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The Planet

Judge Protects Eastern Trees

By Sarah Wootton

Mt. WachussetMount Wachusett, home to 375-year-old yellow birches and 300-year-old red oaks, will be spared the effects of a proposed ski-area expansion that called for clear-cutting in the buffer zone of an old-growth forest.

Mt. Wachusett, the highest point in central and eastern Massachusetts, is part of the Wachusett Mountain State Reservation, a 2,000-acre park that was designated in 1899. The area houses 225 acres of old-growth forest - the second largest stand in the state - and provides habitat for dozens of species, including migratory hawks and hundreds of plants.

In a precedent-setting decision on July 24, Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Robert J. Kane ruled against the state's Department of Environmental Management, which had approved the expansion. The ski resort's plans included developing and widening of several slopes, resulting in large areas being clearcut.

The lawsuit, initiated in 1999 after the agency approved the Wachusett Mountain Associates' plan to expand the ski area, was spearheaded by the Sierra Club and Watchdogs for an Environmentally Safe Town, known as WEST. The groups' attorney, Tom Bracken, scoured seven years' worth of the agency's administrative records, finding flaws and discrepancies.

"Tom spent hours and hours going over the records with a fine-toothed comb," said James McCaffrey, director of the Massachusetts Chapter. "We didn't realize how much he would find - including the point that the proposed plan was inconsistent with the agency's own mission. That argument really resonated with the judge."

The judge said the agency didn't adequately consider alternatives that might have been more environmentally friendly. And, importantly, he agreed with the Club that the idea of expanding the ski resort, diminishing public space in the process, was inconsistent with the agency's mission to protect the state's public parks.

"The decision - a rare example of a ruling against an agency's environmental process and conclusion - will protect the old-growth forest in the state park," said McCaffrey.

The Wachusett Mountain Associates has appealed the decision to the state's Appeals Court.

Photo courtesy Gordon S. Brownell

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