Estabrook Woods, a popular dog-walking area in Concord, may soon be off limits to off-leash dogs.
Several private landowners of the 1,200-acre conservation area are putting new restrictions on dog walkers, and the town of Concord may soon follow suit.
Officials say the number of dogs has spiked over the past few years, creating a nuisance to wildlife, horseback riders, and people who don’t own dogs. While the private land would remain open to the public, Harvard and other private landowners are now requiring all dogs to be on a leash. Also, walkers are limited to two dogs at once.
“There are no major changes in policy except we’re asking people to leash their dogs, keep them in control, and keep them in sight,’’ said Andrew Biewener, who works at the Concord Field Station, a Harvard University research facility located in Bedford. Harvard is the largest landowner of Estabrook Woods with 672 acres there.
Biewener said several private landowners have all agreed to the changes, so there is consistency throughout the property.
The town of Concord is considering similar restrictions on its 115 acres of Estabrook Woods including Punkatasset, and also the Monument Farm, Mattison Field, and White Pond conservation lands.
Residents have no say over the private land but they are fighting the town’s proposal, saying the public land should be used and enjoyed by all.
“We pay for most of these with our tax dollars,’’ said resident Jeff Young. “It’s not just a scenic vista for some well-to-do home owner. They should get used.’’
Young, who walks his Aussiedoodle, Chester, about twice a week at Estabrook Woods, has started an online petition urging the town’s Natural Resources Committee to continue allowing dogs to run free. The petition has nearly 600 signatures.
Delia Kaye, director of the town’s division of natural resources, said the commission held one hearing on the proposal, is taking comments, and will hold another hearing before making a decision. She said the commission is meeting Wednesday night to set a date for the hearing. The commission has received dozens of comments so far.
Kaye said there has been an increase in dog activity in Concord over the past few years.
In 2014, the town strengthened regulations so that dogs must be under direct voice control. Since then, private land owners and other nearby communities have either imposed or considered leash restrictions, pushing more dog owners to Concord’s land.
Kaye said the leash requirements are only for a few of the town’s properties.
“We’re looking at Punkatasset because it’s a high-value natural area, and if other land owners are moving in that direction, it doesn’t make sense to concentrate all that activity at Punkatasset,’’ Kaye said.
She said they are also looking at Mattison Field, where there are nesting birds; White Pond because of erosion issues; and agricultural lands to keep dogs out of the food crop.
“We are fortunate to have over 1,400 acres of conservation land that is open to the public, and we want all trail users and wildlife to be able to enjoy that land equally well,’’ Kaye said.
Kaye said the properties under consideration amount to about a quarter of the town’s conservation land.
Kaye said there have been increasing reports of dog waste, unaccompanied dogs jumping on people, and dogs running through wildlife areas such as a bobolink habitat, which may cause them to not reproduce properly. She said there was also an incident of a rider getting injured after falling off a horse spooked by a dog.
Young said there aren’t many places in town that offer a wilderness atmosphere for dog walkers.
He said he enjoys Punkatasset because it’s peaceful and has beautiful ponds where his dog likes to swim.
“It’s a great refuge,’’ he said. “Being as close as we are to the city, being able to get away into something like that is a privilege.’’
He said he hopes the petition shows town officials how many residents care about this issue. He said he’s eager to work with town officials on a compromise.
“Yes, these are preserves but it’s a preserve to be enjoyed and used,’’ he said. “It’s a great therapeutic resource to have and it’s good for the dogs.’’
Signs requiring leashes have already gone up on some parcels in Estabrook Woods. Biewener said they will likely be up within the month on Harvard’s property.
“People are still free to use the woods but we are going to ask that they have dogs on a leash,’’ he said. “I’m sympathetic to the concerns people have about this as a dog walker myself, but we need to protect the land or we will lose the natural value of the land as it currently exists.’’
Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.