Ashby Open Space & Recreation Plan
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SECTION 4

Environmental Inventory and Analysis

Geology, Soils and Topography

Ashby is characterized by rugged, hilly terrain interspersed with gently rolling open fields, woodlands, stream corridors, and wetlands. The topography and resulting landscape of the town is controlled by the underlying bedrock and surficial (unconsolidated) geologic units.

 

Bedrock geology

The bedrock in Ashby is comprised of members of three major geologic units, the metamorphic Littleton and Paxton Formations, and the Fitchburg Plutonic (igneous) Complex. The metamorphic bedrock types are gray-weathering feldspathic and sulfidic schists. The sulfidic schist is responsible for the "rotten egg" sulfur smell emanating from the water from many bedrock wells in town. The metamorphic bedrock was intruded by granites and tonalite, which was also deformed somewhat by later metamorphism. The more resistant of these rock types are responsible for the bedrock hills and outcrops in the town.

Steep slopes, shallow water tables and hilly terrain used to be impediments to building. However, with the introduction of Title 5 septic regulations, many parcels that were considered undevelopable in the past are now being developed by the introduction of large amounts of fill to provide offset to groundwater. Septic outbreaks on these slopes may become more prevalent as building continues. These areas are becoming increasingly threatened as the demand for undeveloped land increases and the desire for breathtaking views from Ashby’s hillsides override the increase in costs of this development.

 

Surficial Geology

The last glacial episode in this region, the Wisconsin Ice Age, ended approximately 15,000 years ago. The resulting glacial deposits determine in large part whether land is well drained and easily developable or is poorly drained, wet, and not as suitable for development.

There are three main classes of unconsolidated deposits in Ashby: glacial till, stratified drift and alluvium. Most of the town is covered by glacial till. Stratified drift deposits, where present, are abundant and have been considerably exploited.

Glacial till is a dense, heterogeneous, poorly sorted mixture of sand, silt, clay and angular rocks and boulders that was plastered down beneath the glacier in a thin veneer over the bedrock. Glacial till transmits water very slowly (technically, has a low hydraulic conductivity or permeability) and tends to be poorly drained. Seasonal high water tables and wetland areas are common in soils formed over till.

Stratified drift deposits are sorted, layered material deposited by glacial meltwater streams. Fine-grained deposits are deposited by low energy, slower-moving streams, and are generally carried farther from the glacier. Coarse gravels and sands are deposited by higher energy, fast-flowing water. Most of the gravel pits in town were formed as kames or kame terraces or plains, having been deposited between the melting glacier and a stagnant ice lobe or ice-dammed stream.

Sand and gravel deposits have great aquifer-bearing and aquifer-recharge potential. Typically, bedrock valleys covered by large deposits of sand and gravel (known as buried valleys) provide the greatest potential drinking water resource. No studies have been completed to determine if such a resource exists. A need for this kind of study would arise if Ashby’s growth or if widespread ground water contamination necessitated a municipal drinking water supply. Development of potentially precious aquifer-bearing land prior to such a study would be a great loss of the town’s resources. It is evident from the surficial geology map that sand-and-gravel areas are limited in town.

 

Soils

Soils reflect the underlying unconsolidated deposits. The most common soil type in Ashby is probably the Woodbridge Sandy Loam, consisting of deep soils formed on compact glacial till with a seasonal high water table at 18 to 24 inches. Other common soil types that share these characteristics (wetness, low permeability) are the Scituate fine sand loam, the Ridgebury fine sandy loam, the Whitman loams, and the Birchwood fine sandy loam. Poorly-drained till soils are also found intermingled with bedrock outcrops.

Low-permeability till-based soils without characteristic high water tables are also found in town, although less frequently. These include the Paxton and Montauk fine sandy loams. Sandier, more permeably till soils without high water tables are much less prevalent, and include Canton and Charleton fine sandy loams.

River valleys often contain muck soils or sandy, permeable soils with characteristic high water tables. Well-drained soils formed on sand and gravel outwash are limited to the areas of sand and gravel shown on the surficial geology map.

 

Landscape Character

Ashby retains many features of its geologic and cultural history. As residents of the town, we are proud and protective of the natural beauty and heritage passed down to us.

