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Renowned international ecologist and conservation biologist appeals to local officials
from David Morimoto

Tuesday, May 21st, The Belmont Conservation Commission together with 5 natural science specialists invited by Friends of Alewife Reservation went to the forest with three developers from O'Neill properties to view the area and to talk about the office plan for clear-cutting 7 and a half acres of rare silver maple trees to build a biotech building and garage. This comes on the heels of the owners telling the town they are backing down from the commercial building because of the market. At the same time the owners are filling a Notice of Intent (NOI) to go ahead with the permitting process, despite their previous publicly committed retraction of doing so.

The Conservation Commission granted the company the right to file the NOI despite the company's declaration of retraction. The Site visit brought many questions of footprint impinging upon wetland buffer, soils composition for digging a basin and many other concerns not heretofore voiced. Here is one response from an internationally renowned ecologist.
To: Belmont Conservation Commission
From: David Morimoto
Re: Belmont Silver Maple Forest
Date: 23 May 2003

Dear Conservation Commission members:

I am writing to support the conservation of the Silver Maple Forest as the superior decision in your deliberations over the proposed development of the land by O'Neill Properties. My perspectives emerge in one way or another, from 1) experience as an ecologist and conservation biologist who studies the effects of landscape alteration on populations and communities of birds and other creatures, both here (Weston, MA) and in Brazil (Atlantic Forest of Parana), 2) over 20 years of natural history exploration around the world, 3) advanced study of complex systems, ecological theory, evolution, and behavior, 4) over fifteen years of teaching, curriculum development, and presentations related to environmental studies and ecology, including extensive educational travel in the tropics, 5) experiences interacting in human communities in urban, suburban, rural, frontier, and remote environments, and 6) business experience as an executive recruiter.

Multiple perspectives contribute to decisive and informed thinking that a conserved Silver Maple Forest is better than a locally extinct Silver Maple Forest replaced by human development (buildings and other structures):

Multiple spatial scales - regional, landscape, ecosystem (forest stand and adjacent habitat mosaic), habitat (within-ecosystem, as defined above)
Multiple human/cultural perspectives - individual and family development, community commons, urban and suburban education (ecological literacy), human species (global ecology and the human condition, sustainable living).

Of course, even scientific views are value-based, so I will not suggest otherwise, nor will I use this knowledge as license to embellish arguments. I will merely assert that my perspectives are informed by the collective wisdom and individual efforts of a diversity of individuals, which should give my statements significant strength. The extent to which my views are consistent with the views of others, either in part on in their entirety, is one measure of their significance to anyone deliberating this issue, and by extension should be a measure of the weight they are given when making a decision.

The complex reality of nature is difficult to delineate, even with complex rules and regulations about zoning, development, land use, and wetlands (for example, standard linear distance measures to delineate non-linear, complex spatial and temporal patterns and dynamics in wetlands delineation; those guidelines that focus one's thinking on issues of zoning, land ownership, and economics in systems of thought that have come to be under-informed by ecological perspectives; and those that confine one's thinking to town-level decisions, when the impacts of the decisions is felt beyond the town's boundaries). Thus, complex decisions are often compromised by the constraints of the systems we've established to guide the process of decision making, which in the end can and often does diminish any perceived benefits of the decisions we make. I urge you to superimpose upon the necessary guidelines and regulations that you must consider in the decision-making process, the multiple perspectives I will share, for they reflect real interactions by real beings in real places we have all experienced in one way or another.

1. Landscape/regional scale considerations:

Viewed from the air, the Belmont-Cambridge-Watertown-Arlington-Somerville area is seen as a landscape dominated by dense human habitation, business development, and supportive infrastructure (roads, etc.). (choose Belmont and navigate from there).

Several small bodies of water and small rivers can be seen. All shorelines are developed nearly to their edges, with the exception of some forested land around Fresh Pond (which is fenced in with a walking path around it), some vegetation around Blair's Pond, and about 30-40% of Little Pond (in Alewife Reservation).

