If it weren't for the sign, the trail might be invisible.
Brett Russ peers down at a small patch of dirt beneath a blanket of dead leaves. The dirt becomes a trail that winds through the forest for four glorious miles, he explains on this sunny November day. Some think it is one of the finest singletracks in central Massachusetts.
Russ grimaces as he stares at it. "It's crazy how quickly the trail disappears when nobody's on it," he says.
The singletrack stems from Prison Camp Road outside Rutland, a colonial town that was settled in 1722. Russ, who is 41 and has close-cropped hair like a cadet, moved to Rutland 14 years ago for its schools and open space. It wasn't long before he discovered on his mountain bike the 35-mile trail network inside the Ware River Watershed. The network spiders through vast tracts of open space and flora, with a soft, sandy, glacial underbelly allowing for smooth dirt trails instead of the rockier tundra that exists most everywhere else in central Mass.
It's seasonably chilly today, but a perfect day to ride a bike. Just down the road from this singletrack, scuffed trees and oil smears on the ground linger from a recent clear cut. Hunters chug by in pickups with their dogs in the front seat. Soon those dogs will ramble through the 25,000-acre watershed in search of game. A man motors past on an ATV and waves.
Russ and other local residents used to be able to pedal from their homes to the Ware River Watershed (WRW), then continue riding here for hours, often without seeing anyone else. Some of the network dates back 30 years, what people in the area call "legacy trails," originally worn in by dirtbikes. But recently it had grown to include some new routes, user created again, though it is hard to say by whom. In all, about 10 new miles of trail got added over a decade, and everyone agrees that multiple user groups were involved in their construction.
A lot of the Ware River Watershed's story bobs and weaves from there depending on the source, but this much is clear: the new trails drew the ire of the wrong people at the Commonwealth. And in September 2014, effective immediately, all trails suddenly became off-limits inside the watershed.
Technically, they had been off-limits since a law prohibited off-road mountain biking in the watershed in 1994, but the ban was not enforced for 20 years. Now, mounted to a tree just overhead this glorious singletrack, a sign reads: "Trail closed to all access."
If Russ wants to ride his mountain bike, he has to drive 30 minutes each way, he says. So do about 50 other once-regular WRW riders. Ranger presence at the watershed has increased substantially. Surveillance cameras dot the forest canopy in hidden locations. Some at the Division of Water Supply Protection (DWSP), which manages security in the watershed, and at the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), which manages the water once it's in the pipes and on its way to Boston's faucets, will tell you the water may not be potable anymore if people don't stop rolling their rubber tires through the forest. Local mountain bikers will tell you they are still waiting for any facts to back up that claim. "It's the fox guarding the hen house," Russ says.
The dispute has erupted into a proper public firefight, waged via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and newspaper op-eds from Worcester to Boston, as well as unnerving encounters in person. It has pitted state government officials against each other and provoked accusations of fear mongering and prejudice from local mountain bikers.
As Russ says, "If you're looking for as bad as it can get for access, I'd say this is it."
The night before Russ lamented his favorite trail's decay, he and a handful of friends got together to ride in Millbury, a half-hour southeast of Rutland. They met after work and followed one another up a dead-end residential street to a bony singletrack that wove through the woods for an hour, past glowing deer eyes and along colonial-era stonewalls. Then they went to A&D Pizza to talk about it.
Sitting around a table of pies and pitchers, the group includes a software manager, a truck driver for Dunkin' Donuts, a plumbing and heating technician, a laser salesman and a college professor. It doesn't take long for the conversation to land on the WRW situation.
"It's ego," someone declares.
"It's Yankee stubbornness, too," another replies.
Here's how the conflict unfolded: In late summer of 2014, a group ride leader associated with the New England Mountain Bike Association (NEMBA) advertised a ride in the Ware River Watershed. The trails' existence had been common knowledge for decades, and public officials were on the record stating there was no problem if people rode them. But in a move that would later be cited as an indication of his feelings toward mountain bikers, the director of the DWSP, Jonathan Yeo—who manages a 150-person team—called the rider himself to explain loud and clear that mountain biking on watershed trails was strictly prohibited. "I can't even fathom why someone of his stature in that organization would get involved as personally and deeply as he did," says Tom Bratko, an organic farmer who serves on the Ware River Watershed Advisory Committee.
Russ had always feared the trails would come under legal scrutiny and offered to take the reins for NEMBA as vice president of the local Wachusett chapter. He and a handful of other advocates attended a meeting with Yeo and the DWSP. It didn't go well. Russ typed out an email to local riders summarizing his takeaways. Among them: that his encounter with Yeo was the most unprofessional encounter he'd ever had with anyone, that there was obviously no hope of flexibility or compromise with Yeo, that Yeo was arrogant, and that despite Yeo's claim that he was a mountain biker, there was just no way he actually was one.
