(click here to see photos of the Fells)

The Middlesex Fells Reservation is a 2000-acre park that is managed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation or DCR.

In 2011 the DCR released a Resource Management Plan for the Fells Reservation.  In this plan the DCR declares that the impacts of mountain biking is similar to that of hiking, and it recommends that the two uses should be treated the same.

To justify this claim the DCR cited data and studies that one expert claims is “irrelevant and useless for decision making at the Fells.”

And for anyone who has hiked long enough in the Fells to know what the park was before biking, the DCR’s claim borders on the absurd. One just has to hike any trail in the park to see the impacts bikes have had.

The biggest problem has been that mountain bikers have ignored rules regulating where they can go in the park every since they first arrived in the Fells, and there isn’t a trail in the park that hasn’t been impacted.

Nevertheless the DCR declared that the Reservoir Trail would be converted to a multi-use trail – although absolutely nothing was done to make it suitable for those on wheelchairs, strollers, rollerblades or street bikes.

Two to three new trails would be built in the Dark Hollow region of the Fells, this despite the fact that two trails already exist there. In addition, sections of the Rock Circuit Trail could to be opened to bikes. Finally, the DCR has announced that it is changing its current “Closed unless Posted Open” policy for mountain bike trails throughout Massachusetts DCR properties with a “Open Unless Posted Closed” policy. The problem with this last change is that cyclists who see “Closed to Bikes” signs simply rip them down and ride on.


Many involved in the  RMP process felt as though the DRC had become a branch of the New England Mountain Bike Association with the way it treated those who challenged their data, their assessment of trail conditions in the park and their  embrace of everything the mountain biking community and lobby groups have wanted.

The data presented in the RMP to defend the DCR’s new view is the same data that has been floated by the biking community for the past ten years. It hasn’t done any good till now because other managers realized it was irrelevant to the Fells. As of 2003, only two studies existed that directly compared hiking and biking. Two. Both were funded by bike organization, both present results that the authors declare should not be used to make broad assumptions about biking like the DCR did. Both involved tests of highly questionable value – i.e. what is the value of a test that compares the impacts of a hiker and biker down a short section of trail so steep that the hiker slips and slides out of the study area whereas the biker can simply roll down the study plot? And how is a dry dirt road in Montana anything like the rooted, rocky, hilly and generally wet conditions of the Fells? Especially if the study plots were a mere 26 square inches, and the rain used came from a malfunctioning rain machine and silted water from a muddy neighboring stream?

I won’t go further into the studies here, If you want more detail look here.


Once the Resource Management plan was approved in January 2012, one of the first things the DCR did was to reroute a section of the Reservoir Trail in the northern part of the Fells that was difficult for mountain bikers to use. This trail section had two sets of stone stairs that were installed by trail volunteers. The northern stairs were installed with a $5000 grant from a previous park administration and ran down a hillside next to a wetland area created by a underground spring.  Installing the steps represented a fairly serious effort by several groups of volunteers.

Since the northern section was on land within the boundaries of the town of Stoneham and near a wetland, the Stoneham Conservation Commission was notified and visited the site with DCR representatives and members of the Friend of the Fells to discuss options. The DCR was told they needed to notify the Conservation Commission of what they wanted to do there before  they proceeded. This the DCR did not do. A short time later the steps were ripped out of the hillside by a group of unsupervised DCR workers and the whole hillside covered with dead branches.

The Conservation Commission wasn’t happy about the actions of the DCR and said so. The DCR was also chastised by Mike Ryan of the Friends of the Fells in an article that appeared in local papers.  DCR Commissioner Edward Lambert later claimed that the trail section was too damaged to repair and the new trail avoided a wetland area. However the new bypass trail cut through a previously undisturbed area of the Fells and many felt it was entirely unnecessary.

There is also a very real fear that ripping out the stone steps near the spring and the southern hillside could destabilize both hillsides making them prone to serious erosion. It would have been far better to have simply left both stairs as they were and rerouted bikes away from this trail entirely onto already established bike routes. Hikers could then have used the trail without a problem. Was there a fear that bikers wouldn’t have kept off of this trail?

This trail section is well known to me because I’ve photographed it many times over the years. It was one of the most popular but illegal sections of trail in the Fells for mountain biking until the stone steps were installed. Photos of that trail can be seen here.

What bothers me is that the DCR now claims that biking isn’t any worse than hiking – and yet this trail used extensively for illegal biking is declared to be too damaged to repair by the DCR.


If a section of trail is too difficult to repair by the DCR, then we have a serious problem at the Fells. That’s because there are countless miles of trails with similar erosion issues. If trail rerouting of all of those trails takes place just to accommodate bikes, we’re going to see huge impacts on the Fells.

The construction of a web of entirely new trails instead of repairing old ones is a really bad idea. When new trails are constructed or illegal ones appear in the Fells, they soon become just as eroded as all the other older trails. The thin, rocky and rooted terrain of the Fells is the problem – not poor trail design. Any trail in the Fells soon erodes once bikes start using it.  That’s because the roots and rocks visible on trails in the Fells force bikers off  the trail edges and this widens trails.


In the DCR Fells Resource Plan the DCR talks about well-established trails as trails that are stable. The DCR declared this was good news for the Fells. But the conditions in the Fells make erosion of any trail used by bikes almost inevitable.

