Conservation and Landscape Planning in Massachusetts

Henry David Thoreau Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Henry David Thoreau, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The story of the National Conservation Movement intersects with the Massachusetts conservation story at several places. Much of the national story focused on preservation of large wilderness tracts of land at distant locations—usually unincorporated land in the public domain. The conservation story in Massachusetts, on the other hand, is about people interacting with nature in their own communities and the evolving conservation stewardship ideas.

As popular ideas about nature have changed over time, so have the forms of conservation. Whether initially created for utilitarian or preservationist purposes, urban parks, state forests, or trail systems are playing important ecological roles in habitat protection for many types of wildlife. It is a story worth knowing. From colonial times onward, the stories of how Massachusetts citizens worked to protect their state’s open spaces provide some great examples of how people shared a sense of responsibility for nature in their own communities and regions: not just to have space for their own enjoyment, but to preserve the land for future generations as well.

Some Massachusetts people played nationally significant roles in conservation thinking and practice making important contributions to open-space planning initiatives. One such person is Charles Eliot, whose ideas contributed to the creation of the world’s first land trust and the first regional open space system in the country. Benton MacKaye, in his multiple roles as father of the Appalachian Trail, regional planner, and wilderness advocate, is another eminent Massachusetts conservationist. Robert McCullough has written that it is possible to trace the evolving environmental land ethic through community woodlands. This is also true for many other preserved lands. Examples of a few of Massachusetts’ key categories of protected open space include town commons, urban parks and park systems; state and town forests; wildlife habitat; and regional trail systems, and the stories of the major contributors to their creation are worthy of note.

Massachusetts Innovators in Conservation and Landscape Planning
Historians identify several Massachusetts people as innovators who have made important contributions to national conservation ideas and practices. Historic places featured in this itinerary illustrate the lives and work of several of the people who made important contributions to national conservation ideas and practices such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Sprague Sargent, Harriet Hemenway, and Benton MacKaye. Emerson and Thoreau spearheaded the Transcendental movement, and their work helped catalyze a new respect for nature as a spiritual resource. Emerson’s essays, including “Nature,” were enormously influential in his own era. Thoreau’s experiment in living at Walden Pond, and his observations and intuitive insights into the natural history and spiritual aspects of nature in his home town, Concord, made important contributions to the philosophy of conservation that impacted subsequent generations. Charles Sprague Sargent played a key role in shaping national forest conservation policy, serving as the director of Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum. He also provided important leadership in the creation of the Adirondacks State Forest System in New York, the first of its kind, and the Massachusetts State Forest and Reservation system. Benton MacKaye’s contributions to forest conservation included his vision for the Appalachian Trail and his work as a co-founder of the Wilderness Society.

Three Massachusetts conservation organizations are important for their originality and their role as models for other organizations throughout the nation. Founded in 1896 by Boston residents Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall, the Massachusetts Audubon Society was the first state Audubon Society in the country, The Appalachian Mountain Club founded in 1876 in Boston was the first permanent organization of hikers and mountaineers in the United States. The Trustees of Reservations in Massachusetts was the first land trust in the world.

This itinerary also highlights landscapes designed by two outstanding landscape architects from Massachusetts, Frederick Law Olmsted and Charles Eliot. Olmsted was a founder of the profession of landscape architecture. His collaborative effort with architect Calvert Vaux on the design of Central Park in New York inspired the nation, leading urban areas around the country to incorporate large “country” parks into city planning. Olmsted was also one of the first U.S. designers to link parks into a park system. New England’s best example of his work is Boston’s Emerald Necklace park system.

The work of Charles Eliot is probably the least well known outside of the field of landscape architecture, but he made major contributions to regional open space planning. Eliot worked in collaboration with journalist Sylvester Baxter to promote the idea of a regional metropolitan park system, the first of its kind in the United States. The concept required the creation of a new kind of an organization—a land trust. The project also demonstrated Eliot’s abilities to advocate and organize. He worked with the Appalachian Mountain Club and community leaders from the region to develop political support for the project, create the needed legislation, and identify key properties in each community to add to the park system. Reflecting on his son’s writings in Garden and Forest about the need to preserve Maine’s coastal scenery, Charles W. Eliot (1834–1926) founded the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations with George Dorr (1853–1944) in 1903. Over the following years, The Trustees acquired over 35,000 acres of Mount Desert Island to hold for free public use. Beginning in 1916, The Trustees donated their holdings to the National Park Service. Today, this land comprises much of Acadia National Park, which became the first national park to the east of the Mississippi River.

