When public lands are off limits to fun

What’s allowed on watershed lands around reservoirs? Not a whole lot says the sign to the right.

Posters such as these can be found in a lot of watersheds for reasons that make more than a little sense. That’s because people can threaten the quality of water that other people will eventually drink.

Consider, for example, the public access plan for the forested lands around the Wachusett Reservoir, a 4,000-acre lake in a densely populated area just west of Boston, Massachusetts.

 The rules there say no to: swimming, kayaking, snowmobiles, outdoor cooking, camping, dogs, paintball games, ice skating, ice fishing, snowshoeing on the ice, alcohol, large gatherings, target shooting, hunting in most places, bike riding in most places, all-terrain vehicles, metal detecting and so on.

Keene watershed sign.JPG

The prohibitions have come in for some criticism, and the Wachusett Reservoir managers don’t hide that fact. They’ve posted citizen complaints on their website including this suggestion: “Less signs that begin with the word no.”

The logic behind the prohibitions is grounded in economics: It costs less to limit the movement of humans on reservoir lands – indeed, it can cost less to buy up lands around reservoirs – than it can cost to filter or clean up contaminated waters.

Still, the economics of land conservation have changed during the last several decades as the cost of property has gone up. In more than a few cases municipal water departments have had to team up with nonprofit land trusts and recreation-minded agencies of state governments to assemble enough money to acquire watershed lands. That’s meant collisions of priorities. It’s meant outright conflict. In some cases it’s meant conservation negotiations that went nowhere.

On a more positive basis, it’s also meant greater public awareness of humans’ impact on their surroundings, and that’s not such a bad thing.