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Dudley’s walking trails and Conservation Land Trust

By Janet Stoica

Sandra Peterson, a member of the Dudley Conservation Land Trust (DCLT) was about to take me for a hike on the Tufts Branch trail to the upper knoll’s open meadow when five hikers came down the trail and stopped in front of us. Sandra knew the hikers, David Harrigan and his four grandchildren, the youngest, Caleigh Poirier, is four years old. When Sandra asked me if I was ready to begin our trek, I thought “hey, if a four-year old can do this, so can I.”

Sandra had previously advised me to wear my walking shoes but I certainly wasn’t as prepared as she was with her L.L. Bean duck boots. I was soon to learn that while the trail was a well-maintained level hiking path, it could also be a challenge when it split three ways to travel to the knoll.

We took the middle trail, straight ahead, with a 30-degree slope. Sandra advised me that one of the other trails has a 45-degree slope and the remaining trail was an easy switchback for beginners. As I followed her up the trail, accepting her assistance over a rocky patch, she detailed the various flora growing along the path: wild honeysuckle, berries suitable for pie-making, witch hazel, wild crabapple trees. I was amazed at her knowledge of the greenery surrounding us as I kept my eyes glued to the path in front of me, watching for wildlife that I probably wouldn’t want to encounter.

Thank goodness it was a beautiful, but breezy day, as it kept the mosquitoes and dreaded horseflies away. The sun shone through the trees and I thought “Is this how it was for the earliest settlers of our country? Walking along paths worn smooth by others when walking was a way of life unless you were fortunate enough to own a horse or other transport animal?”

I was mesmerized by my short trek into the deep woods and up to the knoll, where I was rewarded with views of rolling hills and valleys and even the Nichols College campus off in the distance.

The meadow has four red markers placed strategically where a hiker can stand to view either a sunrise or sunset at the time of the spring and fall equinoxes and the summer and winter solstices. Veteran hikers will probably smile at my humble perceptions, but I hadn’t really done this type of activity before and I will say it was thoroughly and amazingly enjoyable. To think that I was walking in the natural habitat of deer and bobcats. It was so peaceful here, calming, and even enchanting. My dad would’ve been proud of me as he was a true conservationist and loved taking our family on camping trips in the Maine woods.

What was begun by Mr. Chet Kulisa of Dudley decades ago and named the Dudley Land Trust has come to be one of the best natural sanctuaries in the region. Not only is it local, reachable, and usable by everyone, it is also a true testament to the foresight and vision of those who seek to preserve our local land from development and to prevent the further loss of green space. An old Joni Mitchell song comes to mind about paving paradise and putting in parking lots and how you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.  As the Land Trust’s brochure states: “To some a tree is just a tree…but to many creatures it gives food and shelter…to all of us it provides oxygen and clean water…to the earth it offers carbon sequestration.”

I am now bitten by the hiking bug and I am grateful for the group of fine volunteers who maintain all the trails that are part of the Dudley Conservation Land Trust. I have certainly gained a sense of awe and admiration for all that they have accomplished and for all they still hope to do.

The wildlife sanctuaries that are maintained by the DCLT are the Keekamoochaug and Tufts Branch, which is 87 acres on Healy Road with trails through field and forest; Slater Woods and Hiland Park, 138 acres on Dudley-Oxford Road with a trail to Peter Pond; Leovich Landing, four acres with a boat launch on the French River on Dudley Road, Oxford; and Wieloch Woods, 80 acres off West Main Street with conifer forests, streams, trails, and a portion of the Grand Trunk Railway.

The Trust is an all-volunteer, non-profit 501(c)3 organization. Membership and donations help to defray their operating costs. Some of their fundraising and grants help to cover land acquisition, stewardship, and equipment and they also work with other conservation organizations like the Mass. Audubon Society to enrich their greenspaces.

“Dudley is like a beautiful oasis apart from all the hurried life outside of it,” said Sandra Peterson, “we are grateful for the land that has been donated to us as it has enhanced the town even more. For land to be considered for the Trust, it must have a natural heritage and may even have endangered plant or animal species. We look at how close the parcel is to another protected parcel and how close it is to public access for public usage. Dudley is so very fortunate to have open space and farmland. Did you know that Dudley used to have 40 dairy farms and now has none? The last farm has gone to grass-fed beef which is still a good use of the land. The DCLT has ensured that the Trust land is now protected in perpetuity with conservation restrictions.”

When Sandra and her husband, Mark Smith, first moved to Dudley they became involved with the land trust as they saw the potential here, so open and wild. They used to see bobcats crossing their back property and wanted to ensure that the wildlife could continue with their habitat. Sandra had always enjoyed hiking as her parents had a cabin in New Hampshire, and they became involved with protecting their own 200 acres in that area. Her husband’s family has substantial acreage in Virginia that has been placed in a conservation trust as well. “It’s just good for the soul to have these natural environments,” said Sandra, “walking the land and experiencing nature refreshes you.”  I heartily agree.

Paul Wieloch is the current President of the DCLT. The group has about 140 members, conducts fundraising along with a membership drive, which is always ongoing, and annually awards a $1,000 scholarship to any high school student majoring in Environmental Science, Horticulture, or Veterinary Medicine. The scholarship is given in memory of Esther Wieloch, the sister of Paul Wieloch. The group always welcomes new members and more information can be found on their website: www.Dudleyclt.org  or by email to: [email protected]  Their mailing address is: Dudley Conservation Land Trust, P.O. Box 14, Dudley MA 01571.