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Devens offers open space with lakes and fields and forests and golf courses

A birding walk at Robbins Pond in Devens provides Henry Wacek, 7, with a souvenir feather, and a glimpse of a chipping sparrow.

Photos by Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

A birding walk at Robbins Pond in Devens provides Henry Wacek, 7, with a souvenir feather, and a glimpse of a chipping sparrow.

Tom Kinch moved to Devens after falling for one of the stately old brick Colonials that once housed Army officers on the military base-turned-mixed-use community.

But the retired tech worker, who loves to ride his bike, bird-watch, and hike, soon learned to his delight that beyond the sprawling reservation’s renovated officers’ quarters — and its commercial park packed with offices, labs and factories — were nature trails, swimming holes, and playing fields.

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“There are miles of roads here that are closed to cars that you can bicycle around,” Kinch said. “You never know what you are going to run across. I was with my grandsons and we ran across a red fox — it is really a beautiful place to live.”

The vast expanse of green space contained within Devens — the self-contained but unincorporated community is spread across parts of Ayer, Harvard, and Shirley — is a little-known attribute of the former Army base, which has built its reputation by attracting major tenants for its commercial park, including the Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., which is in the middle of a $250 million expansion of its drug-manufacturing plant.

However, the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency, which oversees Devens, says all those fields and forests — not to mention soccer fields and golf courses — are becoming an increasingly important selling point when it comes to recruiting both companies and families interested in moving there.

And in hopes of further enhancing the area’s green appeal, MassDevelopment officials are surveying residents and businesses, both on the old base and in surrounding towns, to get their opinions on possible improvements.

“One of the things we are trying to do is make people aware that they are not moving into an industrial park,” said John Marc-Aurele, an engineering manager at MassDevelopment. “The residences are very well shielded.”

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Consisting of 4,400 acres just off Route 2’s Exit 37 in Harvard, Devens has a growing reputation as a nature-lover’s delight, but was once one of New England’s largest and oldest military posts.

The federal government created Camp Devens during World War I, overnight buying up acres upon acres of farmland and woodland in Ayer, Harvard, Shirley, and Lancaster.

The base, which was renamed Fort Devens in the 1930s, became a training ground for countless soldiers from across New England through two world wars, and the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf wars.

Dedicated to the needs of the military for eight decades, much of the land remained undeveloped.

The Army decommissioned the base in 1996, and the quasi-public MassDevelopment took it over with a mission to turn it into an economic development magnet while also preserving and enhancing its sprawling tracts of green space.

Today, about a quarter of Devens is conservation land protected from future development. MassDevelopment is pursuing plans to shield an additional 300 acres.

There are 9 miles of nature trails and 8 miles of sidewalks, and 1,500 acres of forest.

“From an open space perspective, we are a former military base,” said Neil Angus, an environmental planner with the Devens Enterprise Commission, a state agency that reviews proposals for new businesses and development on the property. “It’s protected and cut off from surrounding towns.”

Wildlife abounds, both in the forests and often in the residential areas as well, notes resident Kinch.

He and his wife take part in a Devens bird-watching club, and regular visitors to their yard include wild turkeys, an array of brightly colored songbirds, and occasionally larger creatures as well.

“The biggest black bear you have ever seen was visiting our bird feeder last Sunday — he was standing on all fours in our backyard,” Kinch said.

Betsy Thiel, who trains hunting dogs, moved to Devens from Concord two years ago. Thiel said the rural feel was a major attraction when she bought her newly built town house.

“It’s going back to a bygone era when you can walk anytime day or night and you are not worried about traffic,” Thiel said. “You feel like you are living in a village — it is a village.”

The area’s military past can also been seen in the large expanse of space devoted to sports of all types.

The base’s old parade grounds, where thousands of soldiers marched and practiced maneuvers, is now a 44-acre spread of soccer, lacrosse, ultimate Frisbee, and rugby fields called Rogers Field.

There are also three softball diamonds, including one with lights for night games, in the Willard Park complex.

And for water lovers, there is Mirror Lake, a kettle pond open for swimming, fishing, canoeing, and boating.

The expansive green space has given MassDevelopment an added card to play when recruiting businesses for the commercial areas of Devens, officials say.

The acres of open space surrounding the office and industrial buildings offer the opportunity for lunch-hour jogs and walks not always possible in a Route 128 office park, Angus said.

One new hiking trail, Old Spring Brook, was recently extended around a building occupied in part by Nypro Inc., a medical device maker that recently opened up shop at Devens.

“All of these businesses enjoy the open space,” Angus said. “Some of them even have walking groups or clubs that have taken advantage of these open spaces.”

And Devens offers up something else near and dear to the corporate world — golf, and lots of it.

The Red Tail Golf Club, an 18-hole, championship course, is often cited as being among the best public courses in Massachusetts. There are also two 18-hole disc golf courses, one named the General, the other one the Hill.

“We have definitely heard from businesses asking about the golf club,” said Mark Sternman, a spokesman for MassDevelopment.

The agency also sees the green space as a draw for those interested in living at Devens, as owners or renters.

A little over 300 people now live in Devens, mainly in renovated officers’ homes and in a smattering of town houses, according to the development’s annual report.

But that tiny residential community is poised to grow, with Lexington developer Evergreen Village Collaborative designing 120 homes and apartments on a 35-acre site that will feature clusters of homes surrounded by woods and other green space.

“It’s a wonderful balancing act between the commercial and the residential,” resident Thiel said.

As more businesses and residents move to Devens, MassDevelopment is taking stock of the green space with an eye toward making improvements.

The agency recently conducted a survey of residents and businesses at Devens, and in its three host towns, and held a public meeting on June 19 to discuss the issue.

Ideas being considered include linking nature trails at Devens to trails in the surrounding communities, said Marc-Aurele , the MassDevelopment engineering manager.

“It’s a definite draw,” he said.

Scott VanVoorhis can be reached at sbvanvoorhis@hotmail.com.

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