Arnold Arboretum. Photo by Chris Devers, Flickr's Creative Commons
Arnold Arboretum. Photo by Chris Devers, Flickr's Creative Commons

Colonial Commons as the first Protected Open Space
The roots of utilitarian conservation arose from colonial agrarian traditions which viewed nature as a source of natural resources to be used for housing, food, and clothing, and as a source of income to be bartered or sold. Early New England colonial settlements were established with the expectation that most community members would meet their needs for food and shelter by establishing farms.

Settlements included both private ownership of land, as well as common use of some lands (“Commons” such as meadows, swamps, or woods) not yet assigned to individuals. Each landowner in the community had the use of a proportional share of uplands, meadows, swamps, and marshes. Meadows and other arable land provided land for growing crops or were used as cow commons or ox pastures. Woodlands were used for harvest of timber; swamps were a good source of cedar, used for shingles, and muck was used as fertilizer. A “Great Pond” ordinance, established in 1641, granted all citizens access to public or private ponds over 10 acres in size, as well as to navigable rivers, for the purpose of fishing or hunting. Some communities specified town rights of way to coastal lands for the purpose of fishing or gathering salt, hay, muck, or seaweed.

Although land was used in common, it was recognized by the communities that overuse of shared natural resources would cause harm to the “Commonwealth”. In many communities, town ordinances regulated the use of the Common. For example, regulations might limit the number of livestock that each owner could graze on public meadows, or the number of cedar trees that could be taken by individuals from swamps. Concerned by the consequences of a common practice in some towns of large-scale burning of woodlands to clear land for farming, a 1743 Massachusetts Bay General Law was established to regulate the burning of woodlands. As Richard Judd has noted, early colonial conservation ideas such as these illustrated a belief in democratic access to land, coupled with shared responsibility for resources (Judd, 1997; McCullough, 1995; Russell, 1976).

Preserving Nature Nearby in the 19th Century Urban Parks Movement: Boston’s Emerald Necklace
Boston, like many other urban areas, was impressed by New York’s Central Park, but lacked a large central unoccupied area which could become a park. As a first effort, Boston converted the small Public Garden into a formal, landscaped park in the late 1850s. Several landscape architects, including HWS Cleveland, Robert Morris Copeland and Uriel Crocker, proposed linked park systems for Boston and published their own visions of what such a park might look like. The commission was eventually given for creating a linked park system to Frederick Law Olmsted, who had already been working on two interesting park projects in the Boston area, which eventually became part of Boston’s “Emerald Necklace” Park System. In the first project, Olmsted worked to transform the Back Bay Fens from transformed polluted tidal flats into a wetland park planted with salt tolerant marsh grasses (the first example of wetlands restoration). The second project was a collaborative effort between Olmsted and Charles Sprague Sargent, the director of the Arnold Arboretum. They collaborated on the landscape design of Boston’s first Arboretum. After Olmsted was awarded the contract to create a linked system of parks in greater Boston, he connected existing parks like Boston Common and the Public Garden via the Commonwealth Mall to the Back Bay Fens. The park system then follows the Muddy River to Jamaica Pond, the Arnold Arboretum, and eventually to Franklin Park (Newton, 1971).

Creating the First U.S. Regional Open Space System: The Metropolitan Park System of Greater Boston
By the final decades of the 19th century, the urban Parks Movement was well underway. Many cities throughout the country had created large country parks or park systems. Boston’s Emerald Necklace park system was nearing completion by the end of the century. Outside of Boston, however, the loss of open space was troubling. Landscape architect Charles Eliot and journalist Sylvester Baxter proposed a bold new idea for a regional park system. The scale of the project was extremely ambitious. They hoped to generate public support to acquire several thousand acres of parkland in over two dozen communities within a ten mile radius of Boston.

Eliot proposed the idea in a letter to the Editor published in Garden and Forest magazine in February 1890, entitled “The Waverly Oaks: A Plan for their Preservation for the People.” In the article, Eliot explained that creation of the park system would require that a new type of organization would need to be created—one that was incorporated to hold lands in trust for the public, “just as the Public Library holds books and the Art Museum pictures—for the use and enjoyment of the public.” (quoted in Eliot, 1902, p. 318)

The Waverly Oaks were 26 giant oak trees located near the Beaver Brook in Belmont and Waltham. The site was beautiful, and Eliot used it as an example of the kind of scenic place that would soon be lost to development without some kind of preservation initiative. Eliot and Baxter each lobbied for political support for the proposal. Baxter wrote a series of articles in the Boston Herald, and Eliot, a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club, solicited AMC help in crafting enabling legislation that would be need to be approved by the state in order for the new organization to exist. The legislation was passed in 1891, and The Trustees of Public Reservations (now called The Trustees of Reservations) was organized and chartered. It was the first organization of it’s kind in the world. It soon became a model for land trusts both in the United States and in Europe (Eliot, 1902; Newton, 1971)