The rural character of the town is characterized by such features as the well hidden but exquisite two-mile drive along Route 119 in the Willard Brook State Forest. In the spring, Willard Brook rushes snakelike through boulder-sided mini-chasms and under manmade arched bridges. Along the two-mile journey, it drops 500 feet, forms Damon Pond, the popular swimming pond with its own waterfall, and then merges with Trapfall Brook. The sides of the hills bloom with flowering rhododendron and mountain laurel.

Many of our public ways still have long stretches of woods and fields outlined by hand built stone walls. It is this rural view from the roadway that helps to distinguish Ashby from its more developed neighbors. Maintaining this look is one of the priorities of the townspeople. The rural character that is so important to residents consists of the following elements:

The Hills

Ashby is a hill town, abutting the New Hampshire border at an average altitude of 1000 feet above sea level. The bold features of the town derive from its distinctively named hills.

Mount Watatic Blood Hill
Jones Hill Spring Hill
Juniper Hill Rattlesnake Hill
Jewell Hill Fort Hill
Caton Hill  

Granite topped, historic Mount Watatic with its trails and Indian traditions is a regional treasure, hiked regularly by hundreds of people. The Wapack Trail starts in Ashby at the foot of Mount Watatic and runs over a number of ridges to the summit of North Pack Monadnock in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Until the mid-1980s, Mount Watatic supported a popular local ski area with two T-bar lifts and two rope tows. The State Department of Fisheries and Wildlife has acquired significant portions of the Mountain in both Ashby and Ashburnham, and Ashby supports their continued efforts to protect this resource.

 

The Fields and Farms

Although agriculture as an occupation has declined in Ashby as in many towns in Massachusetts, the fields, farms, and orchards that remain speak eloquently about our rural way of life. Ashby still has two farms that provide the primary income to their owners. The major crop is hay. The Lyman and McLatchy fields (24 acres just south of the center of town) are still hayed and contribute to the unique openness in the center of town. The Western Middlesex Stock Farm includes 238 acres of forest and field to the northwest of the center. The Stock Farm and the Crocker farm are the two largest farms to remain intact. Five orchards, owned by the Fitzgeralds, the Saaris, the Quatralles, the Gullivers, encompass over 200 acres. There are three active Christmas tree farms owned by the Pernaas, the Hansons, and the Arnolds. And every spring, when the sap rises, the Pernaas on South Road tap the sugar maples and fire up the sugarhouse to make syrup. Town residents appreciate and wish to support the farms so they remain viable and open.

 

The Brooks

In the valleys formed between the flanks of the hillsides are the fast flowing streams that are so closely linked to Ashby’s history of water powered mills. With the exception of Locke Brook, all these brooks have their headwaters in Ashby.

Trapfall Brook Willard Brook
South Branch of the Souhegan Locke Brook
Pearl Hill Brook Fallulah Brook

 

The Ponds and Reservoirs

The major bodies of water in Ashby are the Fitchburg Reservoir (owned by the city of Fitchburg), the Ashby Compensating Reservoir, Upper Wright’s Pond, Lower Wright’s Ponds, and Watatic Pond.

Water Resources

Surface Water

Water resources in Ashby consist of various forms of surface and subsurface water: ponds, rivers, brooks, wetlands, aquifers, and other groundwater sources. Ashby’s water drains through two watersheds, the Nashua River watershed and the Souhegan River watershed, into the Merrimack River.

The Nashua River watershed covers an area of 538 square miles within 31 communities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Locke Brook, one of the New Hampshire sources of the Nashua River passes through Ashby. Willard Brook and Trapfall Brook begin in Ashby and feed into the Squannacook River watershed, then into the main stem of the Nashua River. Falulah Brook is its own small watershed that feeds into the North Nashua River. The South Branch of the Souhegan starts in Ashby and Ashburnham and flows north into New Ipswich, New Hampshire on its way towards the Merrimack River.

All of Ashby’s water is listed as outstanding resource water. Ashby provides water not only to its own residents through private wells, but also to Fitchburg, through the Fitchburg Reservoir, and Townsend, through its streams and aquifers which feed well fields in West Townsend.

Because of Ashby’s relatively high altitude in relation to its neighboring towns, most of its streams are fast flowing and well-oxygenated traveling along stony riverbeds with steep banks and little flood plain. Ashby’s streams are home to many species of fish, the most notable being native brook trout. This is a direct result of the highly oxygenated waters and the cool temperature of the water. Ashby’s waters maintain their cooler temperatures due to the heavily forested areas. Ashby itself has a cooler climate than surrounding towns (10 to 15 degrees lower) due, in part, to the higher altitude of the town. Most ponds in Ashby have been artificially created either by beavers or people.

