therein lies the problem.

Too many of these riders think they can go wherever they want. Up to now, legal or not, there hasn’t been much to stop them. They ignore conservation area signs prohibiting riding, in some cases cutting trees and brush that are in their way. As a result, they often go crashing through sensitive areas that have been set aside for wildlife, causing damage to ecosystems that may never recover.

The bill stiffens the fines for illegal riding and increases funding for enforcement. It also includes funding for developing areas where OHV riding would be permitted.

Bee colony collapse, a mysterious disorder that suddenly destroys otherwise healthy hives, continues to plague the beekeeping industry. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture figures released earlier this spring show that 34 percent of managed hives were lost this past year, up from 29 percent the previous year.

Maybe because there’s so much news these days, and so little time for it, this hasn’t attracted a lot of attention in the media. The implications, however, are that our food source is threatened. Farmers rely on bee colonies to pollinate their crops, maybe 75 percent of all the food we eat.

No bees. No food. Simple as that.

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