Return to Grandeur

 

Looking Back

Driving from Boston to Cape Cod, there is a palpable shift in the landscape’s character midway through Southeast Massachusetts. Urban development gives way to suburban towns, an obvious change of pace. Yet there is also something subtler that is less obvious to the untrained eye.

Right around Carver or Kingston, southbound travelers reach a transition zone—an ecotone—between the realm of Northern Hardwood Forest and the beginning of the Atlantic Coastal Pine Barrens.  The composition of the trees becomes heavily pine and oak. The forest floor is littered with dry needles, and scrubby shrubs make up the understory.

The natural range of the Pine Barrens begins in Southeastern Massachusetts and extends across Cape Cod and Long Island into Southern New Jersey. The pitch pine (Pinus rigida) is the characteristic tree of this habitat, with long, thick needles and scaly bark. The underlying soils are sandy, and thus drain well and are nutrient poor.  The lack of fertility helped the pine barrens largely survive agricultural conversion—hence the name ‘Barrens.’ Many of the ponds found within these forests are Coastal Plain Ponds, unique ecosystems unto themselves, and are home to many species not found anywhere else on the planet. Unlike the soils however, the ponds were valuable to settlers for the material found within: iron. Many of them were dredged as people extracted the iron for industrial uses, and now some of the species found there are critically endangered.

As the population south of Boston boomed since the 1980s along with sprawling development, many of these special forests were destroyed or broken up into fractions of their original grandeur.

A visit to the 322-acre Muddy Pond Wilderness Preserve, now owned and protected by Northeast Wilderness Trust, is a real world example where people can see this pattern play out right in Kingston, MA. The Preserve lies within a 550-acre block of forest. Some of the remaining forest is state and town land, some is protected by The Wildlands Trust, yet the rest is private land under threat of development. What’s more, this patch of forest used to be eight times its size, until large developments ate away at the edges starting in 1995, and Route 44 was built right through the middle of the forest in 2004. In effect, the forest block was split in two. South of the highway lies Muddy Pond Preserve and its adjacent forest, while the Kingston Town Forest and Camp Nekon form the forest to the north. These two habitats are now connected only by a single, concrete tunnel running underneath the road.

There are numerous effects of building a road through a forest, and they all have dire consequences for wildlife. Roadkill is one of the more noticeable ways that roads hurt wild creatures. We may glimpse lifeless larger mammals on the sides of roads, but smaller creatures are impacted too. Amphibians cross roads during rainy spring nights to lay their eggs in ponds and pools, and nocturnal insects are drawn to the lights of cars. Raptors also frequently fall prey to automobile collisions when they are drawn to roadkill. 

And then there is what’s called the ‘edge effect.’ When a road or new development is built, the edge of the woods next to it change, even if it looks relatively the same at a glance. But the characteristics in which those species have evolved are immediately altered. Temperature, air flow, and light change because of the adjacent opening. The noises of people and cars scare away more sensitive creatures, pushing them further into an ever-diminishing forest core that eventually will not have room for them all. The patterns of water flowing over the ground are disrupted, and the water itself will carry more salt and chemicals that come with an urbanized landscape.

What’s more, the incremental building of roads and residences over our short lifetimes may not appear to add up to much, but when combined, each new road makes way for more access points to the forest. Over multiple generations, what may at first seem a slow and harmless process amounts to what we see today: small, disjointed patches of forest with few, if any, dark and quiet places for wildlife to safely live out their lives or for people to find peace and solace.

Moving Forward

A visit to Muddy Pond Wilderness Preserve suggests not all is gloom and doom. There is a redeeming glimmer of hope in that these forest patches do still exist; we have not yet lost them completely. Standing at the center of the Preserve, the not-too-distant hum of traffic on Route 44 is muffled by the polyphony of frogs, birds, crickets, or cicadas. Hope for this forest grows when we consider the dedicated and passionate people working to revitalize this land and reconnect or protect the few other forest patches that we are at risk of losing to development.

At the Preserve in early spring, when the earth has just barely softened and ice still rims the pond, salamanders, toads, and frogs emerge from the leaf litter. They head to the dozens of vernal pools scattered across Muddy Pond Wilderness Preserve, drawn by their ancient instinct to find water, breed, and lay their eggs. As the season warms and many of these pools dry up, spring wildflowers dot the ground and painted turtles dig their nests. Come late summer, endangered plants found only in Atlantic Coastal Plain Ponds bloom from the shallower waters. New England Boneset puts on a show of lacey white, and Plymouth Gentian unfolds to reveal stunning, tropical-pink blossoms. As fall sets in, highbush blueberry lights the shoreline with blazing red, and the inner needles of the pitch pine turn yellow and prepare to drop. As birds and butterflies migrate south, some stop to rest and refuel in this rich, verdant refuge.

The signs of human impact are nevertheless present. The tires of ATVs and dirt bikes have ripped gashes in the earth where water stagnates and plants no longer grow. Trash and litter have washed their way in from the roads.

Rewilding—the process of giving land back to wildlife and wildlife back to the land—is a worthy cause in and of itself.  It becomes all the more potent when we understand the history of this once expansive ecosystem, and the fact that it is still at risk.  Yet we people can, and do, take action to allow the land to heal. For even in its smaller state, this beautiful, vibrant place still provides immeasurable value for nature and people alike. Joe Falconeiri, Northeast Wilderness Trust’s Southern New England Land Steward, is working with schools and other conservation organizations to begin the rewilding process while spreading the word of wilderness’s unmatched values.

