The Middlesex Fells is a 2,500 acre nature reserve just north of downtown Boston. Full of trees and rocky outcroppings, it provides a welcome respite to trail runners, hikers, dog walkers, horseback riders, and mountain bikers who want to get outside an play for a few hours. I hike in The Fells several times a week and have been going there for years.
But big changes are afoot in The Fells today. For years, it was largely neglected by the urban Boston population and used primarily by locals from the surrounding towns of Malden, Medford, Stoneham, and Winchester. That changed quite noticeably this year with a large influx of new users, many of them mountain bikers.
While mountain biking has been permitted (or ignored) in the Fells for as long as I can remember, mountain bike use was limited to designated trails that had been hardened with gravel and mineral soil in the park. However, this year mountain bikes were permitted by the park overseer, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) on trails that had previously been reserved for hikers, runners and dog walkers.
The result has been somewhat devastating. The trails that had been formerly limited to pedestrian traffic are suffering from widespread trail erosion and compaction issues, there’s pervasive tree root damage where roots cross the treadway, and a noticeable increase in the number of new “bootleg” trail or short-cuts throughout the park.
Additionally, there is a noticeable increase in the amount of pedestrian – mountain biker animosity in the park, including a war of words between the various organizations that represent park users including The Friends of the Fells (see also Fells Forever.org) who want to ban all mountain biking from The Fells, NEMBA – the New England Mountain Biking Association, and the DCR.
The Case for Mountain Biking in the Fells
Despite the overuse impacts that we’re experiencing in The Fells, I believe that opening up the park to mountain bikers is a good thing.
- The Fells Trail system has been neglected for years with virtually no trail maintenance or development projects. The arrival of mountain bikers heralds the first major investment in maintaining, rerouting, and hardening the trail system by the DCR in years. This is a very welcome change.
- NEMBA has a proven track record of conservation investment in The Fells. They are a very well organized organization with considerable expertise in trail construction and have demonstrated a willingness to mobilize their membership on volunteer trail maintenance projects that benefit the entire Fells community.
- The vast majority of mountain bikers I meet in The Fells are courteous and friendly. As a hiker, I have far more conflicts with unleashed dogs that jump on me, bark at me, and their owners who leave their dog’s feces on the trail and in the woods. If the presence of mountain bikers leads to more leashed dogs in The Fells and more responsible owner behavior, that is a good thing.
- Multi-use trails for hikers, horseback riders, mountain bikers, runners, and dog walkers are commonplace across the United States. Why should The Fells be any different? How do those user group co-exist and protect the outdoor areas they share?
If you walk along the Reservoir Path in The Fells, you can’t help but notice the overuse impacts and erosion of the trail system. This is one of the main pedestrian paths that were opened up to mountain bike use this year.
That said, the Reservoir Path was in no shape to be used as a mountain bike path in the first place. The surface of that trail is largely made from compacted soil and lacks the gravel, cinders, and mineral soil found on the Mountain Bike Loop (Green Trail) that already exists today.
We’d be fooling ourselves if we thought that the overuse damage to the Reservoir Path could be reversed. Trail impacts like this are not reversible. The only option is to move forward and continue the rerouting that the DCR has implemented so far, together with adding more durable gravel and mineral soil to existing trails to make them capable of withstanding heavier usage.
The sooner this happens the better.
Conservation and Education
What is the future of The Fells and how can we make sure that future generations can enjoy it?
I believe that the answer lies in education and not increased regulations, which the DCR has no funding to enforce anyway: the DCR does not have funding to support adequate ranger coverage in The Fells and existing rangers do not have the ability to cite miscreants with mandatory fines.
Education about what? I’ll spell it out:
- The need to stay on trails that have been hardened for heavy traffic. Creating bootleg trails leads to erosion and habitat destruction. If we want to preserve The Fells we want to avoid these impacts.
- The need to dispose of waste properly, including picking up your dog’s poop and carrying out all trash for disposal outside the park.
- The need to respect others’ experience of the park by keeping your dog leashed and under control, not to use your cell phone in the park where it might disturb others’ experience of solitude, and the need to yield to people who want to pass by you on a narrow trail.
- The need to leave the park as it is by not altering the landscape or trees, by not building cairns or painting graffiti on rocks, and by not removing flowers or plants.
These are simple guidelines and most people will adhere to them if they understand why they’re important. But you need to teach them – you can’t just paint them on signs. People need to be shown why they are important.
I can’t emphasize this enough, we need to start a wholescale user education program in The Fells to complement the trail hardening that is underway. That means training trainers who are part of the user communities – bikers, hikers, runners, dog walkers, and horseback riders – that we need to reach. If we employ this method all the users of The Fells can co-exist peacefully and become stewards of The Fells for future generations.
What do you think?