Next, Eliot called for a meeting inviting officials from Massachusetts communities to suggest properties that might be added to the new park system. In 1893, Eliot and Baxter issued a report making final recommendations. The properties recommended for acquisition fit into four different landscape categories: ocean frontage; the shores and islands of Boston’s inner bay; tidal estuaries; and forest uplands. In 1893, legislation known as the Park Act established a Metropolitan Park Commission with powers of eminent domain and funding for land acquisition in 36 Boston area communities which were to be included in the Metropolitan Park System. Soon after passage of the legislation, the Beaver Brook Reservation, home of the Waverly Oaks, became the first Reservation added to the new system. By the end of 1895, 7000 acres of forest reservations, coastal beaches, and river banks had been acquired in communities within a 10 mile radius of Boston. Today, Boston’s Metropolitan Park System includes nearly 20,000 acres of park lands in thirty seven Boston area communities, including seven forested reservations, three river reservations, and ten ocean reservations, connected through 162 miles of parkways (Newton, 1971; Adams, et al., 2002).

Charles River Esplanade, part of the Metropolitan Park System of Greater Boston Wikimedia Commons
Charles River Esplanade, part of the Metropolitan Park System of Greater Boston
Wikimedia Commons.

Massachusetts Creates a State Forest and Reservation System
Another New York initiative, the outstanding model provided by the preservation of the Adirondacks in the 1880s, provided an incentive for other states in the west and in New England to pursue their own forest preservation initiatives. The effort was a timely one for the New England states. Deforestation in the mid 19th century was followed by farm abandonment in many small rural communities after 1850. Over the next several decades, the abandoned fields and pastures grew a crop of white pines. By 1900, the highly marketable trees were ready for harvest.

Land speculators purchased the abandoned lands for very little money, then clear-cut the trees using portable sawmills. By 1907, timber production reached a peak of three billion board feet. The massive deforestation prompted public outcry by the scientific community, sportsmen, hiking clubs, members of the growing tourist industry and farmers led to political support for state and local initiatives to protect open space and to create state forest reservations (Rivers, 1998).

Inspired by the Adirondacks example, New England states began to create state forest initiatives by the mid 1890s. The Massachusetts Forestry Association (MFA) was established in 1898, with the goal of promoting public interest in reforestation projects. The MFA lobbied the state legislature for creation of the Office of the State Forester, established in 1904. Early projects by the first State Forester, Alfred Akerman, included public education. In 1905, the State Forester began teaching an annual class in woodlot management at Massachusetts Agricultural College, targeted to private landowners. He also advocated that the state establish a forest reserve system. In 1908, the Massachusetts legislature passed the Reforestation Act, aimed at reforestation of one million “wild, unproductive acres” in the state (Rivers, 1998).

The first forest reservations in Massachusetts were created prior to the Reforestation Act, however. In Massachusetts, concerns over logging on Mt. Greylock led to a citizens’ initiative to preserve the area. Four hundred acres of land at the summit of Mt. Greylock were donated by a group of businessmen, the Greylock Park Association. The state legislature provided $25,000 for additional land acquisition, and in 1898, Mt. Greylock Reservation was created as Massachusetts’ first forest reservation. Another early state acquisition was Mt. Wachusett, created in 1899. Most of Massachusetts’ extensive state forest system was created by land purchases in the years after 1914. In that year, the state legislature approved $90,000 for purchase of forest lands (mostly logged over) for reclamation. A State Forestry Commission was empowered to acquire by purchase or otherwise, large tracts of land suitable for timber cultivation. Land for forests was to be distributed throughout the state, so they would be accessible to a large number of people. The objective was to purchase large tracts of land—ideally 1000 acres in size or larger. Lands already logged over could be acquired cheaply, and a price limit was set a maximum of $5 per acre. In addition to land purchased by the state for the creation of new state forests, some properties were also donated by individuals or groups. Two Massachusetts state forests were donated by women’s groups, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the Daughters of the American Revolution, examples of the contributions women were making to a wide range of national, state and local forest conservation initiatives from the time of the Progressive era (Rivers, 1998; Merchant, 1995).

