Group working to put this Great Meadows on the map

By David Desjardins, Globe Staff, 12/1/2002

You might call it terra incognita.

Its 183 acres - laced with trails and bursting with nearly 400 species of plants and animals - form the largest piece of undeveloped land in the Lexington-Arlington area. Yet though hundreds of bicyclists pedal past it daily on the Minuteman Bikeway, few could probably name the sprawling parcel.

No signs identify it; even if they did, one might puzzle over the fact that the area's name is the same as that of a popular national wildlife refuge a few miles to the west. A further confusion is that although the parcel is located in east Lexington, it's owned by the Town of Arlington.

Welcome to Great Meadows, a natural gem with an identity problem. But that might not last long, if a handful of residents from both towns can help it.

The group, Friends of Arlington's Great Meadows, wants to focus their neighbors' attention on the land, which member David White says has so far survived in part due to ''benign neglect'' but could face development pressures in an increasingly stressed economy. The group hopes to increase people's awareness and recreational use of the land by putting up signs and improving trails.

Purchased by Arlington from private landowners in 1871, Great Meadows is bordered roughly on the south by the bike path, on the west by Maple Street, and on the north and east by residential neighborhoods south of Lowell Street and west of the Arlington Reservoir. Intended as a supplementary water-storage area, it was only briefly used for that purpose. About 150 acres of wetlands form the center of the parcel and help protect against flooding in the area downstream.

Visitors to Great Meadows could easily forget they are surrounded by such a thickly populated area. Dense stands of trees line the ridge that encircles the wetlands, which was a glacial lake until it became filled in with peat, around 1902. Some 56 species of birds, 12 species of amphibians and reptiles, and more than 250 species of plants can be found there. The 19th-century ornithologist William Brewster used to go birding on the parcel.

Although the group has not yet requested it, members hope to see Great Meadows formally protected through its designation as conservation land, as are such Arlington sites as Mount Gilboa and Meadowbrook Park.

Concern over the future of Great Meadows was cited in a July 2001 report, commissioned by the Arlington Conservation Commission and conducted by Carex Associates, that stated, ''As long as Great Meadows is unprotected open space, development remains a possibility.''

That concern was echoed by group members, who observed that in the 1980s, some people in Arlington wanted to see a golf course built there. ''We'd like to have the legal/zoning status of this land better clarified by all parties involved,'' said member Scott Kirschner. ''No one has made a definitive statement of its protection. There is no immediate threat to the land, but we want to be preemptive.''

Group members met with Arlington's Board of Selectmen Monday to discuss the site and the stewardship activities they would like to undertake there. These include conducting regular cleanups, installing signs identifying the parcel, maintaining trails, and organizing field trips from Arlington schools. The land is most easily reached via the bike path.

Selectmen approved the group's plans. ''We appreciate them for taking on the stewardship of Great Meadows,'' said Kathleen Kiely Dias, the board's chairwoman. ''There hasn't been anyone interested in the land, apart from some neighbors in the area. It really is an opportunity for Arlington to take advantage of this open space.''

Dias added that she supports granting conservation status to Great Meadows, but it would need a lot of community input.

Sandra Ruggiero, a group member who teaches at the Waldorf School in Lexington, and some of her students have published a tour guide to Great Meadows, which they adapted from an earlier publication by John Andrews and Norma Floyd, members of the group Citizens for Lexington Conservation.

Students at the Waldorf School, which is located just on the other side of the bike path from Great Meadows, frequently visit the area for nature study.

Friends of Arlington's Great Meadows also conducts monthly hikes through the parcel. ''The area is honeycombed with trails,'' said member Andrea Golden. ''They go everywhere.''

The Friends of Arlington's Great Meadows will hold an open meeting Tuesday at the Waldorf School, 739 Massachusetts Ave., Lexington. Call 781-646-3941 or visit www.foagm.org.

This story ran on page N3 of the Boston Globe on 12/1/2002.
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