The Crystal Lake Community Forest, located along the North Central Pathway bike trail close to downtown Gardner, Mount Wachusett Community College, and adjacent to Heywood Hospital and Crystal Lake Reservoir, provides many recreation and education opportunities for residents of Gardner, MA. Since it is so easily accessible, this forest provides a myriad of opportunities for education and community participation. Several times a year, including on Earth Day, the City hosts an event to help maintain the trails and forest gardens. Past events have attracted as many as 30 people! Local church groups, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America, and students from nearby Mount Wachusett Community College (MWCC) and Gardner High School have all volunteered their time to make the project a success and continue to use the forest for education, art, or group activities.
Following a recent forest cutting, the City of Gardner received a DCR Forest Stewardship Implementation Grant to enhance wildlife habitat in the understory of the newly opened canopy. Through the grant, and with the help of many dedicated volunteers, the City planted over 500 native plants and created a wildlife forage garden, rain garden, and pollinator garden. They also put in interpretive signs identifying the native plants and describing the habitat areas to visitors. Volunteers from the Chair City Community Workshop made hand-carved beautiful wooden placards that identify common trees and shrubs found in the forest. Local Girl Scouts built bird houses, bee houses, and butterfly houses for the pollinator garden. On a recent visit with Gardner Conservation Agent, Jeff Legros, the pollinator garden was literally buzzing with a variety of native bees, birds, butterflies, beetles, and moths. Now, with the increased sunlight of the open canopy, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries are abundant along the trail, providing visitors and wildlife alike with a delicious (and nutritious) snack.
Ongoing partnerships between the Gardner Conservation Commission, Mount Grace Land Trust, Heywood Hospital, local youth groups, and students at MWCC and Gardner High School have been vital to the success of this “Community” Forest. Prior to the grant, a partnership between Heywood Hospital Diabetes Center for Excellence, Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, and the Conway School of Landscape Design led to the creation of the first native pollinator garden between the edge of the hospital parking area and the Community Forest. The partnership between the City of Gardner, Heywood Hospital, Mount Grace Land Trust, and a local Eagle Scout led to the creation of a wellness trail between the bike path and the hospital. As a match to the grant, Heywood Hospital contributed funds for Health & Wellness placard signs explaining wellness concepts such as walking, exercise and fitness, and hydration. Recovering patients are now able to take short walks in the forest as a part of their rehabilitation. Another Eagle Scout candidate is planning a project to create a nature-learning and play area that will include natural play features, plant and animal identification signs and nature-themed geocaches. Thanks to these community partnerships and the Forest Stewardship Implementation Grant, visitors can connect with nature, learn about the importance of wellness and enjoy the outdoors.
Conservation Agent Legros says that this forest, while small, provides many benefits to the City including, protection and natural filtration of Crystal Lake Reservoir, and recreation, education, and health & wellness opportunities which are easily accessible and readily available to everyone. The Conservation Commission plans to keep the forest stewardship momentum going at Crystal Lake Community Forest with continued community volunteer days, guided interpretive hikes, cultural events, nature-themed geocaches, and additional wildlife and plant identification signs. They hope that the legacy of stewardship and community involvement continues grow and thrive along with the forest itself for many years to come.