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Vital Climate and Soil Functions of Our Silver Maple Forest

Rachel Philbrick
March 28, 2003

I am a senior at Commonwealth School considering environmental science as a career. This month I am volunteering as an intern with the Friends of Alewife Reservation (FAR). I attended the Health and Environment Committee hearing, March 4 at City Hall, which denied for the present Cambridge sewer hookups to the Belmont Silver Maple forest development. After doing some research, I've come to think that clear-cutting five acres of Belmont's unusual silver maple forest will cause irreparable damage to the Alewife wetlands and waterways.

The forest provides an essential habitat for many animals in the area, and the development of the "Belmont Uplands" would mean the destruction of the forest at the expense of both the human and non-human species in the Alewife area. This is not the "smart growth" which Massachusetts leaders say is the environmental standard for the 21st century. (See Chronicle article on Smart Growth, 3/18)

The forest is located in an area whose residents are very concerned about flooding. Partially located on a flood plain, the maple forest reduces the damage storms can cause in three ways. Most importantly, it creates a buffer between developed areas and the low wetlands of the Alewife reservation. This means the wetlands can overflow in times of very high waters into the forested area without causing any property damage. Soils of the forest absorb some of the water, adding it to the depleted reservoir of ground water. Lastly, the thick scrub; grassland vegetation; wetland marshes surrounding the forest; and deep-rooted silver maples, elms, willows, ash and aspen trees slow the flow of rain water, which greatly improves drainage.

Proposed construction on the site would negatively affect all three of these attributes. Cutting down the trees and erecting an office building would eliminate the natural buffer as well as the flow-reducing vegetation. The proposed 191,200 square feet of asphalt and concrete surfaces would prevent the absorption of water into the soil.

O'Neill Properties has addressed this fact by proposing concrete holding basins for the storm water runoff. However, these basins cannot do the work that a forest performs for free. As water is absorbed into the forest's soil, particulate contaminants are removed from the soil through "sedimentation." Forest soil is rich with microbes which can convert pollutants, such as by-products of nearby industries and road run-off present in the soil, into less toxic forms. The soil purifies the storm water naturally, and the water sinks to replenish the water table. The proposed holding basins would not perform such a thorough purification process, and a comparable system would cost an exorbitant amount to construct.

Urban wetlands are sensitive to changes in the volume or quality of the water discharged into them. Even slight changes in the water can have significant repercussions. As for climate mitigation, forests act as a "carbon sink" by storing carbon dioxide in soil and plant biomass, which helps control the effects of the greenhouse gas, keeping air cleaner and cooler. Deforestation and increased use of fossil fuels have introduced more carbon into the atmosphere than ever before, probably contributing to a trend of global warming. Recent non-profit Environmental Defense News stated that this past decade was the hottest of the century, and possibly of the last 1,000 years.

The property owners have the right to develop on the silver maple forest because they own it. However, they endanger the health of the Alewife Reservation, which is legally protected. My high school biology textbook states that 50% of the United States' original wetlands have been degraded in some way over the past 250 years. Considering this, preservation of Alewife's wetlands seems all the more important. Cutting down this forest will set an unsustainable precedent for more urban sprawl into what is now an urban wild that future generations could enjoy.