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DCR Stewardship Council to Vote on RMP Friday

posted Jan 3, 2012, 12:40 PM by michele biscoe   [ updated Jan 3, 2012, 12:45 PM ]
Paul Jahnige presented the final Resource Management Plan for the Middlesex Fells Reservation at the regular meeting of the DCR Stewardship Council on Friday, December 2.  Changes to the draft RMP following a sixty-day public comment period are reflected in Appendix B.4.  All public materials for the Fells RMP are available on the DCR webpage for the Resource Management Plan - Middlesex Fells Planning Unit.  The Stewardship Council is expected to vote on the RMP at their next regular meeting on Friday afternoon, January 6, from 1:00 to 3:00, at Ponkapoag Club House, 2167 Washington St., in Canton, MA.  Stewardship Council meetings are open to the public.

The good news is that almost 70 letters were in support off-leash on-trail access in the Middlesex Fells. That is almost ONE QUARTER of the total 278 comments submitted on the draft RMP.  Almost one quarter of all the letters support off-leash on-trail access.  And that is not including over 300 unique signatures on a petition in support of off-leash on-trail, which, unfortunately, do not seem to have been counted in the chart showing the relative number of comments by themes in Appendix B.4 (Figure B.4.1).

By contrast, only about 45 letters explicitly oppose off-leash dogs on the trails.  Out of all the letters, less than one sixth oppose off-leash dogs on the trails.

The bad news is that somehow, despite seemingly overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the DCR Stewardship Council's takeaway from the RMP is that the most common user experience at our beloved Middlesex Fells Reservation is conflict.  The misapprehension on the part of the Councillors seems to stem from two sources, 1) a graduate student’s unpublished research project on winter trail use and the conclusions drawn in the RMP on the basis of this research, and 2) a letter from State Senator Katharine Clark and five state representatives from districts that include the Reservation calling for enforcement of existing regulations and policies at the Fells.

We have very serious concerns about the way that the unpublished research project was used in the RMP, and that it was included at all.

First, the results are in direct contrast to our experience and the experience of hundreds of people we know who regularly visit the Fells regularly with and without dogs.  We dispute that the Fells itself is an area of conflict. This research paper does not convince us that our experience is exceptional or false.

Second, the results of the research project have not been made publicly available.  Interpretation of published, peer-reviewed research is open to considerable debate, and this debate is often the measure of the importance and value of the research.

Indeed, the DCR was careful to include only published, peer-reviewed scientific studies comparing the impacts hiking and mountain biking on trails. It is all the more questionable that an unpublished research project on conflict in the Fells was included in the RMP and that the DCR is basing policy decisions on it.

Last month Paul Jahnige shared with us draft sections of the research paper, but not the full, final paper. A section that was shared was about the survey methodology of the research. The survey appears to ask park users about observed behavior and perceived problems. The tally of perceived problems is then used to calculate “conflict”. 

That a large percentage of visitors answered "yes" to a question about whether they've ever experienced ”problems" relevant to dogs is not, in itself, meaningful, or even surprising.  Many of us have been disheartened by encounters with people who did not have control over their dogs, or, equally, by people who use choke or prong collars or retractible “flexi-” leads to “control” their dogs.  On a survey, we might well have been among those reporting these experiences as undesirable and problematic, but this “data” would not reflect our overall experience, which is that the Fells and the people we meet there are pleasant.

A definition of conflict that allows people who are not experiencing conflict to be counted as evidence of conflict is clearly spurious.

A more productive study would have looked not only at the “dividers” among visitors to the Fells, but also at the “connectors”, and, indeed, dogs are, in our experience, more often than not, connectors that create a positive interaction between visitors who may not otherwise have interacted.  Why no question about meeting a person with a dog being a positive experience at the Fells?

With regard to the letter from Senator Clark and five state representatives, we feel that it is not representative of the public’s interests or comments.  Whereas the state legislators call for better and more enforcement of existing regulations, fewer than 45 letters—or, again, less than one sixth of the comments on the draft RMP—recommend that the DCR fund enforcement of the existing regulations.  Our response to the state legislators has been published online by the the Boston Globe Your Town: Malden, the Medford Patch, the Melrose Patch, and online and in the print edition of the Melrose Free Press.

Looking ahead to the Stewardship Council meeting later this week, FellsDOG has submitted a letter to the members of the Stewardship Council attempting to persuade them that the divergent voices that have participated in the RMP process are not reflective of our experience in the Fells as park visitors.  Enforcement of existing regulations will drive recreation off the trails.  What is needed is for the regulations to be brought into accord with longstanding customary use: This will eradicate the perceived conflict and, by keeping people on the trails, preserve the Fells.

michele biscoe,
Jan 3, 2012, 12:40 PM
michele biscoe,
Jan 3, 2012, 12:40 PM