The scattered wetland areas that intersect the slower sections of many of Ashby’s streams have become home to many beavers. These wetland areas act as baffles during periods of high water run-off, spring melts, and 25-, 50-, and 100-year storm events. These areas provide the potential for aquifer recharge. They protect downstream properties and streambeds from water damage and flooding.

All of Ashby’s streams are home for two to five families of beavers, with one pond per family. The beavers have dammed the streams and created numerous ponds and wetlands throughout town. Although a great number of these ponds are located away from direct contact with people, they have created havoc where they have been near homes. Septic systems have been flooded, Giardia counts have to be monitored closely at swimming ponds, and people have watched their trees and shrubs disappear in the water.

Another unique pond feature in Ashby is the fire pond. Damming streams has created some of these ponds. Others have been created through the capture of ground waters. The town has no public water system and relies on these ponds for fire protection. These very same ponds also provide recreational opportunities: fishing, swimming, ice skating, and wild life attraction.

Ashby’s high water quality has been taken for granted. Relatively little testing or monitoring has taken place on the streams. In fact, the streams have not even been inventoried in recent history. With the cooperation and support of the Nashua River Watershed Association, some limited water testing has begun. The first of the streams is scheduled to be inventoried in the spring of 1999.

 

Flood Hazard Areas

By viewing the Flood Hazard Boundary maps for Ashby, it is evident that there are not many areas in town subject to flooding. For the most part, this is due to the high slopes of the town. Wherever there is level land along a stream, there is a flood hazard zone. Two of the more notable areas prone to flooding are the Great Meadow, between Mason Road, Foster Road and Main Street, and a large wet meadow situated downstream from Lower Wright’s Pond. Other flood hazard areas have, in the past, been filled in and had homes built upon them. This is most obvious along the southern stretch of Route 31 heading into Fitchburg.

 

Vegetation

Forest Land

Ashby was reputedly named for the abundance and quality of white ash (Fraxinus americana) found in the area by early settlers. Numerous fine specimens of white ash are still found along roadsides in town. Ashby is generally located in the white pine-hemlock-northern hardwood forest. White pine (Pinus strobus) is the dominant conifer, growing especially in (but not limited to) areas with fast-draining sandy soils. Large white pines are common. Hemlock (Thuja canadensis) groves grow in valleys and wet areas. Hillside forests tend to be stands of mixed hardwoods, including beech (Fagus grandifolia), white or paper birch (betula papyrifera), sugar maples and red maples (Acer saccharum and Acer rubrum), oaks (Quercus), white ash, and hickories (Carya). Old growth oaks have been noted on private lands. Common forest understory plants include mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), green or striped maple (A. pennsylvanicum), and hobblebush viburnum (V. alnifolium). "Laurel hells," almost impenetrable thickets of laurel, are occasionally found. Speckled alder (Alnus rugosa) and highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) are common in wet areas. The summit of Mount Watatic has a relatively large expanse of low bush blueberry, providing a popular hiking destination for families.

The decline in agriculture in Ashby has led to vegetative succession on once open land. Recently overgrown fields commonly contain sumac, poplars (Populus tremuloides), and white birch.

The Town is fortunate that there are still a number of large tracts maintained as open fields, generally for hay production and some grazing. Notable examples are the Western Middlesex Stock Farm, the Crocker Farm on Jewell Hill, and the Pernaa property on South Road.

Since 1900, a variety of diseases have limited the diversity of our woodlands. Chestnut blight eliminated the American chestnut; American elms have succumbed to Dutch Elm disease; white ash trees are now dying of Ash Decline. This lack of diversity has implications for replanting efforts on the Town Common and elsewhere. To address this problem the Parks Department is investigating disease resistant trees for replanting.

General Inventory

There is a wide range of natural vegetative communities in Ashby, including hardwood and pine forest, red maple swamps, cattail marshes, wet meadows, and quaking (sphagnum) bogs. Lady slippers are common in some pine and oak forest areas. The town contains fertile farmland, tree farms, orchards, and hay fields. Many of the large forest tracts in town are managed for cordwood and lumber

 

Rare, Threatened, and Endangered Vegetative Species

Ashby is home to Rhodea (dogbane), a rare flowering plant that lives off dead and decaying matter. The locations of these plants have been noted by the Conservation Commission but are not publicized to protect their fragile habitat. Steps are being taken to ensure that these locations and species are registered with the National Heritage Foundation so that they receive the protection they deserve.