The email ended up in the wrong inbox and was eventually forwarded to Yeo. It is hard to know exactly how damaging this was to the mountain bikers' cause, since Yeo did not reply to multiple interview requests, but suffice it to say Russ regrets his choice of words deeply and has been playing catch-up ever since. "It cast mountain bikers and NEMBA in a very bad light," he says.
In that meeting and in others since, Russ and NEMBA made what they thought was a fair proposal to the DWSP: to jointly evaluate all the trails in the watershed, determine which ones were sustainable and which ones weren't, decommission the unsustainable trails and continue using the ones that made sense. Their hope was to go through the official channels and amend the 1994 ban, which was imposed between the 1988 and 2000 watershed access plans. "We gave them some documents from their own agency"—the DWSP is part of the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), which balances two conflicting missions—"that basically show that their agency [DCR] believed that mountain biking and hiking had the same impacts and should be managed in a similar fashion," NEMBA executive director Philip Keyes says. "And their response was fairly negative about that. In fact, I think I recall them saying: 'Well, we have our own scientists.'"
MWRA executive director Fred Laskey called mountain biking a "highly damaging activity" in a letter admonishing Yeo to enforce the ban. At a Ware River Watershed Advisory Committee meeting in October 2014, Yeo told attendees—many of whom had come to speak in favor of keeping the trails open—that mountain bikes do more damage to the watershed than logging and motorized vehicles. (It should be noted that all uses are still permitted on watershed dirt roads.) Leveraging its momentum, the DWSP soon banned all user groups from virtually every trail, including equestrians and hikers, who had never been prohibited before. This ended any hope of uniting the locals against DWSP. Instead, other users blamed mountain bikers for their sudden exclusion.
"Unfortunately, from my perspective, the biking people say, 'Oh, you let horses over there,' and they drag us into the problem," says Bratko, an equestrian. "So all of a sudden [the DWSP says], 'We're closing that trail now.' That trail, T3, has been open for 25 years, and all of a sudden it's closed because of erosion?"
No one was immune. When Chris Stark, a local middle school teacher and mountain bike coach, showed up to a meeting to explain how the closure had impacted his team—enrollment dropped from 55 to 15 once they had to start driving to trails—he says Yeo pointed him out and scolded him. "It was pretty tough to swallow," Stark says. "To have somebody say, 'You've been an evil man for taking kids out and teaching them to mountain bike.'"
The DWSP has spared little expense in carrying out its enforcement. Between the signs and hidden cameras and increased ranger patrols, locals say they feel uneasy even riding the dirt roads anymore.
State senator Anne Gobi, who hikes in the watershed and lives in Spencer, one town away, says she does not believe mountain biking has any more of an effect on water quality than other activities that take place there. She called the crackdown "a bit of an overreach" in a phone interview last fall and "made some follow-up calls" when word spread of verbal altercations between rangers and riders. Still, it is hard to argue the campaign's effectiveness. Just ask Paul Simoes.
Simoes, a 48-year-old mountain biker from Hubbardston, was one of many WRW regulars who pedaled from home multiple days a week, including after the ban was enforced in 2014. Then one day he got a ticket in the mail for riding an illegal trail. He decided to challenge it, if for no other reason than to find out how they caught him. So in October 2016, five months after he got his ticket, he showed up to East Brookfield District Court for a hearing. To his amazement, three DCR rangers were there to oppose him.
The lead ranger—the only one who spoke—brought a file on Simoes that he estimates was three-eighths of an inch thick. At the time the hidden camera captured him riding the closed trail, Simoes was wearing his shop jersey. He learned at the hearing that the rangers had looked up the shop online, found his name and photo on the team roster, then mailed a ticket to his home address.
Despite his obvious guilt, the judge let him go with a warning, citing the fact that the "trail closed" signs had only been installed five days earlier. Simoes didn't have to pay his $25 fine.
The Ware's sanctity, if you can call it that, cuts two ways. And no one explains them better than Steve Brewer, 68, a former state senator and third-generation Barre resident who served the state for 34 years before retiring in 2014. When the Commonwealth decided to preserve the area as a watershed for greater Boston's drinking water, it took the villages of Coldbrook, White Valley and North Rutland by eminent domain, dug up 39 cemeteries and paid residents pennies on the dollar for their properties. That was in 1939, but bad feelings remain. So does a sentiment throughout the area that locals deserve access to the land their ancestors had taken from them.
