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1,700 acres worth protecting

FITCHBURG – No one denies the positive impact preserving about 1,700 acres of land in Fitchburg’s northern watershed area would have on the city’s drinking-water supply.

But Ken Brown, an Ashby resident, said the state’s proposal to purchase a conservation restriction on the densely wooded area and open it up for recreational use needs to be done thoughtfully.

“I’m worried about providing access in a responsible way,” he said. “In a way that makes sense that isn’t going to stress the land.”

Brown said the Fitchburg Reservoir, located in Ashby, is one of only a handful of locations in the state that provide a nesting habitat for a pair of loons.

As part of the state’s purchasing of a conservation restriction, the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife would permanently protect the city-owned land from development.

It would also provide public access to the land for non-motorized recreational use, such as hunting, fishing, bird watching and hiking.

Brown, a hunter himself, said he wants public access to the land.

He just wants to make sure it’s not damaging the loons, or any of the other habitats in the area.

Mayor Lisa Wong said how much land is restricted, how much recreational use would be allowed and where, is all being considered and negotiated between the state and city.

“The exact details still have to be looked at,” she said this week.

Janet Morrison, executive director of the North County Land Trust, said she’s also concerned about the impact recreational use could have on the land.

She wants some studies to be done by professional environmentalists to give recommendations on what recreation should be allowed and where.

“These are special types of habitats, we should know more about it,” she said.

Quite inspiring

The land in question varies in topography and wildlife. On a tour Morrison gave to a Sentinel & Enterprise reporter and photographer on Thursday, you could see Mount Wachusett when standing on top of the high fields of Brown’s Hill.

Large expansive fields are surrounded by stone walls leading into more wooded areas.

Some parts of the land are heavily wooded with some trails meandering through. But if no one speaks, the only sounds are distant wildlife.

Other parts of the land house the city’s reservoirs. Scott Reservoir is just three miles from the city’s downtown, but feels like it is in a backcountry.

Ducks and geese fly and swim along the waters edge at the Fitchburg Reservoir The small island where loons nest can be seen just off in the distance.

Some houses surround the land, which is owned by Fitchburg’s Water Department, but for the most part it is remote.

“It’s a unique landscape here,” Morrison said. “It’s really quite inspiring.”

Morrison said restricting the land and preventing development will permanently protect the city’s drinking-water supply.

“You’re protecting land that draws into the source you’re drawing from,” she said.

Al Futterman, the Nashua River Watershed Association’s land programs director, said the organization supports the conservation restriction because it would protect the water quality.

“The less development the better, and one sure way to guarantee no development is a permanent conservation restriction. It’s almost a no brainer,” he said.

While the land may not be economically feasible for development now, one day in the future it could be.

Brandon Kibbe, central district land agent for the division of Fisheries and Wildlife, has a two-fold goal for protecting the land.

Conserving it from development is one part, the other part is opening it up for public use, he said at a public hearing on the issue earlier this month.

Already when walking through the wooded areas and along the reservoirs numerous, a visitor can see discarded beer cans.

Brown, the Ashby resident, said he’s seen tires, furniture and even a hot tub discarded on the side of the road and on the city-owned land.

Morrison said with increased recreational use there may be increased garbage, but there would also be more people who would be willing to pick up the trash.

“It has a tendency to be maintained,” she said. “People do go around and pick things up. The people interested in this place would respect it.”

Creating a buffer zone

Brown said he thinks a buffer zone needs to be installed to restrict recreational access close to the water areas.

He said the roads, including Piper Road and Rindge Road, could act as a good parameter of where recreational use is allowed.

City and state officials maintained that any recreational use would be passive and non motorized at the public hearing. ATVs, snowmobiles and power boats would not be allowed, Morrison said.

Thomas Kyker-Snowman, environmental analyst in the natural resource section of the Department of Conservation and Recreation, helps to manage the Quabbin Reservoir, where Boston residents get there drinking-water supply.

Officials at Quabbin allow limited recreational use on the land. For example, hiking is allowed but not mountain biking. Fishing is allowed, but no swimming.

“There’s a certain amount of regulatory oversight to ensure we take care these things,” he said. “What we do is a lot of pre-planning.”

He said an entire team manages recreational use at the 60,000-acre site with 419 billion gallons of water. A combination of state officials, land and sporting activists all come together to create rules about recreational use.

He said Quabbin has buffer zones where recreational use is not allowed.

“If we allow too much to go on too close to the intakes then we run a risk,” he said.

He said even with the restrictions the park has had problems with public urination, garbage and swimmers.

City Planning Coordinator David Streb said if the city opens the land up to recreational use, it must guard the land to ensure residents are following the predetermined recreational rules.

“I think it’s important that along with land protection that the Water Department has sufficient personnel to police this if we’re going to be allowing public access,” he said.

Denis Meunier, Department of Public Works Commissioner, said the city already has one full-time reservoir guard.

He said he would like to see more guards hired, but is unsure if there’s enough money for that.

Instead, the city may be able to form a citizens volunteer group that would be able to monitor the area and pick up trash. Similar organizations are in place for Coggshall Park, he said.

A wind turbine?

Streb, the planning coordinator, wants some language negotiated into the conservation restriction that may one day allow wind usage on the site.

He admits that today there are no sites with enough wind and in the appropriate locations to install a turbine. But he said that could change as the wind turbines technology improves.

“I don’t think we want to prevent the ability of the city to do that for all time,” he said.

He said he’s thinking of it for the next generation or two.

But Morrison said she doesn’t support the wind-turbine proposal.

She said installing a turbine would require the land to be ripped up to run power lines to wherever the power would be used.

“Would it be worth it?” she said. “Personally I’d like to see it off the table.”

She said it will be up to the city’s negotiating team to decide if it will be allowed.

Wong said this week she doesn’t expect any final decisions to be made at least for a few months on the issue as state and city officials continue to deliberate and negotiate.

Lisa Capone, spokesperson for the state Fish and Wildlife division, said nothing has been finalized.

“It is still too early on in the process to talk in detail,” she said. “In general issues related to recreational use are those that would be hammered out in the negotiations of the conservation restriction, but our top priority would be safeguarding the water supply.”

By Brandon Butler

Sentinel & Enterprise

13 April 2008