One of Hampden County’s most popular walking, hiking and biking locales may be on its way to permanent protection status.

The town of West Springfield is considering entering a conservation restriction (CR) arrangement with the Mass. Department of Conservation and Recreation and Mass Audubon. If the CR goes through, in exchange for a $1 million trust fund for enhancement and maintenance, West Springfield will agree to never sell or develop the land.   

Connecting Point’s Brian Sullivan visited Bear Hole Reservoir last fall to learn more about the history and importance of this wilderness area nestled in the heart of a buzzing metro area.  

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: One of Hampden County’s most popular walking, hiking, and biking locales may very well be on its way to a permanent protection status. This means that if the transaction between West Springfield, the Department of Conservation and Recreation, and Mass Audubon goes through, the land will never be developed on.

Connecting Point’s Brian Sullivan traveled to the Bear Hole Reservoir to bring us this next story.

Brian Sullivan, Connecting Point: There’s a road in West Springfield that, since late March of 2020, has seen such an increase in traffic that signs like these have begun to dot the lawn landscapes up and down the street, hopefully deterring visitors from treating their neighborhood like the local racetrack.

The destination is the parking area at Bear Hole Reservoir, and on any given Saturday or Sunday, bikers and walkers, many with their four legged friends, can be found taking to the trails that twist and turn through one of the largest swaths of unprotected open space in the Connecticut River Valley.

But while the number of visitors may be up above normal lately, folks simply enjoying all that the Bear Hole landscape has to offer is nothing new for locals.

Will Reichelt, West Springfield Mayor: I grew up, really, basically across the street from Bear Hole. So, as kids we used to play back here. We used to ride our bikes back here.

I mean, that’s what really turned me on to all the trails is just taking a ride up. There’s a couple of trails that lead up right from where I grew up and lead right into here. So, our friends are back here all the time.

Brian Sullivan: It’s a location rich with history, some dating back to the 1800s, like this old fireplace. This is all that remains of a once-exclusive resort where a select few locals were able to escape as a means of getting away from the city.

Its reservoir, however, represents some of the more recent history. No longer providing water for area residents, the pump station and the slow sand filter beds to its left and right stand vacated and unused. Now, it’s a starting point for taking the dog for a walk or ripping through the woods on a mountain bike.

But since the property no longer falls under the heading of protected water use lands, it becomes vulnerable to development. That is, unless West Springfield were to sell what is called a permanent Conservation Restriction on the land. That deal is currently in the works with Mass Audubon and the Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Will Reichelt: All we’re selling is really an easement over the land, so we’re selling off our rights to ever it develop it, basically. We’re saying to Audubon and DCR in exchange for a million dollars, we promise never to build on this land, never to sell it off or sectioned it off or cut it away. And we’re going to do that with a contract.

Brian Sullivan: In return, the DCR and Mass Audubon will receive the miles of trails and everything else that lives within the properties perimeters. Plant, fish, mammal, bird, amphibian, and insect.

What happens with the trails, though, regarding additions and subtractions, remains to be seen. And this is a concern for many in the cycling community. But for now, the scenery remains intact. This includes flowing water that cascades over rocks in a downward trajectory. And while during our visit that flow is only a fraction of what it normally is, any waterfall is always a big attraction, especially with me.

It may feel a bit removed from the modern world out here, but the truth is, we’re actually within striking distance of some of the more urbanized areas of Holyoke, Springfield, and West Springfield, as well as a pair of major highways. But within the confines of these 1,500 acres, I’m still more likely to come across a greater number of plant and animal species than I am of human beings. And the plan is to keep it that way in perpetuity.

Maintaining that barrier between the urban world and the deep woods, while making sure that all who want to enjoy it splendors are welcome to visit, is a challenge that Mass Audubon and the DCR did not want to pass up.

Bob Wilber, Mass Audobon: Bear Hole is the single most important opportunity to mix both of those. Protecting a very large tract of very important land, highly biodiverse land, 1,500 acres of land in really close proximity to hundreds of thousands of people.

That’s something we really just don’t see. I don’t know of another opportunity like it in Massachusetts.