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Thoreau’s Refuge Fuels Conservationist Passions

September 16, 1987

CONCORD, Mass. (AP) _ A conservation group trying to ban swimming and limit picnicking and hiking at Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau contemplated the simple life, has found itself at odds with the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

The Walden Forever Wild Committee says swimmers are causing serious environmental damage to the pond and its environs. But the society says the committee is pushing a political and symbolic issue, not an environmental one.

Strong words have passed between the society and the committee about the site where Thoreau built a cabin in 1845 and lived for more than two years before distilling his thoughts on nature and individualism into his 1854 book ″Walden.″

In a letter written earlier this year and obtained recently by The Associated Press, society president Gerard A. Bertrand condemned commitee chairwoman Mary P. Sherwood’s ″monomaniacal effort″ to ban swimming.

Bertrand, noting his Republican background, rejected allegations that he was opposing a ban ″to curry political favor″ with Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, a Democratic presidential hopeful.

Accusing Ms. Sherwood of ″unsubstantiated accusations of conspiracy,″ he also denied allegations that water samples were tampered with to make conditions at the state-run sanctuary appear better than they are.

Walden, about 15 miles west of Boston, has been used for swimming, fishing, hiking and contemplation for generations. By the 1960s, a concrete bathhouse and pier had been erected, but they grew into eyesores and were removed.

For some, Walden is a shrine to Thoreau and his naturalist philosophy. For others, it’s just another pond on a hot summer day.

Bertrand was out of state Tuesday, but Dan Greenbaum, director of education and public policy at the Massachusetts Audubon Society, confirmed the authenticity of the letter and the society’s view that a swimming ban is unnecessary.

″We do not feel it is an issue of ecological interest,″ he said.

Ms. Sherwood confirmed she had accused Bertrand of ″using Walden as a political football″ to try to gain favor with Dukakis, and she repeated her call for a swimming ban.

″Since Thoreau was our first naturalist, ... the pond should not be turned into a public swimming hole,″ said the 81-year-old Ms. Sherwood. ″Every year it gets more crowded. It’s nothing like people expect Walden Pond to be.″

Ms. Sherwood said she has dozens of letters from abroad and a petition with about 4,000 signatures from across the United States supporting a ban.

A state legislative committee that took up the issue at the urging of Walden Forever Wild decided in 1985 to permit swimming to continue at the 60- acre pond.

The Dukakis administration, through the Massachusetts Division of Environmental Management, which maintains the 411-acre sanctuary, contends Thoreau himself favored wide public use of the pond and surrounding forest.

Some of Thoreau’s musings seem to support that claim.

″I think that each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest of five hundred or a thousand acres, ... a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation,″ he wrote in his essay ″Huckleberries .″

Fifty-two years ago, the Concord Herald said 483,000 swimmers used the lake in the summer of 1935. Donald Faron, principal supervisor of the site, said no more than that now have access, because of restricted parking and other controls.

Faron sees development nearby as a greater threat to Walden than swimming.

Town planners earlier this year approved construction of an office building across the highway from the entrance to Walden Pond. Not far away, a developer is seeking approval for a 250-unit housing development.

Walden Pond is fed by ground water, and development is certain to affect water quality, Faron said.

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