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Backers want park to be wildlife-friendly.

Byline: George Barnes

ATHOL - Cass Meadow looked like a candidate for a water park rather than a place for hikers yesterday afternoon, but members of the Friends of the Park gathered in the parking area of the Alan E. Rich Environmental Park next to the meadow to consider what they could plant this spring to attract birds, butterflies and other wild creatures.

The environmental park, on the southeast side of the Millers River off South Main Street in downtown Athol, has been a work in progress for three years. The latest step is that the park - especially through the efforts of Tom Rich, brother of the late Alan Rich - has been established as a certified wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation.

Christine B. Long of the Friends of the Park said the designation does not do anything special for the park other than serve as an indicator to visitors that the people who created the park considered its impact on wildlife and took steps to build a wildlife-friendly habitat.

The National Wildlife Federation certifies an area as part of a worldwide network of mini-wildlife refuges if public or private property is developed in a way in which wildlife may find food, water, cover and places to raise their young.

It was difficult to imagine yesterday that the park offered anything other than water. At least two-thirds of the park was under water, owing to flooding along the Millers River.

Athol Town Manager David Ames said he was told by a spokesman from the Army Corps of Engineers that the high water resulted from the release of water that had been held back by the Birch Hill and Tully dams in Royalston.

"They said they are hoping to open campgrounds soon and released the water to make that happen," Mr. Ames said.

During high-water periods, water held back by the flood control dams deluges the Tully Lake, Beaman Pond and Lake Dennison campgrounds.

Members of the Friends of the Park said yesterday they could not recall when the water from the river was as high as it is now. Mr. Ames said the Army Corps was contacted two days ago when the water rose to within a few inches of flooding a road into Morton Meadows senior citizen housing.

David Small, a member of the Friends of the Park and president of the Athol Bird and Nature Club, said that although the National Wildlife Federation likes its certified habitats to have mostly native plants, there is much work to be done in the Alan Rich Park before that goal can be reached.

"We have a lot of invasives we're trying to get rid of," he said. "We're striving for a native garden."

Efforts continue to rid the property of such invasive plants as glossy buckthorn and Japanese knotweed. Both are aggressive plants that had taken over large areas of the park. Although many areas infested by the plants have been cleaned by volunteers, there is still much to remove.

The park is actually two different habitats. The area along South Main Street includes a parking area, garden area and garden paths. In that section the Friends of the Park plans to plant ornamental native plants, choosing grasses and flowers that tend to attract birds and butterflies. The closer to the road, the more decorative the park will be, with wilder planting in areas closer to Cass Meadow and the Millers River.

In the meadow itself, which is now under water, there will be no plantings, just removal of invasive plants to allow local plants to take hold. Paths will also be cut through the meadow, allowing people to walk out there without disturbing wildlife nesting in grasses and bushes.

The town is also in the beginning stages of planning a bridge to be built over the river, close to where the Tully River meets the Millers River, to allow access to the other half of Cass Meadow, which is a large tract of land owned by the state.

Long term, the plan is to connect the park through what is now an informal trail up to Tully Lake and a trail system there that connects with the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail.

ART: PHOTO

CUTLINE: The Millers River, swollen by releases from dams upstream, has temporarily turned much of the Alan E. Rich Environmental Park into pond.

PHOTOG: GEORGE BARNES
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Apr 25, 2007
Words:727
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