Very little forest exists. The Silver Maple Forest, which buffers the shoreline of Little Pond along with Alewife Reservation, stands out as one of the larger discernable parcels of heavily forested land in the area. Some forest exists in Alewife and across Route 2 from the Silver Maple Forest, creating a disconnected but nonetheless substantial configuration of vegetated land in this area.

Mount Auburn Cemetery has some of the biggest trees in New England, but it is a garden cemetery and not a forest as such. However, the cemetery is known for its abundance of wildlife, especially migratory birds, which by their very nature rely on vegetated areas for their successful transit to and from their breeding and wintering areas. Given that this cemetery is used by so many migrant birds (and nature enthusiasts), it is clear that the areas immediately surrounding the cemetery are important for them too. Wildlife observations in Alewife Reservation, the Silver Maple Forest, and Fresh Pond confirm this assertion.

The presence of vegetation bordering the Charles River contributes to the creation of a significant migrant bird movement corridor through the larger region, as does the presence of other preserved areas arranged in a North-South Direction at a larger, regional scale.
(see: [FAR-website note: please see instead:].
The conservation of the Silver Maple Forest would contribute to the integrity of this regional habitat corridor.

Within this region, many species of creatures (animals, plants, fungi, etc.) exist. Their use of habitat (for food, shelter, water, interaction and reproduction, movement/dispersal corridors) ranges from large-scale movement across habitat types to relatively confined living within one or more habitat type. These species (individuals in populations, interacting in complex ecological communities) rely on and contribute to the biological diversity of the dispersed natural habitats of this area.

The conservation of the Silver Maple Forest would preserve a significant habitat parcel in the local landscape configuration. Furthermore, it would preserve the only significant forested area left standing adjacent to a water body in this area. Thus, its preservation would contribute significantly to the ecological integrity of the landscape.

I suggest that the Silver Maple Forest (along with other aforementioned habitats in this area) comprises a valuable natural area not only for the non-human creatures that create the area's ecological integrity, but also for the many humans that reside in proximity to these areas.

2. Local ecosystem/habitat scale considerations:

The small size of the Silver Maple Forest, compared to a large tract of forest in western Massachusetts, for example, does not mean that the forest is insignificant, for it is embedded in a largely deforested and heavily populated landscape. The forest is a unique in the local region because of its relatively large size, its unique composition of plants (silver maple, with several other species of maple, large black cherry trees, cranberry viburnum, etc.), and because it is part of an integrated ecosystem (including the adjacent Alewife Reservation) with many habitat types, in a human-dominated landscape matrix. It is big enough to provide an interior habitat that is different from the edges, and big enough to support breeding pairs of some interior bird species like Wood Thrush and Ovenbird. Many large mammals rely on the forest. Huge puffball mushrooms can be found there. It is big enough to serve the resting needs of the Black-crowned Night-Herons and Great Blue Herons that forage in Little Pond and Little River (seen 15 May 2003), and to provide roosting sites for Great Horned Owl and Red-tailed Hawk (both seen using the forest on 15 May 2003), which use the adjacent fields for hunting voles and rabbits. The forest's shape is equally significant, because it maximizes the amount of interior habitat (a linear shape would minimize interior habitats and maximize edge habitats, while a circular shape would minimize edge and maximize interior). Many efforts to conserve species are focusing on species that occur in forest interior habitats, which are declining due to forest fragmentation as a result of development.

The habitat mosaic of silver maple forest, open field and woodland, riparian and pond-edge habitats, and shrublands is unique and significant. Along the vegetated borders of Little Pond that lie within Alewife Reservation, and that are buffered by the Silver Maple Forest, one can find swamp milkweed, large skunk cabbages, and many other species, as well a boggy area and shrub swamps. All of these habitats are contained within a relatively small area (see below for discussion about the significance of the area's unique characteristics for humans). Many species can be found in the mosaic, and many of them rely on more than one of the different habitat types, thus integrating the habitats (each of which is an ecosystem in its own right) into a larger functioning ecosystem. The unique wild nature of this place, with its complex mosaic of habitat types, is not replicated anywhere within the greater Boston area.

