Land stewardship involves careful planning
NORTHAMPTON — Protecting peregrine falcon nesting areas, maintaining trail networks, and repairing deteriorating park infrastructure are among the projects the state Department of Conservation and Recreation has set as top priorities for its vast holdings along the Mount Holyoke and Mount Tom ranges.
The state agency unveiled a broad resource management plan in February, which provides a framework for its short- and long-term stewardship of Mount Holyoke Range State Park, J.A. Skinner State Park, Mount Tom State Reservation and Holyoke Heritage State Park. DCR is taking public comment on the draft plan until March 24. The highly detailed 120-page document is available for review on DCR’s website as well as in public libraries in the area.
“A significant amount of work goes into them,” said DCR Commissioner Edward M. Lambert Jr., of the management plan. The department is required by state law to create such plans. “We want to try to get it right.”
The agency’s wish-list for the properties is sweeping and one of many such plans in the state. It also comes at a time of significant funding constraints and fewer employees in the agency, which oversees 450,000 acres of parks and forests, beaches, bike trails, watersheds, dams and parkways in the commonwealth.
Today, DCR operates on an approximately $74 million budget with 900 full-time and 1,100 seasonal employees, or 30 percent fewer staff positions than it had three or four years ago, according to Lambert.
“That really hinders your ability to get a lot of things done,” he said. “For us, a lot of what’s getting implemented in the management resource plan is low-hanging fruit.”
The Mount Holyoke and Mount Tom ranges are considered to be among the most ecologically significant properties with 52 species of plants and animals on the state’s Endangered Species list, or 12 percent of all state-listed species. The properties cultural resources are also of statewide significance, including buildings constructed by the Works Progress Administration
(WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), two historic summit houses, Native American stone quarries, and sensitive archaeological sites, according to DCR.
The state agency’s draft management plan identifies 44 priority projects to tackle, including 30 over the next five years.
Some projects already under way date back to previous plans, including repairs to the historic Summit House in J.A. Skinner State Park, which is scheduled to re-open this year (see story, page A1). At the Mount Tom State Park Reservation, construction of a new playground at Elder Field near the visitor’s center is under way and expected to be completed this spring. The 4,798-square-foot playground was designed to blend into the landscape and is constructed of wood and other materials manufactured to resemble stone and logs.
On Mount Tom, the state plans to prohibit rock climbing in areas where peregrine falcons are actively nesting, which means closing trail segments immediately above nest sites for the entire nesting season. It also plans to continue managing and monitoring the pale swallow-wort, an invasive plant species that has spread along the reservation, add picnic tables and an accessible grill to the Elder Field pavilion, replace rotted siding on the Robert S. Cole museum and conduct annual safety inspections of the Bray and Goat Peak observation towers, among other projects.
“Almost all of our properties have a variety of challenges,” Lambert said of the spectrum of needs from one range to the next. “Sometimes it’s hard to accommodate every suggestion.”
Along the Mount Holyoke range, DCR is looking to post signs at Lithia Springs Reservoir and Aldrich Lake as closed to swimming. Swimming occurs at both locations, though has only been an approved activity for the former, which is an artificial reservoir.
The state agency also plans to review requirements for trail maintenance or creation for various areas along the Mount Holyoke range, including the Batchelor Street area as well as trail segments between Military Road to the Mount Hitchcock area. Establishing agreements with the Amherst Police Department for the operation and maintenance of its ropes course and agreements with telecommunications companies and the Norwottuck Fish and Game Club regarding access to DCR properties are on the front burner, too.
“We’re currently in the process of reviewing our entire leases and permits program to make sure everything is documented,” said Lambert. “There’s been significant understaffing in the leases and permits program.”
Other priority projects, including infrastructure work, have been identified for Holyoke Heritage State Park.
Among the more long-term goals is work to reverse what DCR refers to as the state’s under appreciated cultural and natural resources in the parks. The state hopes to raise the profile of these resources. Past visitor-use surveys have shown a focus on trail use and scenery, but rarely the natural and cultural resources such as the Eyrie House ruins and Robert S. Cole museum on Mount Tom, or the many archeological sites found in the Mount Holyoke Range State Park, for example.
“These parks are popular destinations for hiking, mountain biking and viewing the scenery; they are not yet destinations because of their outstanding cultural and natural resources,” said S.J. Port, a DCR spokeswoman in an email to the Gazette.
Dan Crowley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.