Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Happy Anniversary, Quabbin


On the first day of summer sixty-four years ago today, the creative destruction of the Quabbin Reservoir in Central Massachusetts was complete. It could not be built today, and the legacy is mixed. The Friends of the Quabbin organization describes it as 

"One of the largest drinking-water reservoirs in the world, a remarkable feat of engineering, an 'accidental wilderness' that is home to an impressive variety of wildlife, and a place that brings bittersweet memories to many who once lived here."

Certainly modern Boston could not exist without it, as was demonstrated a few months ago when the supply was  interrupted for a few days. But four other towns were completely removed to create it -- churches, homes, parks, mills, everything. The decades-long story of that inundation and its aftermath is exquisitely told in Sean Cole's three-part radio documentary Haunting the Quabbin.

A student told me about the book Quabbin: The Accidental Wilderness, which is a beautiful and informative telling of the story. To protect the quality of the water in the Quabbin, a lot of land around it has been protected from development for generations, creating an area of high biodiversity that is legally protected. This protection became critically important to bald eagles, as it coincided with the worst effects of DDT, so the Quabbin region is essential to the eagle's recovery in New England. Closer to Bridgewater, the same thing is happening at a smaller scale around the Assowompsett Pond reservoir, which was one of my first environmental-education projects in this area. The naturalist who introduced my students and me to the eagles even suggested that the similar shapes of the two reservoirs might have influenced the eagles' nesting choices.

As residential and commercial land use encroaches in neighboring buffer zones, the Biomap project is helping to identify priority areas for protection. This part of the state's Natural Heritage program combines geography and biology to create a national model for biodiversity protection. Complementing programs that protect endangered species, this project identifies areas of high species count that are vulnerable to land-use change.

I have been going to the Quabbin region for the past ten years or so to take students to Harvard Forest as part of my course on land management. More recently, I have begun an annual tradition of doing a late-night geographic education program at Quabbin Regional Middle School in Barre -- and staying at a local inn afterwards.

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