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The lure of the land

What a difference 770 feet makes. By the end of next month, people will once again be able to climb that much in altitude and visit the Summit House on Mount Holyoke. They can drive or walk up from Hockanum Road in Hadley and drink in the panoramic views of the Connecticut River, the Holyoke Range and dozens of cities and downs.

It will be special joy, because the historic former hotel has been off-limits for three years, since an inspector found structural problems with the 19th-century structure’s porch.

The state Department of Conservation and Recreation has invested nearly $1 million to restore this landmark property for public use. The work ran into several problems, pushing up its costs and delaying completion.

As the Summit House reopens, this is a good time to consider the natural resources we all own as citizens of Massachusetts. As it carries out repairs at the Summit House, the DCR has also been revising plans for how it manages all of its holdings, a review required by state law. Members of the public were able to comment on the DCR’s goals, laid out in a 120-page document on the agency’s website.

In a story March 16, Gazette reporter Dan Crowley identified some of the top projects under way or still ahead for the DCR’s western Massachusetts parks.

One job that’s likely to see heavy use is a new playground at the Mount Tom State Park Reservation. This new facility, on Elder Field near the park’s visitor center, was designed to blend in with the surrounding landscape by using natural materials and even some created to look natural.

Getting outside with friends and family is good for all of us. The DCR plan keeps a focus on recreational opportunities in its holdings, but is looking beyond trails and beaches as custodian of this land and these important assets. The DCR’s roughly 450,000 acres include places and objects from our cultural and natural inheritance. Consider the many archeological sites in the Mount Holyoke Range State Park, or the Robert S. Cole museum and the Eyrie House ruins on Mount Tom. Add to that buildings erected by the Works Progess Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, two Depression-era projects that served the common good while giving Americans meaningful work when no other jobs were available.

For certain visitors, pausing to explore these kinds of sites can give recreational trips a meaningful new dimension. They connect us with the region’s past and, in tough financial times for this and all state agencies, build support for the DCR’s mission to safeguard wild places and things.

Further, protected land in the Mount Holyoke and Mount Tom ranges can be ecologically significant. The ranges are home to 52 species of plants and animals that are on the state’s endangered list.

Even as it guides use of its current properties, the DCR is right to be pursuing purchase of land on the Mount Tom Range to extend its holdings on adjoining property. DCR Commissioner Edward M. Lambert Jr. told us his agency is determined to acquire about 270 acres from Holyoke Gas & Electric Co. The utility hoped to erect wind turbines on the land, formerly owned by Springfield Towers LLC and Gormally Broadcasting LLC, but failed to secure federal permits. DCR and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative held options to buy the land if the utility failed to meet set deadlines. Lambert calls the deal “an important acquisition,” adding, “we just need to figure out some of the intricacies of that original agreement.”

Today, as the lower Valley dries out from an old-fashioned winter, snow still clings to hillsides to the west and east. Mud season comes next. But in a few weeks, as summer nears, all of these public lands will lure visitors.

There may be no better place to stand and feel the Valley deliver than the Summit House. But miles of trails, waterholes and dozens of historic treasures beckon too.