The nature of ecosystems in general is such that only a few species in any one system are key links in holding together the complex web of interaction. In many cases these keystone species are top carnivores (like herons, coyotes, owls, hawks). They can be fruit producing trees as well, or even disease-producing organisms. Every species does indeed interact with every other species, but most of the interactions are indirect, otherwise the system would not be stable enough to exist.

The upshot of this complexity for human perception is that it becomes difficult to 'see the forest for the trees', how one part is important for another part (whether the parts are species, individual trees, or habitat types), or how the whole system is integrated. The perception problem that results often leads to misguided decisions with drastic results. All too often, a lack of ecological perspective informed by recent advances in the field contributes to the problem. Experience has shown time and time again that the removal of ecosystem components (sea otters in the kelp ecosystems of the Pacific coast, or potentially, a Silver Maple Forest that provides key habitats for many species and that serves to buffer sensitive habitat and hydrological activity) often leads to disproportionately large negative effects on system health. The nonlinear nature of nature makes it difficult to predict when a critical state has been reached, or when a 'straw will break the camel's back'. When thresholds of integrity are breached, phase transitions to less diverse and healthy states result. Given what we know about the complexity of ecological systems (and the unpredictable nature of the impacts resulting from disturbance) and, given the particular place of the Silver Maple Forest in the local habitat mosaic, I conclude that the development of the Silver Maple Forest would compromise the integrity of the larger ecosystem (biodiversity, hydrology) significantly and remove a significant part of a regionally unique constellation of habitats (with consequent negative impacts on opportunities for human recreational and educational activities as well -see human considerations below).

The fact that flooding has been a problem of historical significance to many residents in the area suggests that the preservation of the Silver Maple Forest, which is the only significant forest buffer to a water body in the area, would be a prudent choice. While the proposed plans do include compensatory water storage, the natural flows will be disrupted nonetheless, as will the albedo (light and heat reflection characteristics). The uncertainty of flooding itself, notwithstanding historical flood boundaries, together with a history of flooding problems for humans (and in light of predicted near term-changes in weather patterns due to global scale atmospheric alterations caused by humans, which have prompted national, state, and municipal action), all suggest that it would be better to preserve the forest.

The quality of water is as important as the nature of its flow. The health of the Alewife Brook Watershed in general, and the local system in particular, is maintained in part by the Silver Maple Forest.

It is clear from a walk through the site that many wetland plants do occur on at least periodically moist soils in areas not considered to be wetlands by legal definitions (but within the buffer zone in many cases). I think of them as 'moistlands', and they should be accorded the same protection as wetlands on at least a case-by-case basis. It is unclear, with respect to this project, that the current wetlands rules and designations are adequate to protect the hydrological integrity of this area. The boggy areas and wooded swamps along the shore of Little Pond will likely be compromised by the proposed development, given the magnitude of the project and the landscape context of the site (see above). Vernal pools in the area, two of which have been located, could be impacted negatively as well.

3. Some human considerations:

The forest-reservation complex has the potential to contribute significantly to passive recreation, human community building, and education. In fact, it has already done so. Many humans have benefited from experiencing this area (Silver Maple Forest, Alewife Reservation) for walking, nature exploration, as part of formal and informal education and community service experiences, and even for spiritual ceremonies (witness the exposure of many people to the Silver Maple Forest for community-based multi-denominational services organized by the Friends of Alewife Reservation and others, and the potential registry of the large Silver Maple tree in the forest, the so-called 'mother tree', as a champion tree, for its size, etc.).

The forest and reservation complex has attracted the attention of Edward O. Wilson, an internationally renowned expert on biological diversity and its conservation, and many others, including myself, Peter Alden, renowned naturalist and co-creator of Massachusetts Biodiversity Days, and scientists from Harvard, MIT, and Wentworth. Many studies and education programs have already occurred, and more are being planned, involving everyone from business-sector scientists to university scientists, citizen groups, elementary to college students, local school systems and, of course, interested citizens. The Silver Maple Forest could play a significant role in these efforts if it were conserved and spared development. If it were to be destroyed and developed, the story would still be a part of the environmental education of students who visit the site (with the full participation by all parties).

