FellsDOG Member Comments on off-leash recreation at the Middlesex Fells

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.  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.  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 “urban parks district”—designated as “open spaces for exercise and recreation.” 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 “managed experiences” 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 “What are the Impacts of Dogs and Dog Walking?” 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 “to investigate and mitigate potential nonhuman sources such as waterfowl and gulls, as well as other wildlife in the Kensico watershed.” 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 mammals—it makes no mention of dogs. The George and Crooks study on Recreation and large mammal activity in an urban nature reserve finds negative “relative activity” 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:
• As dogs need daily walking, their owners gain benefits from regular exercise and access to the countryside.

• Dog ownership results in important health, psychological and social benefits for all family members.

• 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

More information:

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:

Paul Jahnige
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.

6 thoughts on “FellsDOG Member Comments on off-leash recreation at the Middlesex Fells

  1. Mr. Holley, When I read your post it occurred to me that it would have been more accurate for me to have said “off leash dog recreation” instead of “dog walking”. I will change it because it is what I really meant and I do apologize for that oversight and thank you for bringing it to my attention. Perhaps that change will help to make the statement more acceptable to you, with regard to activities opposed by some Friends of Fells representatives. I know that some people feel that any off leash recreation would disrupt their “peace and safety”, while others (probably some of the FoF members you mention) enjoy it with well-socialized, happy dogs and feel it does no harm to other park users. Regarding mountain biking, I will leave it to the user community to comment further, but I will say something about the “Alert!” statement, issued by somebody representing the FoF, that the DCR was going to turn the Fells into a Mountain Bike Park. This caused alarm, for example, on our town’s email list where many people had not heard anything before about the Trail Plan. My opinion, again based on my own observations not on some indoctrination I’ve received from mountain bikers, is that this Alert! seemed really inflammatory. Opening up more trails to address user needs is a far cry from making the Fells into a “Mountain Bike Park”.

  2. Mr. Holley, let’s be honest here. The Friends of the Fells are, and have been, anti-mountain bike since your organization was founded. You have opposed every effort of equitable access in the Fells for over twenty years. You have taken every opportunity to sabotage expert trail work including approved plans that increase public safety (Dark Hollow Pond). The sad thing is that I don’t think you and other FoF leadership really represent your members (nor do they know how extreme FoF leadership’s views are). Friends groups are important to parks and should represent all user groups. Somehow you’ve gotten the idea that the Fells is more your park than any of the rest of us taxpayers. Guess what? We all use the park and we all have equal rights to it whether we choose to recreate by bike, foot or paw. You don’t get to decide. You keep trotting out the tired “nobody follows the rules” and “DCR doesn’t enforce the rules” arguments. Have you visited other DCR parks where everyone manages to *share* the trails and get along? The Fells has a set of rules that your organization was able to put in place through political connections for *your* benefit – not the public – but your private organization’s vision of what the approved uses should be. People follow laws in our country because, by and large, they make sense. Your calls for more enforcement *make no sense* since the current rules *make no sense*. DCR doesn’t have to do the extreme enforcement (and let’s be clear, you’ve called for armed enforcement as well in the past by wanting police to enforce the rules) at other parks because shared-trails work. People get along. You are part of a small, vocal, dysfunctional group of people who for some reason cannot get along with the much larger majority of users. The Fells is a *public* resource that we can, and should, all share.

  3. Hue Holley, forgive me for not recognizing your name, however my interactions with the Friends of the Fells (FoF) date back only to 2007. However, I’ve had enough interactions with FoF leadership during that time to confirm Susan Doctrow’s comments are spot-on with regards to FoF’s opposition of mountain biking and off-leash dog recreation.

    That your database work and occasional “odd jobs” have helped you find the Friends’ current leadership likeable and worthy of respect, I do not doubt. But Susan’s comments are most certainly NOT unsubstantiated accusations: Mike Ryan – FoF’s Exec Director – has shown remarkable angst towards off-leash dog activity (and mtn. biking) in the Fells Reservation. As a member of the Boston Dog Owners Group, I’ve participated in several “Partners in Parks” meetings at the DCR’s headquarters. On multiple occasions, Mike has vocally expressed strong opposition to off-leash dog recreation while presenting himself as a disruptive, narrow-minded, extreme preservationist.

    It comes as no surprise that FoF’s emails and website are free of condemnation of “dog-walking” or off-leash dog recreation; we’ve long felt that Mike Ryan’s views represent a tiny minority of actual FoF membership.

  4. Thank you, Sue, for posting my letter to the DCR stating my comments to the Fells Trail Plan. I thought your introduction was spot on in describing the distance between the Friends of the Fells and other user groups at the Fells. In response to the comment from Hue Holley, while I am certainly glad to have a Friends of the Fells member joining in our dialogue, I join with Adam and Alain in saying that I have observed first hand how obstructionist Mike Ryan has been– never willing to acknowledge that dog owners and mountain bikers care about the environment as well, and never willing to take advantage of having us as partners to cooperate on solutions. This statement is so telling: “I’m afraid Ms. Doctrow has bought into the diatribe and lies that are spread by certain mountain biking clubs.” I am only familiar with the actions of one such club– Greater Boston NEMBA. I am not a member of their group, and I have never ridden my bike in the Fells. But I know for certain, from the evidence I have seen for years, that they care about the environment, they act responsibly to make trail improvements that are acceptable to the DCR, and they encourage their members to show great respect for the park and for other park users. And I have found GB NEMBA to be responsible in their discourse with the public– NOT employing diatribe and lies. Sure, they have had some strong words for the Friends of the Fells from time to time. Which I applaud, when it is in response to an influential group like the Friends of the Fells misstating NEMBA’s goals and exaggerating the impacts of mountain bikers and dog recreation on the trails.

  5. I am not a member of the Friends of the Fells ,because the Friends do not support legal options for off-leash recreation at the Fells.

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