Groups pitch in to preserve 1,000 acres
Passive recreation eyed for large forest
By Connie Paige, Globe Correspondent, 11/2/2003

A sweep of more than 1,000 acres of undeveloped, heavily forested land in Milford, Holliston, and Hopkinton will remain wild now that a group of local officials, conservationists, philanthropists, and mountain biking enthusiasts have come together to save it.

The latest preservation efforts are focusing on a triangle-shaped wooded area, roughly bordered by the Charles River and Route 85 on the west, Interstate 495 on the south, and Route 16, Adams Street, and Hanlon Road on the east.  Local officials say the initiative will help protect the unique habitat and provide an attractive natural setting for passive recreation.

"I'm all excited," said Robert Buckley, Milford's Conservation Commission chairman, who has worked for years to help preserve the area. "Inside [Interstate] 495, it's probably one of the largest areas of contiguous space that's not developed."

Holliston's conservation agent, Jane Sears Pierce, said she believes the communities, with the help of the state, can keep the area from the surge of residential and commercial development that has engulfed much of the western suburbs.  "No one can really tell what will happen in the future," Pierce said. "But they still have Central Park, right? It will be that kind of thing."

But this, of course, is not likely to be nearly as manicured as Central Park: It is studded with trees, veined with streams, and dotted with unexpected vernal pools and meadows. Most of the land has no roads, only an occasional foot trail or herd path.

A visitor does not have to look very far in certain parts to find blueberries and huckleberries. Numerous birds make their homes here, including great blue herons and several types of hawks.  Naturalists believe the area is a suitable habitat for mammals such as bobcats, fishers, and otters. Pierce said that aside from many snakes and amphibians, the land is home to at least three endangered species: the four-toed salamander, the wood turtle, and the spotted turtle.

The initiative to preserve the entire 1,000 acres has been a joint effort among Buckley, Pierce, and the New England Mountain Bike Association, working with a diverse group: selectmen and other local and state officials; community and civic organizations; the Milford Water Co.; and two environmental groups, Trustees of Reservations and Upper Charles Conservation Inc.

The protected property stands as part of an undeveloped 2,500-acre expanse of land and bodies of water at the headwaters of the Charles River. Within the triangle are about 1,260 undeveloped acres, of which about 700 have so far been protected. The aim is to acquire the rest of it as well as properties outside the triangle.  "We would like to preserve the rest of that land," Buckley said.

Some open space in the area has been under municipal control for some time: Milford has undeveloped town property just outside the triangle on the west. Holliston owns a large piece inside in the northeast quadrant. In the north, Hopkinton boasts the 11-acre College Rock Park, a favorite destination of rock climbers.

Slowly, the towns have been buying more to fill in the gaps. About three years ago, Milford acquired about 90 acres east of Route 85 and contiguous to the Holliston land through tax-title takings. Milford purchased for $1.1 million another open piece off Dilla Street outside the triangle but adjacent to it. The town is also working with a developer of a 128-acre parcel off Route 16 who can build on only half his property because of wetlands.

This fall, Holliston acquired 210 acres, with about $1 million from a preservation fund and private environmental groups.  Most recently, the mountain biking association secured donations of about $50,000 from its members to purchase 47 acres at the southwest corner of the triangle.  "One of the reasons we did it is to inspire other groups to say, `Hey, we can do this, too,' " said Philip Keyes, the association's executive director. "It's a good example of the way the private sector and the nongovernmental sector can help in preserving some Massachusetts landscapes."  Those involved in the effort agree that the land should be open to the public for passive recreation -- hiking, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, showshoeing, horseback riding, rock climbing, trail running -- but not to motorized vehicles.

A separate but related effort is the proposed 23- to 26-mile Upper Charles Rail Trail. Eventually, the walking and bicycling trail will partially ring the triangle of open space, running through Milford from the north at the Hopkinton line to the south, looping around Cedar Swamp Pond and turning east into Holliston.  More than 100 people came to a meeting Wednesday on the first phase of constructing Milford's section of the trail, expected to cost more than $1 million and be complete by June 2006. Reno DeLuzio, chairman of the committee that has been shepherding it for seven years, called it "loosely coupled" with the open-space preservation effort.  "It's a wonderful opportunity for families," said Lori Baranauskas, School Committee chairwoman. "We're very excited to have it in Milford."

Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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