Those who live along its edge see deer, coyote, and foxes venture out at dusk. Those who explore the interior find even more—a diverse flora and fauna, the ruins of a Revolutionary-era homestead, and enormous boulders predating the dinosaurs.
This is the Great Woods, 2,700 roadless acres of woodlands, wetlands, and fields straddling the towns of Mansfield (pop. 7,320) and Norton (pop. 2,618) in southeastern Massachusetts. And though the forest has been nibbled at over time, much of it remains, thanks to a 30-year battle fought by a tenacious band of local conservationists known as the Natural Resources Trust (NRT).
To date, the now silver-haired protectors of the woods have kept some 1,200 acres from developers’ bulldozers. Last January, the group learned that its latest effort—preventing developers from locating a recreational water park in the Great Woods—has succeeded.
“What we’ve tried to do is build corridors of open space,” says Leonard Flynn, head of NRT almost since its inception. “Little patches here and there aren’t conducive to protecting wildlife.”
Formed in 1971 in response to state plans to extend a highway that would have transected the woods and consumed 150 acres, the fledgling group collected $30,000 in donations and began researching deeds for land parcels whose owners were unknown. While Flynn and others pored over deeds, NRT member Harry Chase, an avid hiker, scouted locations on foot.
“I’ve hiked more than 5,000 miles in there,” Chase, now 80, says.
Members dogged hearings on the proposed highway, finally convincing officials to scale back from a full cloverleaf to a half cloverleaf.
The NRT’s first purchase was 73 acres cobbled together from parcels whose taxes were unpaid—in some cases for more than 100 years. The two towns later reimbursed the group with state grant money and added the land to their conservation rolls.
Escalating prices in the 1980s brought the NRT’s purchasing efforts to a temporary halt. Land selling for $3 an acre (really) in the 1960s suddenly fetched $9,000 an acre from a Florida developer planning a massive commercial development. That crashed when the economy soured, and the land reverted to the lending banks.
“We tried negotiating with each bank for the land, but every time we thought we had a deal, the bank would fail,” Flynn recalls. This was during the savings and loan shakeout.
The land eventually fell to one bank, which, recognizing its development value, declined the NRT’s overtures and solicited proposals. The first was for an amusement park requiring a road that would cleave the Great Woods in half.
Once again the conservationists mobilized, enlisting the help of two Massachusetts groups—the Trustees of Reservations and the Trust for Public Land. Local residents added their voices to the debate. Ultimately, the developer abandoned the Great Woods for a site in the West.
There was little time to celebrate. In the 1990s, twin proposals surfaced on industrially zoned land that threatened to damage neighboring conservation land—one for an office park and golf course, and the second for a water park. The first proposal eventually was trimmed to include only a golf course, where environment-friendly maintenance was mandatory and a nearby stream and wetlands would be protected.
“It’s been frustrating at times,” Flynn says. “But then you remember you’re doing this because it’s important to preserve open space. Maybe the number of people that use the woods is small, but it’s there for anyone to use at any time.”
Meanwhile, for Chase, the Great Woods continues to have personal significance. On the western border is a cemetery with headstones dating from the Revolutionary War. Carved on one is the name of Chase’s great-great-great-grandfather, Samuel Codding, a soldier in that war. The ruins of the Codding farm lie beneath a tangle of greenbrier within the woods.
Chase still hikes to the places where his ancestors built stone walls and cleared fields along footpaths trod by his forebears.
“Of course, I never knew them,” he says. “But I get the feeling when I’m out there that I’m walking in their footsteps.”