"We understand the sacrifices of the people," Brewer says one morning in a local museum. "So we try to make a balance for what is on both sides of the pipe: the people who sacrificed their heritage for the water supply, and the people who drink the water."
The watershed is managed by the DCR, which, DCR commissioner Leo Roy says, does not have a specified hierarchy to guide the tug-o-war between conservation and recreation. But because so much funding comes from the MWRA, whose sole purpose is to provide pure, unfiltered water to its 2.5 million ratepayers in Boston, it is easier to justify protecting the source than it is to provide more recreational access.
Mountain bikers understand that, even while they continue to request proof that their presence endangers the water quality. They also point out that the WRW has contributed an average of 1.85 percent of Boston's water in the past decade, with a high of 4.3 percent and two years when it contributed nothing. That's because most of Boston's water comes from the Quabbin and Wachusett reservoirs (the Ware River enters a diversion aqueduct and flows into the Quabbin). The Quabbin alone has enough water to supply all of Boston's water for five years with zero rain to refill it. "The Ware is a redundancy to a great degree," Brewer admits.
That doesn't mean it is OK to trash the water. But, bikers argue, it can be a bit misleading to say that 2.5 million people's drinking water is affected every time someone rides a trail near the Ware River.
Locals pedaled there for decades, and the DCR knew. "It hasn't come up as a problem so it's not something we've dealt with," DCR superintendent Bill Pula told the Worcester Telegram in 2003. In the same article, DCR environmental engineer Matt Hopkinson said, "I don't think [enforcing the bike ban] is a top priority."
One local rider claims he and some friends took out chainsaws to clear the trails after a large ice storm in 2011. They ran into a DCR ranger and asked if the ranger minded that they were chopping up deadfall to ride the singletrack. "Knock yourself out," the ranger replied.
Snowmobiles, ATVs, hunters, dogs, horses, mountain bikers—everyone used the trails, and still the water supply flourished. In 2014, Boston's tap water was named the best tasting water in the country by the American Water Works Association.
Nevertheless, there were warning signs. When longtime local mountain biker Alf Berry tried to get permission to ride the gravel roads in the neighboring Quabbin watershed, a state forester rebuffed him with photos of riders in full-body armor skidding around corners. "They said the paint might chip off of your bicycle frame and get in the water supply, or the oil might drip off your chain," Berry recalls. "They totally threw me under the bus in that meeting." It took him six years to get permission.
So even as the Ware became a destination, the fact remained: mountain bikes weren't officially allowed on the trails. Which made them vulnerable to the wrong state official taking an interest at the wrong time.
Down an old country road in Spencer, 15 minutes south of the Ware, a hilly driveway leads to a one-story home on 15 acres. A small man with wire-rimmed glasses and a horseshoe of white hair emerges from the study. He looks like Benjamin Franklin, but he's actually a 64-year-old mountain biker named Bill Dobson. And you could argue there is no sharper thorn in the state's side than he.
When the crackdown began in 2014, Dobson, who had been riding the WRW trails for 18 years, heard about the claims being made by DWSP and DCR officials regarding the impact of mountain bikes on the watershed. He wondered why they were so adamant despite the absence of facts.
"If they came back to us with reasoned arguments and could show that, yes, this is dangerous to the watershed, or yes, you are damaging it—any good science-based or logic-based arguments—I would agree with them and I think the other bikers would too," Dobson says. "But we see this arbitrary banning of bikes in the watershed for no legitimate reason."
A forensics engineer who made a career out of tracking down obscure facts for law firms and testifying in court, Dobson decided to shake the tree and see what fell out. Beginning in November 2014, he made a series of FOIA requests related to mountain biking in the WRW. Massachusetts public records law states that a request must be fulfilled within 10 days and at a cost of $50 or less, barring unusual circumstances. It took the DCR 163 days to fulfill Dobson's first request, at a cost of $1,200. He raised some of that via a GoFundMe campaign and paid about $300 himself. Subsequent requests have taken anywhere from 32 to 146 days to fulfill, he says.
As Dobson sorted through the thousands of pages of emails and internal memos, a pattern emerged. The year before the crackdown, a DCR environmental analyst named Kelley Freda emailed the chief of Baltimore's environmental police, Luke Brackett, who oversees watershed enforcement there. Freda told him she was having a hard time justifying the mountain bike ban in the Wachusett Reservoir watershed. "Do you know of any studies that have been done on the effects of mountain biking on water quality?" she wrote. "Most information that I can find state that impacts are no worse than walking (not a great resource or help when you do not allow biking and are trying to explain to the public why)."
