Soccer Fields Latest Threat to Thoreau's Woods

A school in Concord, Mass., wants to build artificial-turf soccer fields on part of the 15 acres of woods described in Henry David Thoreau's Walden. The land is no longer pristine — it contains railroad track and a landfill.

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Fans and followers of one of America's great thinkers, Henry David Thoreau, have been fighting for decades to protect the forest in Massachusetts where he found inspiration.

So far they've blocked proposals from outside developers. The latest threat comes from inside the forest as one town tries to balance preserving its history with meeting its modern needs.

Shannon Mullen reports.

SHANNON MULLEN: In the 1800s, when Thoreau lived in Concord, Massachusetts and walked in Walden Woods, he wrote, I frequently tramped through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.

Today, a four-lane highway by bisects Walden Woods and there's a full landfill and a former gravel-mining site. The area is now a patchwork of protected and unprotected land, much of it privately owned, including the Concord School District's 15-acre plot behind the high school.

Local officials proposed building a pair of lighted Astroturf athletic fields there, which horrifies Thoreau devotees, who heard about the plan from its loudest opponent, high school neighbor Patty Hecht(ph).

(Soundbite of dog barking)

Ms. PATTY HECHT: Yes. Let's go out. Come on, let's go.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

MULLEN: Hecht takes the dogs out into the school's woods every day.

Ms. HECHT: The most important part of their day is their walk. They go crazy when they go into the woods.

MULLEN: Hecht says she has come to love the woods and feels the town left her and her neighbors out of a hasty planning process to chop them down. She admits she is no Thoreau scholar and her large home, complete with a three-car garage, is in part of Walden Woods, just like Thoreau's famous cabin was. Many other residents who oppose the field plan live here too. But Hecht dismisses that that's a double standard.

Ms. HECHT: If this neighborhood wasn't here today, I can guarantee you this neighborhood would not go in tomorrow because of the fact that we know better now.

MULLEN: The soccer field's supporters say they care about Walden Woods too. But school committee member Peter Fischelis says more kids are playing sports these days and the current fields are overused.

Mr. PETER FISCHELIS (Concord School Committee): We've done a great job of conserving land in Concord; we just haven't done a good job of building new fields. We have not built a playing field in 40 years. The fields that we're playing on now are the same fields I played on when I grew up here.

MULLEN: Fischelis says the new field plan balances sensitive development with meeting a strong public need. Keeping that balance, says town manager Chris Whelan, has allowed Concord to stay current while preserving its dozens of historical spots, including Ralph Waldo Emerson's house, a Revolutionary War battle site, and Walden Pond, a national historic landmark.

Mr. CHRIS WHELAN (Town Manager, Concord, Massachusetts): We also are not a museum. We pride ourselves on being a living, breathing community. And you can raise a family. And you're not cloistered in a period of 200 years ago.

Mr. ED SCHOFIELD (Ecologist): Do you know how many acres of Walden Woods have been devastated?

MULLEN: Ecologist Ed Schofield founded one of the first groups that tried to protect Walden Woods from development decades ago.

Mr. SCHOFIELD: How much more do we allow? I say we should stop now. What happened in the past cannot be undone, but that doesn't mean we have to continue doing what was done then in ignorance.

MULLEN: Preservationists in the area have bought parts of Walden Woods to save them. But the school's land is not for sale and its plan for a new field has all the necessary permits. Concord residents will vote on whether to fund it at their town meeting this month. But out in the woods, stakes in the ground already mark the spots where the light poles will stand if the trees come down.

For NPR News, I'm Shannon Mullen.

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