Welcome, Spring!

By Elisa Campbell

At this time, when so many members of our own species seem to have become completely insane, I have found it even more calming and delightful to see wildflowers and turtles doing what flowers and turtles do.

Because I live within walking distance of the Rail Trail, and the mix for forests, meadows, swamps, and streams along it between Station Road South East Street is so diverse and beautiful, that’s where I usually go. As I write this, there are Trout Lilies and Wood Anemone starting to bloom, beaver activity, ducks, geese, and herons in the larger bodies of water, and numerous Eastern Painted Turtles seeking logs and other places to soak up the sun they need to warm themselves. In mid-April I saw 18 turtles between the two entrances to the Rail Trail by the Ken Cuddeback Trail. We have more turtles than logs for them to sun on – those beavers should get busy!

Trout lily. Photo by Elisa Campbell

The Rail Trail is officially the “Massachusetts Central Rail Trail/Norwottuck Branch.” It’s part of a rail trail intended to cross the whole state, using mostly former railroad rights of way. The right of way, the construction, and the maintenance are a part of our state parks system, within the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).

In Amherst, we have another DCR park in town – the Mount Holyoke Range State Park. Given the size of towns in Massachusetts, that park extends over five towns – Amherst, Belchertown, Granby, Hadley, and South Hadley. From the ground, or looking at the Range from a distance, we tend to imagine that the whole Range is protected by the state park, but it’s not. I recommend you go to the DCR website and download the map of the park to familiarize yourself with what is protected and by whom. Much of the Range in Amherst is protected by the town, as conservation areas. Some of my favorite places aren’t officially protected at all, but nevertheless have some beautiful wildflowers, including Round-leaved Hepatica and Marsh Marigolds.

Town of Amherst

There are many trails on or over the Range. The Ken Cuddeback Trail going up past the water tower above Bay Road continues to Rattlesnake Knob, with two different views:  one east toward Long Mountain, Belchertown, Pelham, and even the tall hills east of Springfield; the other view north over Amherst and Hadley, up to Vermont and, on a clear day, Mount Greylock, the highest peak in Massachusetts.

Muskrat in Hop Brook. Photo by Elisa Campbell

Or, from west to east, you can hike on the New England Scenic Trail along the ridge line over Mount Norwottuck from the Notch on Route 116 to Harris Mountain Road. The Sweet Alice Trail near Kestrel Land Trust’s new headquarters on Bay Road is less strenuous and beautiful. Bring a map if you don’t want to risk taking a wrong turn and a longer hike than you had in mind!

While we in Amherst are lucky to have many other conservation areas in town – and even more in nearby towns – I want to focus right now on those managed by DCR, because DCR needs our help. For decades the agency has been underfunded, losing operating funds and staff to take care of our state forests and parks. The underfunding has been even worse since the Great Recession after the collapse of the housing bubble more than a decade ago. DCR’s operating budget in the current fiscal year is $4 million less than it was in FY2009 – not counting inflation, actual dollars allocated. It has 300 fewer employees than in FY2009.

Hepatica. Photo by Elisa Campbell

The state is currently in good financial shape; in addition to federal money given to states to help them deal with the consequences of the pandemic, we have a surplus of state taxes. Now is the time to make up, to some extent, for the terrible cuts to DCR during and after the Great Recession.

The Massachusetts House budget includes an increase for DCR, so the next step is to advocate for strongly for a larger amount in the state Senate.

We owe it to these places we enjoy so much, and to our fellow humans who also enjoy these places

Pied-billed grebe. Photo by Elisa Campbell

One thought on “Welcome, Spring!”

  1. Thank you for highlighting the good work of DCR, and the fabulous benefit that is our rail trail system. My hubby and I biked the entire length of the trail from Amherst to New Haven, CT. With a few interruptions, the trail basically connects all the way down! It’s an amazing resource.

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