A former railroad bed, not converted to conservation land in Marshfield.

I was delighted to learn a few weeks ago that two parcels of land within walking distance from where I grew up in Marshfield will soon be set aside for conservation. The town is in negotiations to purchase the old railroad bed that runs through the woods between the Black Mount neighborhood and Careswell Street, a portion of which intersects with the historic Pilgrim Trail. In addition, the Wildlands Trust of Southeastern Massachusetts has just acquired the Hall Family property — 73 acres of forest and ponds — which extends from the railroad bed, behind the Winslow House, all the way to Webster Street.

These are woods that I played in as a child. Exploring on my bicycle, I discovered new routes to friends’ houses, short cuts to school and the downtown area, and fascinations such as town wells, high tension wires, and the ruins of old farm structures. Although most of my explorations were on privately-owned land, there were no houses within view; I, like all the kids I hung around with, considered these places to be open to everyone. Judging from the well-trodden paths and signs of continued use — bike ramps, paintball pellets, the occasional stray soccer ball — the kids who live in that neighborhood today still consider those lands to be their own.

And now, in a sense, they will be. Designating land as public open space makes it accessible to everyone. It only occurred to me as an adult that the woods I played in as a child might someday become another neighborhood street, the trees cut down, a house placed squarely on each acre. I am relieved to know that will not be the case for my childhood haunts. I feel fortunate that the efforts to set aside those lands for conservation appear to be going ahead quite smoothly.

Some friends of mine have been striving for a few years now to protect their own backyard woodland, but unlike me, they have encountered numerous obstacles along the way. Like the Black Mount area, Marshfield’s Old Mount Skirgo Road is bordered on one side by town wells, open space that will very likely stay open in perpetuity. One the other side, however, is a large parcel of land that some regard as prime for development. Others, the residents of Old Mount Skirgo in particular, would prefer to see it kept for conservation.

Access issues, drainage concerns, the protection of wells and wetlands, are all factors in this development debate. Members of the Old Mount Skirgo neighborhood association have become regular attendees at Planning Board meetings, where the finer points of appropriate land use are argued. Thanks in part to their steadfastness, and in part to the careful consideration of our town planners, it seems likely that if development does occur on the parcel in question, it will be at a far lesser scale than originally proposed. There is even potential for a land swap, involving another, more viable parcel, in which case my friends’ backyard woodland may not be developed at all. The neighborhood group has had to be vocal about their concerns, to fight for what they want, to refuse to back down from what they believe is right. Still, the outcome is uncertain. I know they will keep fighting.

If there is a large parcel of woods in your neighborhood, an as yet undeveloped property that you’ve grown to appreciate and call your own (even though it belongs to somebody else), you may want do some investigation. All of the land on the South Shore is spoken for, and, financially speaking, it is not usually in the owner’s best interest to donate it (or sell it at less than market value) to be used as public open space. Although there are quite a few conservation-minded people out there who also happen to own large parcels of land, there are just as many, if not more, large landowners who plan to finance their retirement by carving up the family farm into saleable house lots. The woods you’ve grown so accustomed to might not always be there.

I don’t mean to use a prophetic tone. I don’t want to imply that you are going to be awakened one morning by the drone of chain saws tearing down your favorite woodland. If someone intends to develop a piece of land, that does not mean that the land will automatically be ruined. Builders today are often willing to work with the town or with conservation groups to find solutions that benefit everyone. Plans for development do not always portend disaster.

It’s important, though, to do your homework. If you are concerned about the fate of a nearby woodland, find out who owns the property and what his or her plans for it might be. Land development does not happen overnight — it generally involves an extensive approval and permitting process with various town boards. Your voice, and better yet, the collective voice of you and your neighbors, can make a difference.

by Kezia Bacon Bernstein, Correspondent
December 2000

Kezia Bacon Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.