Trails in the Fells are rocky and rooted and not smooth roads. Bikers ride around roots and rocks onto trail edges and that widens trails. I don’t know of any trail in the Fells that isn’t headed towards serious erosion. Countless old trails are already there, and it will only be a matter of time before any new trail constructed by the DCR  joins them.


I believe that the DCR isn’t going to change its course easily. It will only happen when the right people start asking the right questions to those in charge. I personally believe that DCR Commissioner Edward Lambert has received some bad information about what is going on in the Fells from those who work under him. They simply refused to do their homework. Others claim he is culpable too. Yes I understand the DCR is a bureaucracy that has limited funding, but it would have been far better to do nothing in the Fells at all than to spend so much time on a plan that is only going to make things worse, not better.

When the Resource Management Plan was passed, it felt like a stab in the heart to the many people who had worked so hard to defeat it. I personally couldn’t believe they would let it pass. Certainly someone would see the folly, the absurdity it. The bike industry-funded junk science studies, the irrelevant results, the character assassination efforts of the New England Mountain Biking president toward the Friends of the Fells, bike lobby organization with public goals of more trails so that more bikes could be sold.  And what the DCR was claiming about bikes was simply not supported by the Resource Management Plan or by anything I or anyone else saw on the ground at the Fells. It was as if the DCR flew over the park in a helicopter and said looks ok to me, and then flew back to their office to draw up a management plan.

Oh I know there were plenty of public meeting where details of this plan were discussed but every one of these meetings were overrun with hoards of bikers called in by email blasts from every part of the region. I went to a few of those meetings and they were a joke. That wasn’t democracy at work – it was a demonstration of mob rule.  It was a worthless charade played out by the DCR that didn’t result in a plan that would protect the Fells, it resulted in a plan that gave a mob what is wanted.



The only way the DCR will reverse course will be if it is forced to do so. The problem is that few people understand what is really going on in the park and how it has been impacted. I have taken many photographs, which I believe, clearly show mountain biking impacts at the Fells. To a certain extent it has raised awareness of the problem, but some critics are now claiming that the photos simply show poor trail design.  If there are just a few photographs in question, this may be hard to argue. But if every trail in the Fells had those problems, then perhaps those photos would show that it wan’t so much a case of poor trail design but rather a problem with certain new users of those trails.

The problem with individual photos is that they don’t really tell a complete story about a place.  If a place is complex and large like the Fells, many accurate and organized images are needed to get an accurate idea of what is really happening. One needs to do a comprehensive photographic survey of every trail in the Fells and make those photographs immediately accessible to anyone who wants to see them.

Open a webpage on your computer and see a map of the Fells, click on dots indicating images on the map and up pops a high-quality image or gallery of images taken on the spot. Look along the edge of the displayed image and see exactly when it was taken and at what time. Make CDs of the images available to anyone who wants them. Cover every part of every trail in the park. Do it yearly if possible, with volunteers. When changes occurred at the park you’d know about them.

This kind of survey would have been invaluable if it were done in the Fells before mountain biking appeared. However, until just recently, a survey of this magnitude would have been prohibitively expensive and time consuming. That has now changed. With a $3.99 geo-tagging app on a smart phone and a 100-dollar digital camera it is now possible to take hundreds or even thousands of geo-tagged images of the Fells with date and time imprints, and then post the images so anyone with a computer can see them on anything from a cell phone to a large flat screen television.

I am using this technology now to do just such a survey. Images are hosted on Flickr so they load extremely fast and are linked to a map on Flickr showing location.

All images taken are posted so as to give a more detailed view of conditions along the entire trail, not just those sections that have problems. It is important to photograph good trails too since they could change rapidly with the more permissive mountain biking regulations.

If you are a journalist, scientist, park manager or other individual who might have an important use for the images, they would be available on DVD so they could be loaded onto other computers and into other geo-tag map programs.

The Middlesex Fells Geotag Project  <-Click



This site contains lots of useful information about mountain biking problems here and elsewhere around the country. Local bike groups like to say that opposition to mountain biking is the work of a small band of extremists who want to keep the riff raff out of the Fells, but mountain biking is actually a huge problem in countless parks across the country and in other parts of the world.

Locally, you might be interested in knowing that, more than a decade ago, the Lincoln, Massachusetts Land Trust decided that mountain biking was negatively impacting their properties and banned mountain bikes there. Mountain bikes are also not allowed on the vast majority of the Trustees of Reservations Properties. Nationally these parks no longer allow mountain biking. Isn’t it time to seriously question mountain biking at the Fells too? If the DCR is wrong, this park will seriously suffer the consequences .

Contact the Massachusetts Department of Conservation  or DCR,  Tell them you think they need to look at their data more carefully on biking because what you’re seeing at the Fells suggests biking is far worse than hiking.

Join the Friends of the Fells – they do great work and are actively involved in this issue. Your membership and financial assistance to that organization is one of the best ways of helping to solve this difficult problem. Write to your local reps and tell your local newspaper they need to look at this issue more seriously. Only through a public education and intensive monitoring programs like the Fells Geo-tag Project will we be able to get people on all sides to take notice and say: “Now wait a minute, that isn’t right. This has got to change.”

Thanks for visiting.




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