While most of the state forests were managed primarily for timber for timber production, it was soon found that timber production and recreation could coexist. Fishing and hunting were allowed in most of the state forests. Auto touring and camping were increasingly popular recreational activities by the 1920s. The first public campground was developed at Myles Standish State Forest in 1921. In the same year, an “auto camp” was developed at the Mohawk Trail State Forest. It was immediately popular, not only with Massachusetts, but people around the country. In 1924, the campground was used “by 1,050 auto parties, containing about 3,500 people, representing twenty-eight states and four Canadian provinces…”) (Rivers, 1998).

During the Depression era, the federal government established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to help young men out of work by giving them jobs to perform a variety of conservation-related projects throughout the country. In Massachusetts, the CCC operated between 1933 and 1942. At its peak, the program established 51 camps and employed over 100,000 men and boys. The state forest system today has been shaped in major ways by their work, which included a variety of reforestation, insect and disease control initiatives. They also constructed roads, ski trails, bridges, campgrounds, and scenic overlooks. Following the 1938 hurricane, which uprooted over half a billion feet of timber, CCC efforts salvaged 150 million feet of timber in Massachusetts. There is a bronze memorial at the Mohawk Trail State Forest headquarters in Charlemont dedicated the CCC (Foster, Charles H.W., 1998).

Hiking Clubs Create Trail Systems and Lobby for Protected Open Space
Two of the earliest hiking clubs were organized in Massachusetts. The earliest hiking club was Cyrus Tracy’s Exploring Circle was established in Lynn, Massachusetts around 1850. The group held outings in local Lynn Woods, and built several hiking trails in the area. In Williamstown, Massachusetts, the Alpine Club was organized in 1863 by Williams College professor Albert Hopkins. The Alpine Club held outings between 1863 and 1866. Other early Northeastern hiking clubs included New York’s Torrey Botanical Club, established in the 1860s, and the White Mountain Club of Portland, Maine, established in 1873. The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), which has become the largest and most influential hiking club in New England, was established in Boston in 1876 by an MIT physics professor Edward Pickering. A major organizational goal was the exploration of unascended peaks in New England. In addition to providing organized hikes, the club also produced scientific data and maps of areas they explored, and built trails and huts. AMC membership included both men and women, and the organization grew rapidly, to over 1000 members by 1898 (McCullough, 1995; Waterman and Waterman, 1989).

Several trail building projects in the Northeast that were completed in the first half of the 19th century. Between 1809 and1830, hiking trails were built by hiking clubs in the White Mountains and Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire; the Catskills, in New York; Mt. Ascutney in Vermont; and Mt. Greylock in Massachusetts. As regional consciousness grew among Northeastern hiking groups, new initiatives were created to link the many short, fragmented local trails into regional trail networks or long distance through-trails. The AMC initiated a number of trail building projects and trail networks in the White Mountains by the 1880s. Trail systems were also created at Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire; Mount Desert in Maine; and Mt. Greylock in Massachusetts. These included carriage paths and roads in addition to hiking paths. (Waterman and Waterman, 1989).

The vision for the first long “through trail” was proposed in the Green Mountains of Vermont in 1910 by James P. Taylor, the headmaster of the Vermont Academy for Boys at Saxtons River. His vision was to create a long trail through the Vermont Green Mountains extending from the Massachusetts border north to Canada. In order to accomplish this bold vision, he proposed the creation of an umbrella organization, and helped establish the Green Mountain Club (GMC). The GMC had many of the same organizational goals as the AMC. The organization built and maintained trails and shelters, and produced maps and guidebooks of the area. The Long Trail eventually extended 262 miles, and it took volunteers 20 years of effort to complete the Trail (Waterman and Waterman, 1989).

The Long Trail became a prototype that inspired many other long distance trail proposals in the Northeast. The most ambitious regional trail proposal was the 1921 proposal by regional planning visionary Benton MacKaye for an Appalachian Trail extending from Maine to Georgia. MacKaye’s proposal built on the idea of connecting existing trail segments and creating new ones. Using the model established by the Vermont Long Trail, MacKaye proposed creation of an umbrella organization, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which could coordinate efforts of local and regional volunteers who would be responsible for building and maintaining trail segments. MacKaye’s proposal, like the Vermont Long Trail, took the efforts of many volunteers, working over a long period of time, to make the trail vision a reality. The Appalachian Trail eventually extended 2,100 miles, and involved the efforts of many individuals and organizations. The AT became the first National Scenic Trail in 1968, and is currently managed by a partnership with the National Park Service and local and regional organizations.