Students and volunteers have hauled out all sorts of trash from the Preserve (including Jeep parts and air conditioners) and have dragged tree limbs and deadfall to shut down old trails and prevent illegal trespass of motorized vehicles. In just the first year of developing these partnerships, more than 75 students have joined Northeast Wilderness Trust on the ground to lend a helping hand and connect with wild nature. Dozens of adults have joined hikes, nature walks, and volunteer days, too. 

Students from Plymouth Harbor Academy help to clean up Muddy Pond Wilderness Preserve.

A New Wilderness Ethic

The Muddy Pond Wilderness Preserve proves that wilderness does not have to be out in the middle of nowhere. Natural beauty and grandeur does not just belong in National Parks or on Planet Earth episodes. If we choose, we may bring the values of wild nature to the habitats in our backyards. Anyone can choose to treat the land with respect, to approach it as a source of life and wonder, rather than as a resource waiting to be extracted. Muddy Pond exists to uphold exactly those values, on the ground and in real time. Students from nearby high schools and middle schools have a chance to meet the habitat natural to their region, gather data for scientific studies, and make a hands-on impact in the rewilding of this land.

Perhaps they will return as adults to see the tire tracks grown in with baby pitch pine, the forest floor free of refuse, or a rare bird taking off in flight. These wilderness champions are redefining the type of relationship we people want to have with our environment to be one of reverence, wonder, curiosity, and humility.

A student stops to admire an American toad during a school hike at Muddy Pond.

 

Student-focused Wilderness Stewardship Program takes shape at Muddy Pond

Innovative partnership with Plymouth-based Map Academy introduces wilderness to local youth

Map Academy teacher, Lance Merritt, and students at Muddy Pond.

“It has been really rewarding partnering with Joe and Northeast Wilderness Trust so far.  There is a well-established benefit to getting students out in the field and making a tangible difference in their community.”

 

Lance Merritt, program partner and teacher at Map Academy

At the Muddy Pond Wilderness Preserve in southeast Massachusetts, Northeast Wilderness Trust’s Joe Falconeiri has been spearheading a quiet effort to better connect local youth with a wilderness ethic through specialized programming. 

In a partnership with the Map Academy of Plymouth, MA, students have joined Joe in the field to assist the Wilderness Trust in cleaning up the preserve and flagging old trails for closure and maintenance–the first step in a long rewilding process for this special property.  Founded in 2018, Map Academy recognizes that learning is not limited to the traditional school day or the traditional school walls, and believes the high school experience should not be limited in those ways either.

Northeast Wilderness Trust Southern New England Land Steward, Joe Falconeiri, digs into the natural history of the Muddy Pond Wilderness Preserve with students from Map Academy.

In the first three months of this new partnership, seven students have joined their teacher and Joe on five different occasions.  The founder of Map Academy, Rachel Babcock, attended the first session. 

“It has been really rewarding partnering with Joe and Northeast Wilderness Trust so far.  There is a well-established benefit to getting students out in the field and making a tangible difference in their community,” said Lance Merritt, a teacher at Map Academy.  “In just a few visits, they have been able to see the impact of their hard work.” 

Muddy Pond was conserved by the Northeast Wilderness Trust in 2018.  At 322 acres, it is one of the largest privately conserved forever-wild preserves in the Greater Boston Area.  Northeast Wilderness Trust is currently implementing a three-year short-term management plan to curtail illegal motorized trespass, clean up litter, decommission trails, and develop a long term wilderness management plan. 

“A growing partnership with Map Academy is good for the Preserve and good for the future of wilderness in southeast Massachusetts,” says Joe Falconeiri, Southern New England Land Steward for the Wilderness Trust.  “During work projects on the property, the students have been getting introduced to the concepts of self-willed land and why Northeast Wilderness Trust’s management style is different than most other organizations.” 

Map Academy students explore the shore of Muddy Pond on a recent visit.

As the partnership grows, programming will evolve to include ecological lessons and discussions on how the Preserve and wilderness, generally, enrich our lives—whether in an exurban setting like Kingston or in the furthest reaches of northern New England. 

“Partnerships with groups like Map Academy will always focus on valuing and appreciating nature for nature’s sake.  Northeast Wilderness Trust is firmly rooted in recognition that forever-wild landscapes have intrinsic value worth protecting…it’s part of the DNA of this organization,” said Jon Leibowitz, Executive Director of Northeast Wilderness Trust.  “But, we also celebrate wilderness’s many clear benefits to people.” 

Students investigate the impacts of illegal motorized recreation.

Moving forward, Northeast Wilderness Trust hopes to welcome Map students on a regular basis to work with Joe to steward the globally rare Coastal Plain Pond and Pine Barren ecosystems on the property.  A primary goal is to offer students courses and research opportunities at the Preserve that can earn them credits at school. 

In the next few weeks, Map Academy will be partnering with a local ecologist and botanist, Tim Simmons, to lead lessons and days in the field centered around vernal pools. 

Programming like this was part of the vision when the Wilderness Trust took on this “pocket” wilderness, as it’s often referred to.  Such wild forested pockets in an otherwise developed area are still places where nature can direct the ebb and flow of life and set the agenda.  We hope Muddy Pond becomes a resource to the people of Kingston and Plymouth; a physical place to get to know wild nature and become part of the land community that is larger than any one of us.  Northeast Wilderness Trust is excited to help foster a sense of place and pride in the local landscape, tied firmly to wilderness ethics, and to cultivate the next generation of conservation champions in southeast Massachusetts and beyond.

Would you like to volunteer to help us steward and rewild the Muddy Pond Wilderness Preserve, or share your knowledge of local natural history with students and the public? Contact Joe Falconeiri to lend a hand at joe@newildernesstrust.org or (802) 505-5594.

Late day light at Muddy Pond.