In other emails, Yeo was found to have contradicted himself on a series of claims made about an illegal bridge his staff found in a WRW wetland and blamed on mountain bikers—despite having no proof. Dobson would later come to refer to this episode as "Bridgegate." Yeo also disparaged mountain bikers internally and, in July 2015, upon learning that his correspondence was being FOIAed, directed other state officials to no longer email about mountain biking. What's more, Dobson learned that DWSP employees, in an apparent effort to make the problem sound worse than it was to their parent agencies, had claimed there were 88 trails in the network by breaking them into tiny sections and calling each section its own trail. "When I narrowed them all down, I came up with 16 trails," Dobson says.
Last June Dobson built a website—wrw411.com—to display some of his key findings as well as a heavily rebutted PowerPoint presentation that the DWSP was using to characterize mountain biking as a destructive activity. He got some hate mail through his comment form that he suspects came from DCR rangers, but says the site has recorded more than 3,000 unique views.
"Because of my public document requests, it becomes pretty obvious that there's a propaganda campaign by the DCR against mountain biking," Dobson says. "My philosophy here is to tell the DCR: We're watching you. And every time you mislead, lie, or put out a piece of propaganda, we're going to be there to counter it and show why you're wrong."
Dobson's site also attracted the attention of DCR commissioner Leo Roy, who invited Dobson to a meeting last November. Dobson brought a friend as a witness and later said Roy seemed fair and committed to finding a solution. Roy was particularly interested in Yeo's directive to not email about mountain biking, Dobson said, as well as the inflated trail count. "On more than one occasion, Leo said, 'This is not the kind of behavior we want in our agency,'" Dobson said. "He was also troubled by the change in attitude—we had a peaceful coexistence with the rangers for years, and he wanted to know why that changed."
In early December, marking another milestone, Roy agreed to meet Russ and Dobson for a tour of the watershed. Both Russ and Dobson later said the commissioner was in fact-finding mode but pledged to be fair to them. They believed him. For the first time in two years, they felt like they might actually have a chance at a rational outcome.
But it may not be that simple. According to a source who has worked on the WRW conflict for the Commonwealth, Yeo is not the only prejudiced state official involved. Remember the 1994 law that first banned bikes on watershed trails? It turns out commissioner Roy—the man who is deciding whether bikes will be allowed on the trails now—reviewed and approved that law. So did Ned Bartlett, the current undersecretary for environmental affairs, which was the same job Roy held in 1994 under Governor Bill Weld (Bartlett was a DCR attorney at the time).
According to the source, whom we'll call Kelly and who spoke on condition of anonymity, the most powerful figure involved at the state level is actually in favor of granting mountain bikers access to the WRW trails. That would be Commonwealth Secretary Matthew Beaton, who oversees the DCR's parent agency, the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, and is a mountain biker himself.
"This is a scam," Kelly says. "There should be mountain biking in there, and the secretary thinks there should be as well. That's your real story there."
According to Kelly, both Roy and Bartlett have lobbied Beaton to maintain the bike ban because they view the 20-year-old law—officially known as the 1994 Massachusetts Watershed Protection Regulation, or 350 CMR 11 for short—as a personal legacy. Beaton relies on Bartlett and Roy too heavily in his daily workload to risk alienating them over a battle this insignificant, relatively speaking.
"I've been in a meeting where the secretary has sat there and said, 'I don't understand why we're not doing this,'" Kelly says. "I'll never forget it. He looked at the pictures Jonathan Yeo provided and he held them up in the air and he goes, 'Are you serious? This is the only evidence you have of abuse?' And then I watched Ned and Leo, like, horn him out of it."
"There's no reason why there shouldn't be mountain biking in the watershed," Kelly adds. "The argument against it is paper-thin. It is not an impact on the natural resources. It's a bunch of rubbish."
As for Yeo, some in the bike community have wondered why he is still employed after his tactics were exposed through Dobson's FOIA requests. Kelly says this is likely because of his close ties to Fred Laskey of the MWRA, which funds DWSP's $27.1 million budget. Yeo worked for the MWRA for 15 years before he took his current job in 2005. "So the big fear about firing Jonathan is if you piss him off, you're gonna piss off Fred Laskey, which means DCR doesn't get any money from the MWRA," Kelly says.
You can bet Yeo hasn't forgotten about Russ's email from two years ago, either. "This is a grudge between Yeo and some of the players out there," Kelly says. "Yeo is driven purely out of spite here. I don't think he actually has an opinion one way or the other. I don't think any of them actually believe this bill of goods they're selling."
