Environmentalists brave cold realities to rescue Cambridge’s enchanted forest
Photo credit: Derek Kouyoumjian
It’s the coldest day of the year so far, several degrees south of where novelties like frozen spit are entertaining, and the first annual reminder that my family down south might be onto something. Windchill notwithstanding, Cambridge activist Mike Connolly and more than a dozen other nature crusaders are hovering beside the Alewife T station bicycle cage, trying to avoid the icy shade and absorb whatever sunlight can be found to avoid freezing. “This is frostbite weather,” one guy mumbles through his scarf. Still, people keep showing up.
Connolly, it seems, is built for this. He doesn’t even have a hat on. I feel like a coward for shivering so uncontrollably; though I would expect “Big Mike,” as they call the 6’8” community advocate, to be somewhat impervious to the extreme chill, he’s not the only fearless soldier here ready to spend Sunday afternoon in the wilderness. Loosely dubbed by Connolly as the Silver Maple Winter Warriors, the ad-hoc ensemble representing Green Cambridge, the Coalition to Preserve the Belmont Uplands, the Belmont Citizens Forum, the Friends of Alewife Reservation, and others has weathered nastier conditions than just ice and chill. In their years-long mission to save Silver Maple Forest–an idyllic and intensely biodiverse woodland straddling Cambridge and Belmont within the Alewife Reservation–they’ve run up against developers, the courts, and worse–high-ranking elected officials.
Belmont State Sen. Will Brownsberger comes bundled for the task. Sporting an insulated yellow space suit with reflectors, thick gloves, and a flip-front lumberjack hat fit for the Gulag, he arrives on his mountain bike, locks up, and proceeds to educate the crowd. Passionate and knowledgable about the terrain, Brownsberger starts with some history–the area surrounding Alewife, he says, was a messy and polluted swamp until around 1903, when the state commissioned an evaluative study, then proceeded to implement restoration measures that included building sea walls on the Mystic River to the north. “This is a fascinating area,” said Brownsberger of the former swampy mess wedged between Route 2 and Fresh Pond. “The whole way it’s created is interesting. People wouldn’t be building anything around here without those seawalls.”
In an ironic turn of events one century-in-the-making, Brownsberger and others are now fighting against the commonwealth in hopes to preserve the last vast stretch of undeveloped beauty in this urban swath of Middlesex County. Environmentalists have been motivated for some time; Ellen Mass and her group, Friends of Alewife Reservation, for one, has been bumping up against developers for decades. The stakes, however, are increasingly high these days, and so Mass recruited Connolly to help drum-up momentum against a looming 298-unit, five-building development planned by the Philadelphia-based O’Neill Properties that activists claim would threaten floodplains and wetlands. Considering the number of wildlife groups that were already conscious about the shrinking Cambridge forest line, it wasn’t hard for Connolly to summon last-minute assistance–even with the arctic climate. By the time Brownsberger is done summarizing the struggle, there are nearly three dozen of us gathered for the expedition, including Cambridge city councilors-elect Dennis Carlone and Nadeem Mazen.
Walking from the Alewife T station toward the contested woods, over bridges and through brush worn bare by the bite, various concerned parties speak of their worries about the privately owned parts of the reservation, and for the species that rely on the natural resources here–deer, beaver, cottontail, mink, red and gray fox, river otters, wood warblers, to name a few. To help me understand why the state hasn’t come to the rescue, Idith Haber, President of the Coalition to Preserve the Belmont Uplands, further explains the legislative errata involved; basically, Governor Deval Patrick has twice vetoed funding measures to help save the Belmont Uplands, while efforts to stop development through the courts have done little more than forestall the inevitable. As we arrive at a picnic table off a bike path in the Alewife Reservation for another briefing, it becomes clear why Governor Biotech hasn’t swooped in to save the day. Just 100 yards away, casting a capitalist shadow over us jaded hippies, are giant buildings housing Siemans Medical Solutions, Genocea Biosciences, and the aptly named Forrester Research.
Standing on the table between the office park and the bike path, Anne-Marie Lambert of the Belmont Citizens Forum surveys the dire situation. Pointing in one direction, she says there have been 425 units built within a short distance over the past 10 years. Close by, there’s an active proposal to put in a hotel, while the tract behind us is slated for a major Mass Highway project. To the south is an operating Pfizer facility, directly next to the Whole Foods regional offices. At last count, Lambert says that between 2005 and 2015, there will be 2,600 new housing units added to within one mile of where we are standing (some of which are “affordable,” which has pit area environmentalists against some local housing advocates). For this group, the 298 apartments that O’Neill Properties is trying to build would be the most offensive of all–smack in the middle of the Silver Maple Forest, one of the last slices of significant land in this ever-shrinking oasis.
I don’t make it too much farther. I’m already under the weather, and following Lambert’s spiel about how much habitat has already been bulldozed for corporate work farms and condos, I literally throw up my breakfast on the ground in front of everyone. Utterly dehydrated, I begin to freeze, and have to return to the warm train station. I’ll be heading back out soon though; considering the imminent advance of O’Neill Properties, and that neither the state nor sympathetic groups have generated anywhere close to the approximated $14 million it would cost to purchase and secure the forest, the Silver Maple won’t likely be around for much longer save for an act of god or the governor.