The Berkshire chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club built the Massachusetts section of the AT, and currently maintains the trail, working in partnership with the National Park Service and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. While the recreational trail component of the Appalachian Trail became a reality, MacKaye’s original proposal envisioned the Trail as part of a regional open space planning strategy that would use forests to contain metropolitan sprawl. Feeder routes such as trails, rail lines or highways would make the AT accessible to people from major urban areas. MacKaye also envisioned that some people who hiked the trail for fun might ultimately want to live nearby. Camps established along the AT route could potentially provide economic opportunity for permanent residents, who could grow food and provide meals and shelter for hikers (MacKaye, 1921; Anderson, 2002; Waterman and Waterman, 1989).

In the 1940s and 1950s, volunteers created a number of additional long north-south trails in Massachusetts, including the 35-mile Warner Trail, the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail, and the Taconic Crest, Taconic Skyline, and South Taconic Trails. In the 1980s, the Mid-State Trail was extended south from Worcester to the Connecticut border, where it connected with another north-south trans state trail (Waterman and Waterman, 1989).

The Appalachian Mountain Club and other hiking organizations have provided significant political support to coalitions, which supported open space acquisition of parkland and wilderness areas. Hiking clubs were part of a coalition that supported a New York State initiative to create forest preserves in the Adirondacks and the Catskills. In the 1880s spearheaded by landscape architect and AMC member Charles Eliot, for the creation of The Trustees of Public Reservations in 1891; and for creation of Boston’s Metropolitan Park Commission in 1892, creating the first regional park system in America. In 1894, the AMC obtained the right to hold tax-free mountain and forest properties, a concept that spread to a number of other public and private entities in northeastern states. Hiking clubs were also a part of a political coalition that supported passage of the Weeks Act in 1911. The legislation authorized the creation of the White Mountains National Forest, the first National Forest in the Northeast. (Fox, 1998; Waterman and Waterman, 1989).

Massachusetts has played an important role in shaping American ideas and actions through a wide range of conservation initiatives, which span several centuries. Key Massachusetts contributions to conservation and open space planning from colonial times to the mid 20th century include the following:

-The first New England Common (Boston Common in 1634)
-17th and 18th century examples of utilitarian conservation: natural resource management on the Commons
-The first U.S. public botanical garden (Boston Public Garden, 1839)
-19th century Romantic and Transcendental writers bring a new appreciation of nature
-Some of the earliest U.S. hiking trails and clubs (ca.1850)
-An exemplary urban metropolitan park system (Emerald Necklace—Olmsted designed sections 1870s and 1880s)
-Advocacy for national forest conservation (Charles Sprague Sargent, 1870s and 1880s)
-The first land trust in the world (Trustees for Public Reservations, 1891)
-The first regional open space plan in the country (Metropolitan Park System, 1893)
-The first state Audubon Society in the country (Massachusetts Audubon Society, 1896)
-The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England), founded in 1910 by William Sumner Appleton, Jr. to preserve quintessentially New England buildings, landscapes, and objects, is the oldest regional preservation organization in the United States.
-The first transcontinental hiking trail proposal (Appalachian Trail, 1921)
Regional planning philosophy using protected open space to help control sprawl (1920s and 1930s)

In addition to the above list of “firsts”, Massachusetts has participated in a wide variety of other conservation initiatives. Massachusetts towns and cities contain protected public lands that provide a microcosm of the American conservation movement, and landmark initiatives in local and regional open space planning. Several Massachusetts people made key contributions to American conservation thinking and action. In addition, the wide range of conservation initiatives in local communities throughout the state provides many exemplary examples of conservation activism that can serve as standards for contemporary initiatives.
Massachusetts has made key contributions to conservation and landscape planning and boasts numerous examples of historic sites throughout the Commonwealth that address specific aspects of a larger story. There is still much that can be done to create a context that ties the stories (and the sites) together.

The Massachusetts Conservation itinerary is a tool that is intended to help people learn to read the American conservation story through the protected landscapes that are featured in the itinerary. It may also encourage citizens to seek historic designations for other significant properties. Some sites, although currently protected, suffer from very limited budgets for site management and staffing. Other important sites are not protected. An increased recognition of the significance of the conservation landscapes may lead to new designations or other proposals that expand sources of funding for both site management and interpretation. The itinerary is also intended to attract tourists, and heritage tourism can provide needed economic revenue for towns and regions. Finally, reading the Massachusetts conservation landscape is just fun—a great way to spend an afternoon or a week exploring landscapes, many of them scenic, that were created as a result of centuries of creative initiatives and caring.

Part of a series of articles titled Stories of Massachusetts Conservation .

Last updated: July 7, 2020