Introductory commentary by Susan Doctrow of A-DOG: David Monahan, a member of FellsDOG and a MassDOG colleague, has written a very well-researched, thoughtful letter to the DCR regarding off-leash recreation at the Middlesex Fells that we present here with David’s permission. This includes a rebuttal of erroneously cited research that has been used to exaggerate claims that dogs cause environmental harm. This topic has been debated recently, as the DCR has produced a new Trail Plan to provide for responsible recreational use at this local treasure. Many of us enjoy regularly visiting the Fells with our families, including our family dogs. The DCR has held public meetings, including a very, well-attended workshop that many of us (including Susan Doctrow and Ann Smith of A-DOG) were pleased to participate in.Â MassDOG member groups, particularly from Somerville and Melrose have been very active in this effort. Also extremely involved has been Greater Boston New England Mountain Biking Association NEMBA, which works to promote responsible mountain biking in the Fells and sponsors much volunteer effort for trail maintenance and rebuilding. Overall, dog owner groups and NEMBA support responsible recreational use of the Fells, as do many hikers who do not necessarily participate in these two specific activities but believe in mutually beneficial shared enjoyment of public space. Other parties, most notably a group known as Friends of the Fells have representatives advocating restricting recreation uses of the Fells in favor of more passive enjoyment, in the name of strict preservation, instead of for the broader recreational purpose of this public space. The Friends of the Fells leadership, in particular, has reportedly been quite vocal, condemning certain forms of recreational use, particularly mountain biking and off-leash dog recreation, reportedly making exaggerated claims of environmental impact similar to those discussed in David’s letter. In developing its new Trail Plan, the DCR has reached out more broadly to include the recreational interests of stakeholders such as MassDOG member groups and NEMBA. (Yet, on its website, the Friends of the Fells describes this well-balanced effort in inflammatory terms…claiming in a “Fells Alert!” that DCR will turn the Fells into a “Mountain Bike Park”.) In its Trail Plan, DCR has taken an excellent first step toward addressing the needs of dog owners, who, according to the DCR’s own presentation at a public workshop comprise a very large contingent of Fells users (e.g. 39% of respondents to a use survey). This “first step” that the DCR proposes is to make the Sheepfold a legal off-leash recreation space. While we applaud this action, we encourage the DCR to also open certain trails at the Fells to responsible off-leash recreation. This will enable we dog owners to enjoy hiking the Fells with our entire families. After reading David’s letter and studying the current version of DCR’s Trail Plan (the link will appear at the end of David’s letter), make your opinion known.Â Though I believe the official comment period on the Trail Plan has ended, establishing recreational use policies for the Fells will be an ongoing effort and it will probably never hurt for you to, if you haven’t already, contact DCR to express your support for off-leash recreation.
Letter by David Monahan of FellsDOG:
November 19, 2010
Department of Conservation and Recreation
c/o Fells Trail Plan
136 Damon Road
Northampton, MA 01060
Re: Middlesex Fells Trail Plan
Dear Sir or Madam:
I am writing to express to the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) my comments to the Middlesex Fells Reservation Draft Trail Plan. In summary, as a dog owner who has visited the Fells regularly with my dog for years, I am glad to see that the DCR has taken the needs of dog owners into account in drafting this plan, and has proposed a trial off-leash dog area or times at Sheepfold. But I must take issue with the fact that no provision has been made for designating trails for use by dog owners, and I also object to misleading and unsupported statements in Appendix E regarding the environmental impact of dogs. I thank the DCR for its thoughtful manner of devising a trail plan which protects this wonderful natural resource, and takes into account the needs of all user groups. It was encouraging to be invited to public meetings to hear and comment on the proposed plan, and the site visits to walk through the Fells with DCR staff were very informative.
I. The Middlesex Fells is part of the Urban Parks District The foundation of all plans for the Middlesex Fells should be recognition that it is an urban park. Under Chapter 92, Section 33 of the Massachusetts General Laws, the Fells is within the â€œurban parks districtâ€â€”designated as â€œopen spaces for exercise and recreation.â€ While some nature groups would apparently like to cordon off the park so that their members can stand on the perimeter and gaze in with binoculars, that is not what the law provides. The good news is that the park is used every day of the year by Massachusetts residents who respect its natural beauty and the living things within it. These include large numbers of dog owners who visit the park with their dogs, and mountain bikers. Both groups are, primarily, responsible park users who respect the rights of other park users and treat our natural resources with great respect.