Secretary Beaton did not respond to multiple interview requests. An email to two DCR spokesmen asking whether Kelly's account was accurate did not get acknowledged. Roy, who answered questions by phone in November, before Kelly's story came to light, also declined to make Yeo available for an interview, saying: "I'm not the kind of person who likes to search for the guilty."
"[The state has] zero facts," Kelly says. "Zero, zero, zero. And if the governor knew what his people were doing in blocking this, I think he would be amazed."
When Roy toured the watershed with Russ and Dobson in early December, he hinted that the solution could entail creating a new network much farther north, away from the intake zone where the water enters its diversion tunnel—and significantly farther from where most local riders live, likely requiring a drive. "That obviously gets the DWSP off the hook," Russ says. "They don't have to compromise at all."
Meanwhile, in early January, Joe Favaloro, executive director of the MWRA's advisory board, picked up where Yeo left off. He wrote an op-ed that ran on the board's blog then in more than a dozen newspapers where MWRA ratepayers live. Among a handful of claims that Russ later refuted in an op-ed of his own, Favaloro compared the threat from mountain bikers in the Ware to the lead contamination that poisoned the water supply for 95,000 people and led to widespread criminal conspiracy charges four states away. "Everyone remembers the recent crisis in Flint, Michigan!" Favaloro wrote. He also wrote a "call to action" encouraging ratepayers to pressure Roy to uphold the bike ban, and threatened that if bikes are allowed on the trails a $500 million filtration plant might need to be built, costs that would come out of their pockets.
Not to be outdone, NEMBA president Adam Glick sent a series of emails to Yeo requesting any factual basis for the DWSP's stance against mountain biking on trails. He also asked Yeo to confirm his agency's annual reports that tout increasingly cleaner water and zero instances of recreation having a negative effect on water quality—all while mountain biking was rampant. Glick copied, among others, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Massachusetts Attorney General's office. Russ, meanwhile, has rallied equestrians against the state's "insufficiently checked power" and started a petition that had 1,148 signatures at press time.
"We did not choose this fight," Russ says. "We offered win-win solutions from the beginning, years ago, but were laughed at, ignored, accused, and now made the object of a public smear campaign. Enough is enough."
The trails in the Ware River Watershed fade more each day. Locals have been out looking for replacements, sometimes together, sometimes alone. You can drive to Uxbridge and ride the user-created and mostly unsanctioned singletrack at Goat Hill, where DCR rangers and mountain bikers have a mutual respect and understanding—and where it's not a watershed. Massachusetts' access, lest one forget, is generally outstanding. "Every area except for central Mass has an incredible assortment of riding," says Keyes, NEMBA's executive director.
That doesn't help Gary Brigham, who lives on the edge of the WRW in Barre. Which is why Brigham, a 69-year-old former iron worker/powerlifter/bare-knuckle boxer, has driven his girlfriend Lisa and dog Leilu up to the Cutthroat Brook Tree Farm today in Petersham, 15 minutes north. He stopped riding the WRW trails when they closed, and stopped walking them after a confrontation with a ranger led to a late-night "attitude adjustment" from a state trooper that left Lisa with nightmares.
The tree farm offers one of the closest potential replacements for the Ware. Its owners, a lovely gnomelike couple named Ben and Susie Feldman, placed 300 of their 350 acres into a Mt. Grace Land Conservation Trust last summer, after 10 years of trying. In doing so, they opened 15 miles of trail across a colonial landscape of stone walls and punchy hills, each junction marked by a handmade sign and a renewed hunch that you are about to find an 18th century musket.
It was a timely gesture by the Feldmans, who are not mountain bikers and have no ties to the sport. "These are people who are paying taxes on their property, and yet they're letting us use it," Brigham says.
There remains a sense of bitterness, of being squeezed out, due to the way things stand in the Ware. Senator Gobi set up a meeting between all parties in February to help mediate the situation. "The mountain bikers have a very strong case. We need to send a message for where mountain bikers can ride on state land. In other words, public lands that are maintained by state tax dollars," Gobi says. Yet nothing has happened since the meeting, and mountain bikers worry that a revised Public Access Plan for the Ware—with newly drafted protection zones by the DWSP to justify its bike ban—might doom them before they have a say.
On his way back to his car after a tour of the Petersham farm, Brigham bumps into the Feldmans. He thanks them profusely. They blush and giggle. Mountain biking access doesn't happen so easily everywhere, Brigham says.
Ben seems confused. "Why is it a problem?" he says. "That's what I don't understand."
Part One: The Vitality of Trust