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Alex Grant: Making Conservation Work

Longmeadow is blessed with a lot of green space: parks, sports fields, and conservation land abound. This makes it a uniquely beautiful suburb and a special place to live. Through foresight and a little luck and happenstance, we have managed to set aside a good amount of our land for the common good. But as we have seen from the recent attempts to develop this public land, preserving that green space is a battle that never stays won. To preserve our green space, we must use it.

One large tract of conservation land is the forest behind the Wolf Swamp fields. It has received little notice except the time in 2014 when the town manager promised to convert some of this area into ballfields to compensate for the land he wanted to take from the Wolf Swamp fields for the new DPW. That idea ran into the buzz saw of rules and regulations involving the conversion of conservation land into land for other uses.

Because of these protections, conservation land like this is mostly immune from planned-out, deliberate destruction conducted with the approval of local government. But that does not mean it is immune from human malevolence. Right now, that conservation land is used by dirt bikers and almost nobody else. Take a walk on the existing trails, and one sees the destruction of the forest by the ruts made by dirt bike use. Erosion of the soil is the result, and the flora cannot survive.

As someone who coaches cross-country runners on the Wolf Swamp fields, and as one who loves to run in the woods, these trails are off-limits because of the danger of dirt bikers. It’s not safe. I have run on the trails a few times, and the use of these trails requires hyper-awareness that a biker may be barreling down the track at high speed and the ability to jump out of the way. What’s worse, the dirt bikers sometimes cut across the Wolf Swamp fields themselves—while they are in use by children—in order to get to the trails in this conservation land.

This has to be a result that nobody, except the dirt bikers, desires. The laws and the government apparatuses designed to keep the land pristine are subverted by this renegade use of the conservation land. The land is being destroyed in parts, and that destructive process will continue unless it is checked, leading to still more erosion and the death of more trees, plants, and the animals that depend on them. These lawless practices also prevent the peaceful, non-destructive use of the land. It’s a lose-lose situation.

The police department struggles to rein in the dirt bikers. I have personally called the police on a couple of occasions when the bikers were literally tearing across soccer fields, but by the time they can arrive, the dirt bikers are gone. Of course, some of them transport their bikes on trucks, park their vehicles at the Wolf Swamp fields parking lot, and unload their bikes to begin their journey through our conservation land. While some of them wear masks, they are not all working especially hard to avoid detection.

At this point, the dirt bikers rule the roost and effectively exercise control of the conservation land behind the Wolf Swamp fields. They operate with impunity. The question is whether we want to allow this to continue.

The shame is that this conservation land could be a real treasure. The size of this tract is actually larger than the Wolf Swamp fields themselves. Consistent with the restrictions on conservation land, safe, pedestrian-only trails could be made throughout this area. The total length could amount to two to four miles, depending on the layout. Walkers and runners could access the trails from the Wolf Swamp fields for exercise and find a rural sanctuary.

None of that is possible as long as the dirt bikers run the show. The creation of a pedestrian trail would simply be another avenue for the dirt bikers to tear up the forest. In order to protect this conservation land and to realize its potential, the town needs to wrest control from the dirt bikers by effectively blocking off access with physical barriers.

The status quo is not working. Doing nothing with the conservation land has not left it an unspoiled preserve. The use of the land by people whose activities have minimal impact is the key. Walkers and runners can be the eyes and ears of our law enforcement officers, who cannot effectively police the area alone. With the use of the land, there will be a group of people with a concrete stake in protecting it. And the town must get serious about punishing the dirt bikers who manage to avoid the physical barriers and do get caught with heavy fines in order to deter others.

To make conservation work, we need to do more than cordon off an area and leave it alone. Using the land in an intelligent way connects more people to the outdoors, and these people can become advocates for the local and global environment. Let’s start now with the land behind the Wolf Swamp fields and transform it into something beautiful.

Alex J. Grant is a lawyer living in Longmeadow. His email address is alex.grant68@yahoo.com. This is an opinion piece, and the views and opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the Longmeadow News or its staff. Opposing viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged. Email pressreleases@thelongmeadownews.com for more information.