The other night the DCR held a trail planning meeting regarding the Middlesex Fells Reservation which includes the area called Sheepfold; a very popular spot for Bostonians to let their dogs run off-leash. The DCR recognizes visitors using the Fells for mountain biking, hiking and dog walking has increased dramatically in recent years. Recently, they have had consultants in the park identifying trails, intersections, condition and use in order to create an inventory and better adjust resources to care and support the public use.
The initial meeting drew about 150 people, which I just attended, from various groups who have an interest in how the DCR manages the Middlesex Fells. To be honest, I am impressed by the DCR for involving the general public in the planning process. Clearly those working for the DCR have not seen the show “Parks and Recreation” on NBC. Although, surprisingly, the public rose above just yelling at each other; most of the time.
Here is a quick link to the Fells Dog Off-leash Petition
After a presentation about what the DCR assessment of the Fells; Dog walkers being one of the largest user groups 87% of dogs off-leash. Mountain bikers one of the other largest groups and to my surprise hikers were one of the smaller groups (who seemingly dictate the current rules of the Fells). After the presentation the crowd was broken up by random into different workgroups. Each workgroup of about 9-10 people was supplied with pens and a giant map of the Middlesex Fells Reservation. members of each group added notations to the maps regarding areas in the Fells which were thought special or needed improvement. Afterwards one member of each group spoke to the audience more or less summarizing what their group had to say.
The mountain bikers GBNEMBA have been waiting for this moment for years as a group of hikers called the Friends of the Fells seem to have dictated how everyone else in the Fells used this public park. Regardless, mountain bikers (of which I am an avid mountain biker myself, although not GBNEMBA affiliated as of yet) dominated the discussion. Most all group leaders who were mountain bikers did a pretty good job voicing the opinion of the hikers in their group. One guy did go off on a why can’t we all just get along tangent which marked the downward slide of the discussion.
What concerned me most was the lack voice from dog owners at the meeting. Somehow, those who did speak changed “Off-leash should be legal at Sheepfold” to “There should be off-leash somewhere; it doesn’t have to be Sheepfold.”. In part I blame myself for this; I was there and chose to be polite, wait until the end to speak with our yelling like a few others. The meeting was going along well and I assumed there would be amble opportunity, I did not see the slide about to come. Regardless, these were just opening discussions, there is much to be done.
If you don’t know or have not been, Sheepfold is a large grassy field isolated by natural borders creating one of the best off-leash parks for dogs one could imagine. You could not design something like this if you tried. But there it is, perfect without adding or taking away anything. There is a reason that so many dog owners have gravitated to Sheepfold in order to recreate with their dogs. And trust me, people come from a long way to spend a few hours at this fantastic resource.
While listening to the DCR administration speak, I picked up on an underlying theme; reliance on self regulation and education by the various user groups. The DCR does not have the budget to have Rangers stand around giving tickets to people playing with their dogs in the middle of nowhere, chase down mountain bikers on the wrong trail. Hopefully they might have the resources to thwart the nefarious acts of lonely hikers(cruising) in the woods. I believe more than anything the DCR would like to see a bit of organization and commitment to observing good off-leash practices while at Sheepfold or walking your dog on the trails.
There is a discussion group on Google at www.fellsdog.org where some have begun to chat about the possible changes. Regardless of here or there unless dog owners want to get squeezed out of Sheepfold, they or more importantly, you need to get involved.
So in that vein, the best thing Boston dog owners can do to legally allow off-leash dogs at Sheepfold and possibly the trails at the Middlesex Fells Reservation is get involved with each other and help get everyone on the same page as to what is appropriate off-leash behavior and what is not. It is important to get this conversation started. I am curious; what you think a solution might be? If you have a good idea, leave a comment below I am very curious what other dog owners think about Sheepfold and the Fells.
Right now your support is needed for legal off-leash recreation at the Middlesex Fells. We are passing a petition around in order to collect 1000 signatures by June 20th. Please take a moment to sign it and help to insure Boston dogs have a place to socialize off-leash