The connectivity of the area to the larger population via public transportation, roads, and bike paths makes this resource (Alewife Reservation and the Silver Maple Forest) even more valuable, for it expands its influence to the larger human community. The unique wild and diverse nature of this area makes it an invaluable resource for environmental education and passive recreation for many people. Belmont has the potential to gain great positive attention if the Silver Maple Forest were conserved as part of an integrated system (it is an integrated ecological system already), for many people and organizations would have the forest and reservation complex to thank for helping them to become ecologically literate and to know some of the local species in the area. Present and future Belmont citizens would, of course, be among those people.

Recent studies of biophilia (the idea that humans have an innate affinity for nature) suggest that exposure to natural environments does indeed have the potential to do everything from stimulate thought to alleviate stress (in addition to providing exercises and all of the other educational and community building benefits mentioned above). A walk in the forest affects all of the senses. Road sounds are dissipated and the sound of wind in through the trees dominates; the smell of vegetation and flowers is apparent; the complexity of vegetation is clearly visible, and observational skills are sharpened as one observes creatures moving about in this complex habitat. The potential for the Silver Maple Forest to contribute in these positive ways to people's lives is significant, especially given the high density of people in an otherwise largely deforested landscape, and the accessibility of the site to the larger community.

In a world increasingly impacted by global scale environmental change and a rapidly growing human population, it is imperative that local actions about land use and development be based on balanced consideration of ecological integrity, sustainability, and the availability of natural areas for the multiple benefits of citizens, within and beyond the limits of the municipality.

The value added by conserving the Silver Maple Forest and preventing development will be significant: it will contribute significantly to the maintenance of the area's ecological integrity (including ecosystem structure and function, water flow, albedo) and biological diversity, and it will provide a valuable resource for education and nature experiences, the need for which is magnified by the human-dominated nature of the local landscape. Furthermore, it will provide a potential drying place for any sediments from the Belmont ponds, should they be subject to restoration/cleaning efforts, thus saving the town hundreds of thousands of dollars in trucking fees (mentioned by Stewart Sanders on 16 May tour of the site).

Many of the great successes in conservation involve the preservation of habitats along borders (US-Canada, Belize-Mexico-Guatemala, Parana-Sao Paulo states in Brazil, Weston-Wellesley-Lincoln, MA, etc.). The Silver Maple Forest is the only significant forest in eastern Belmont, and it is continuous with a preserved natural area in Cambridge (itself a heavily developed and populated area with no other real 'wild' or 'wild-like' habitat), thus presenting an opportunity for coordinated efforts between these two towns to contribute to the creation of a truly unique preserved area of great significance.

In conclusion, the conservation of the Silver Maple Forest is the preferred decision because of the value of the forest in several contexts:
  • It contributes to ecological integrity at the landscape scale, as a significant part of a constellation of habitats in a human-dominated landscape. It adds to the biological diversity of the landscape.
  • It is an important component of a complex and regionally unique mosaic of habitats, contributing significantly to the area (size) and diversity of the Alewife Reservation system. Many species occur there, including a locally unique assemblage of plants, many animal species, and some uncommon fungi.
  • It is the only significant forest next to a body of water in the area, with buffering effects on the nature and quality of water flow.
  • It has immense potential as an educational resource, a community place, a focus of scientific study, and as a place for beneficial and needed 'passive' recreation, because of its 'wild' nature, ecological characteristics, and accessibility to the larger community of humans.
I submit these comments in good faith that you will consider them seriously in your deliberations over whether or not to permit the development of the Silver Maple Forest. Please feel free to contact me should you have any questions or comments.


David C. Morimoto
Program Director
Natural Sciences and Mathematics
Lesley University
33 Mellen Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
617 349-8226