Big changes are going on at the Londonderry Town Forest, altering it from a forested retreat to a park-like area of trails that are an extension of the Town Common.
Much of that is due to the work of volunteer Kent Allen, who took it on himself to advocate for “cleaning up” the forest and making it more like a park. On the second try, voters this year agreed with Allen’s vision and changed oversight of the Town Forest from the Londonderry Conservation Commission to the Town Manager. Had it stayed with Conservation, it would have continued to be managed as a forest, woody debris and all.
Forests include both an understory and decaying trees and branches, the latter nourishing future growth. Much of that understory has been cleared since the March vote – both of invasive plants and natural debris.
Since the trail clearing, Allen said he has noticed more people walking their dogs in the Town Forest. He thinks it’s because of the target shooting at the Musquash Conservation Area, with dog walkers looking for a safer environment on the trails, and perhaps enjoying the chance to rest on one of the several benches he has built and installed along the way.
Conservation land, and forest land, are by their nature different from cleared and groomed paths through the trees. And they each meet different recreation needs and interests.
But as Conservation Commissioners have noted, clearing out an area to the degree that has been done at the Town Forest causes small wildlife to move elsewhere – if that elsewhere still exists. Right now, it does. And the need remains for buffers along the pond to filter runoff as well.
The Town is considering putting in an ice skating rink by the Common. That, too, meets a different recreation niche than a forest would.
The changes Allen is creating are clearly attracting more public use, something the Town has sought to emphasize for its open space, but it should be kept in mind that not all open space is for recreation.
And not all recreation is for open space. People who put their own interests over the greater good, for example – by running OHRVs in the Musquash and target shooting across its trails – are misusing public land.
The more improvements made, the more likely public funding will be necessary, and Conservation funding can’t be used for areas Conservation does not manage. As long as voters understand that, there’s no problem. But just as there’s a need for accessible walking trails, there’s a need for places where the woods are preserved in their natural state. And both should have a place in town.