II. Dog owner use of the Fells
Dog owners use the Sheepfold and the trails throughout the Fells 365 days a year. Considering the large number of visitors to the Sheepfold on a daily basis, the park is remarkably clean and free of debris. Most dog owners are very careful to take out and deposit in the trash bin anything that they bring into the park. I commend the DCR for proposing an off-leash area or off-leash hours at Sheepfold, and I believe this idea is long overdue. I am involved with the Middlesex Fells Dog Owner Group (FellsDOG), and I know that this group and other area dog owner groups are prepared to work with the DCR and other user groups to help develop an appropriate plan for off-leash activity at the Sheepfold. The focus of our groups has always been to educate dog owners on the need to pick up dog waste every single time, and to supervise our dogs to ensure that they are playing safely and not interfering with other park users. We would be glad to serve this role as legal off-leash activity is rolled out at the Fells. I was pleased to see that the Trail System Plan includes engaging in various outdoor activities with the family dog among its â€œmanaged experiencesâ€ at the Fells. Dog owners also use the trails at the Fells in a responsible fashion. Considering the miles and miles of trails at the Fells, there is no reason why the DCR should not develop a plan to designate one or more trails as permissible for off-leash dog walking.
III. Misleading statements about the environmental impact of dogs
I object to misleading statements in Appendix E under the heading â€œWhat are the Impacts of Dogs and Dog Walking?â€ They give the impression that dogs are more damaging to the environment than the cited studies actually state. The first paragraph of that section gives the impression that dogs are a major cause of fecal coliform bacteria in water supplies. But all available research, including cases cited in this section, show waterfowl, gulls, and pigeons to be a much greater source of fecal coliform in water supplies than dogs, and note that cats, squirrels, raccoons, rats, and other animals all contribute to fecal coliform levels. This section cites a 1996 report issued by Alderisio, Wait, and Sobsey regarding the New York City Water Supply. But that report, based on research at the Kensico Reservoir in Westchester County, noted the need for resources â€œto investigate and mitigate potential nonhuman sources such as waterfowl and gulls, as well as other wildlife in the Kensico watershed.â€ It made no mention of dogs. For more on the various sources of non-human fecal coliform bacteria, see Focus: Bacteria in the Issaquah Creek Basin, Washington State Department of Ecology (2004), http://www.ecy.wa.gov/pubs/0410038.pdf The second paragraph of that section similarly overstates the impact of dog walking on wildlife. One would think that the litany of scientific studies cited was damning evidence of the negative impact of dogs. But the studies listed simply do not support the hypothesis. For instance, the Nol and Brooks study on Effects of Predator Exclosures on Nesting Success of Killdeer describes the predatory actions of gulls, raccoons, and other mammalsâ€”it makes no mention of dogs. The George and Crooks study on Recreation and large mammal activity in an urban nature reserve finds negative â€œrelative activityâ€ impacts upon coyotes, bobcats, and mule deer to be greater from hikers and bikers than from dogs. And the Miller, Knight, Miller report Wildlife responses to pedestrians and dogs showed that the general area of influence on most wildlife was less for a dog walking alone than it was for a person walking alone. We all agree that the impact of dogs on wildlife should be taken into account when formulating a trail plan for the Fells or any other park. But let us not overstate the impact that dogs have as compared to hikers and bikers.
IV. The benefits of activity with dogs
Finally, I note that the plan goes to great lengths to attempt to document the negative impact of dogs, but not to note the benefits. I will refer to one study which says it well:
Benefits of dogs:
â€¢ As dogs need daily walking, their owners gain benefits from regular exercise and access to the countryside.
â€¢ Dog ownership results in important health, psychological and social benefits for all family members.
â€¢ Studies have shown that dog ownership produces beneficial physiological effects in people such as favourable changes in blood lipids, glucose, blood pressure, immune levels and pain relief.
Taylor, K., Anderson, P., Taylor, R., Longden, K. and Fisher, P., 2005. Dogs,
access and nature conservation. English Nature, ENRR No. 649.
The same study goes on, after noting that dogs do have some impact on wildlife, to state:
[S]uch is the benefit that dogs bring and the widespread expectation that dog owners can take their dogs into the countryside, it is impractical to consider banning dogs from all sites of nature conservation value. Evidence suggests that integrated management strategies can be devised (based on control of dogs and influencing their owners) that will reduce the impact of dogs on many nature conservation sites, and seek mutually beneficial solutions.
I would suggest that the DCR should maintain the same balanced approach as it fine tunes and implements a new Middlesex Fells Trail Plan.
Thank you very much for the opportunity to contribute to the planning process.
/s/ David W. Monahan
David W. Monahan
To see the current Middlesex Fells Trail Plan and related materials: Middlesex Fells Trail Plan link at DCR
To give input to the DCR on off-leash recreation, write to:
Middlesex Fells Trail Plan
136 Damon Rd
Northampton, MA 01060
It is also useful to contact your state Representative (for Arlington, Reps Sean Garballey, Jay Kaufman, Will Brownsberger) and state Senator (for Arlington, Sen. Ken Donnelly) regarding making our state parks, including the Fells, more hospitable to responsible off leash recreation.