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Plan calls for new visitors center at Walden Pond

Conservation officials have completed a management plan for the Walden Pond State Reservation in Concord that calls for a new visitors center at the popular historic site, as well as better handicapped accessibility and increased safety measures.

Nathaniel Tipton, a resource management planner for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, said the need for a new visitors center, with room for displays putting the site’s history in perspective, was the driving force behind the plan, which also lays out other recommendations for the 335-acre property made famous by Henry David Thoreau.

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“Of all of the properties that DCR manages, I would argue Walden is the most well-known, yet we don’t have a centralized location there for interpretation,’’ Tipton said.

Officials say given Walden’s recreational and cultural importance, it deserves better, but funding remains an obstacle. Tipton said the project is expected to cost nearly $6 million, but the state property has just $2 million in capital funds available.

S.J. Port, a department spokeswoman, said it’s not known when the remainder of funding will come through. She said the agency’s commissioner recently announced his resignation, so priorities will be reviewed under new leadership.

She said funding priorities change during the course of a year, depending on which projects are ready to go and whether unexpected expenses arise, such as storm damage at state parks.

The Department of Conservation and Recreation oversees the Walden reservation, which encompasses the 102-foot-deep glacial kettle-hole pond as well as acres of forested land frequented by the 19th-century writer and philosopher. In the summer, visitors flock to the pond for swimming, and they explore the trails that ring the pond, and visit the replica of Thoreau’s one-room cabin, year-round.

‘I feel very strongly a new visitors center is absolutely essential to provide the educational and interpretive experience people . . . expect. The present site is very limited.’

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Thoreau lived at Walden Pond from July 1845 to September 1847. His experiences there provided the material for his book “Walden.’’

Kathi Anderson, executive director of the Walden Woods Project, said she has had some preliminary conversations with the state agency about the idea of private fund-raising to support the project.

“It may require some creative public/private partnership,’’ said Anderson.

She said it is too early to say whether the Lincoln-based conservation group would be an active participant in such an effort, but noted she is eager to see a new center that helps relay the importance of the site to the public.

“I feel very strongly a new visitors center is absolutely essential to provide the educational and interpretive experience people . . . expect’’ to see at Walden, Anderson said. “The present site is very limited. It does not really reflect the image and message that many of us want Walden to convey.’’

The property has one building that serves as the park’s headquarters and a bookstore for the Thoreau Society. It has a kiosk with maps and a conference room, but officials say more space is needed for interpretive displays and programs, as well as for large groups to gather in cold or rainy weather.

About 600,000 people visit the reservation annually to take part in recreational activities, but also to learn more about Thoreau, Tipton said.

Based on guest-book entries at the Thoreau cabin site during a three-month period in the summer of 2008, for example, visitors from 52 countries and every state in the nation visited Walden, Tipton said.

“That really shows Walden has not only a national importance, but an international importance,’’ he said. “The construction of a new visitors center would help augment the public’s understanding of what makes Walden such a unique and special place.’’

Lincoln resident Kenneth Bassett, the chairman of the Walden Pond State Reservation Advisory Board, said its members support the idea of a new center because the existing one is inadequate.

“It’s nowhere near what this reservation deserves,’’ he said.

Bassett said other key recommendations in the management plan call for taking steps to maintain the pond’s water quality, and improve wheelchair accessibility and public safety for visitors who have to cross busy Route 126 to access the pond from the parking lot.

The ramp leading to the pond from Route 126 has a steep grade that is not safe for wheelchair users, officials said. Currently, individuals with limited mobility park at the boat ramp to access the shore line.

Tipton said the department would like to work with Concord officials to improve safety along Route 126 by making the crosswalks more visible to vehicle traffic. One idea calls for installing brick pavers in the road to designate the crosswalk.

Other recommendations call for increased monitoring of boats to prevent invasive species from entering the pond, creating a program for monitoring sensitive cultural materials, including archeological sites and the Thoreau cabin, for vandalism and erosion, and studying safety issues around open-water swimming, which has grown in popularity in recent years.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.
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