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People and the Forest

Wednesday, October 30, 2003

by Jesse Gordon

The silver maple forest in the Alewife Reservation is on the agenda for the special Belmont Town Meeting on Nov. 17. But hardly any of the Belmont residents being asked to evaluate the development on the 25-acre site have visited the site. Even fewer have any stake in seeing it remain undeveloped. Under those circumstances, there's sure to be a large-scale development on the site sooner or later.

The President of the Friends of the Alewife Reservation wrote a column last week ("Understanding maple forest," by Ellen Mass, Belmont Citizen-Herald, Oct. 16) describing the natural splendor of the mother trees of the forest. Four expert panelists addressed the Belmont Citizen's Forum event last Monday, showing via pictures and maps the importance of isolated open space to migratory songbirds and other wildlife. (Click here for another article on the same subject.)

Very nice, for people like me who appreciate the needs of trees and birds. But mother trees don't vote, and migratory songbirds don't vote. Only people vote. The proponents of development have made it clear that they will fulfill people's needs: for some tax revenue and for some affordable housing. No one has made it clear how people's needs get fulfilled by stopping development. So the issue becomes: How can we reframe maintaining an undeveloped forest to fulfill people's needs?

Jacques Cousteau addressed this issue at the UN Environment and Development summit in 1992: "To get out into nature is to love nature. And to love nature is to want to protect it." The problem facing those who oppose development of the silver maple forest is that too few people get out into this piece of nature, so too few people want to protect it.

I asked the Citizens' Forum panelists how we might get more people out into the silver maple forest. They suggested one of the biweekly guided tours. Future tours are advertised at www.FriendsOfAlewifeReservation.org - although none are scheduled before the Nov. 17 vote. Most people only have a vague idea where exactly the silver maple forest is - it's off Acorn Park Drive (see map below). You can walk there from the Alewife T station or drive there from the Lake Street exit on Rt. 2.

To go see the silver maple forest, you can follow the signs from the Alewife T station - it's a 10 or 15 minute walk. There are dark-green arrows posted along the route, starting at the passenger pickup point or the Alewife Reservation sign. You walk up the exit ramp of Rt. 2 (there's a sidewalk, and you're walking against traffic), then turn left onto Acorn Park Drive before the Lanes & Games bowling alley, then follow the road around two bends until you see the entrance. It's marked with "Private Property / No Trespassing" signs, but you're free to look in from the road.

The "Private Property" issue should be the main issue of the Town Meeting vote. The counter-proposal should not be "don't develop." The counter-proposal should be "purchase the land from the developer and make it a public park." The parcel purchased could be arranged so that it's partially in Cambridge (Belmont's border is on Acorn Park Drive), so the purchase cost could be shared. In my opinion, an appropriate park would include lunch tables for the many employees in nearby buildings on Acorn Park Drive, and some outdoor grills that people might use for weekend barbecues. Those would require only an acre and leave the other 24 acres undeveloped, and there are no comparable facilities anywhere nearby. The details of the park don't matter - what matters is that people use the forest so they have a stake in protecting it.

If people were currently using the silver maple forest for park purposes, there would be stakeholders opposed to its further development. If development does occur on the site, we should encourage the construction of park facilities on the remaining undeveloped area. And we should apply the idea of developing stakeholders in other undeveloped parcels that we want to protect.

Jesse Gordon is an environmental policy analyst and a resident of North Cambridge.