LENOX >> Recent publicity has portrayed the Housatonic River in a negative light, but there are many positives we should recognize.
Seventy-five years ago, when I was growing up, the river was an open sewer. One time it actually caught fire in Pittsfield due to what was being discharged into it. The river would change color as the paper mills changed the color of their paper. People dumped garbage into the river because everyone thought you could not make it any worse than it was.
But then the Clean Water Act was enacted, there were a couple of major cleanups, the Lenox and Lee Sportsmens' Clubs used heavy equipment to haul tons of trash out of October Mountain, and the river quality improved dramatically.
WMA a success
Today, the river is a valuable resource. Thanks to George Wislocki, the former director of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, many pieces were cobbled together to form the present 818-acre Housatonic Wildlife Management Area (WMA). George also wrote the grant for Lenox to obtain the Post Farm. Currently, there are roughly 1,200 acres of open space in Lenox alone available for use by the public along the river.
The Housatonic WMA is one of Western Massachusetts' most heavily used management areas for all types of public recreation. Canoeists, kayakers and even paddleboarders are constantly seen paddling up and down the river, especially from the canoe access at the WMA and from the floating dock at Woods Pond. People hike the WMA and even pick blueberries in season.
The local Hoffman Bird Club and Massachusetts Audubon Society, along with individuals on their own, birdwatch from both land and water. Fishing and hunting take place. Even artists set up their easels to paint October Mountain in its autumn splendor. Wildlife and outdoor recreation have far-reaching economic benefits for the Berkshires.
I have paddled the entire length of the Housatonic. In my opinion, the most beautiful parts of the whole river are the areas from New Lenox Road to Woods Pond in Lenox and around Bartholomew's Cobble in Sheffield. These sections are part of what makes the river the second best warm water fishery in Massachusetts.
The trout catch-and-release areas in Lee and Housatonic attract anglers from throughout the Northeast. The tributaries support cold water species. Thirty-seven species of fish have been found in the river and its tributaries.
The watershed of the river is one of the most biologically rich and unique regions in the state. There are an exceptional number of rare species in the watershed: 51 species of animals and 110 species of plants are protected under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. There are more than 100 certified and potential vernal pools which are an important resource for reptiles and amphibians as well as birds and mammals.
In 2009, the 13-mile corridor of the river from southern Pittsfield to northern Lee and portions of the watershed was designated an Area of Critical Environmental Concern by the state. Much of this area has been designated an Important Bird Area by the Massachusetts Audubon Society and it lies within the Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area designated by Congress in 2006. It is a wonderful asset.
Yes, there are problems from the PCBs released by GE in Pittsfield. The future cleanup of the "Rest of the River," whenever that will take place (not in my lifetime!) will pose challenges. The cleanup and remediation that follows it must emphasize minimizing adverse environmental impacts, and should leave the river free to flow within natural banks, not rip-rap channels. Hopefully, town officials will be diligent in not allowing PCBs to be dumped in Berkshire County. And the dumping along Roaring Broad Road and in the WMA — sofas, refrigerators, garbage — continues to be a big problem.
Despite these problems, the Housatonic River's positive attributes far outweigh the negatives. the Housatonic is an exceptional resource, and I would like everyone to remember that as we consider its future.
George Darey is the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife board chairman.