 

Fisheries and Wildlife

Strategic Habitat

Wetlands, forest, mountainous areas, and open fields are unique habitat supporting diverse populations of organisms. Wetlands are by far the most important of all the habitats due to the large number of vertebrates, invertebrates, and plants that live there. Vernal pools are equally as important for similar reasons and should be protected where possible. The generally small, non-game species found in wetland habitats very often cannot migrate to other more suitable areas as a response to habitat destruction. Therefore it is imperative that these types of habitat be carefully monitored. Fortunately, we are actively protecting wetlands and will soon have a list of most of the vernal pools in Ashby.

Wooded and mountainous areas should be considered the second most important habitats when considering which land to preserve. A few of the organisms found here include both large and small mammals, countless varieties of trees, shrubs, mosses, and lichen, insects, birds, salamanders, toads, and frogs. Larger animals like fisher, deer, bobcats, and bears can easily move as forests are disturbed, however, nesting birds, small organisms (both vertebrate, invertebrate), and less mobile animals have little choice as to where they can go.

Mount Watatic is home to numerous species of birds such a blue birds, hawks, warblers, and sparrows. Large numbers of raptors can be observed passing over the mountain as they follow their yearly migration cycles. The rocky outcroppings are preferred as den sites by gray fox, fisher, porcupine, and bobcat. Smaller mammals, especially bats, seek shelter in caves or under overhangs. Mount Watatic possibly has an extremely rare species of shrew which prefers rocky recesses or talus slopes. This shrew, known as the long-tailed or rock shrew (Sorex dispar), has rarely been seen. It is questionable as to whether or not we are in mountain lion range. If we are, the chances are good that they would inhabit areas such as those found on the mountain. Efforts to protect Mount Watatic should be continued.

Fields and open spaces, while providing habitat for fewer species, are also very important. Ermine, voles, moles, and some shrews depend on open areas as do numerous birds, insects, and grazing or browsing animals. Small mammals native to the fields provide a ready food source for migrating and resident raptors. Fields left to grow to wildflowers encourage birds, butterfly, and bee populations. Deer feed on grasses and shrubs. Dense underbrush at the edge of a field is important cover for rabbits, mice and birds. Fields should be strategically managed so as not to create a monoculture (one or a few species of grasses) but to encourage a great diversity of plant species that are attractive to many organisms. Mowing should be carefully times to decrease disruption of nesting birds and feeding insects.

White-tailed deer, fisher cats, porcupines, red and gray squirrels, coyote, and fox inhabit wooded areas in Ashby. Black bears travel through our woods although there are no resident populations. Meadow voles, ermine, rabbits, and many birds live and reproduce in meadows and where dense underbrush is found. Beaver, moose, muskrats, otters, mink, and waterfowl use our marshes, streams, and ponds.

Ideally, wetland, forest, mountain, and fields should remain contiguous so organisms may seek food, solitude, shelter, and the safety they desire in the particular habitat suitable for them. This would be aesthetically pleasing to most people who enjoy wild life viewing. This would also supply recreational areas to those who chose to use them. It is also important for these areas to be contiguous because the largest numbers of wildlife are found where one habitat borders another.

Ashby is fortunate to have within its boundaries numerous tracts of land where many species of birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and insects flourish. Diverse habitats are necessary to sustain these various species since most animals have specific requirements and are therefore restricted by their dependence on the surrounding vegetation, shelter, territory requirements, and nutrient availability. By protecting our fields, meadows, forests, wetlands, brooks and ponds through conservation efforts, we encourage wildlife habitation as we enrich the quality of our own lives.

Each species of animal has its own niche, and interactions between species constantly occur. These interactions may be in the form of a predator-prey relationship such as is found between coyote and rabbits, ermine and voles, or fisher cats and red squirrels. Beaver create wetlands which entice moose. Moles and shrews aerate the soil as they help control harmful insects found below ground. Long-tailed weasels use abandoned rodent burrows for their dens. These are a few of the many important interactions between animals. Residential developments threaten these relationships by fragmenting and destroying valuable habitat. To ensure the survival of each species, efforts must be made to reduce the human impact on our existing wildlife. The townspeople will reap recreational and emotional benefits from such conservation efforts. Those who enjoy hunting, fishing, and bird watching will still have an opportunity to do so. Open spaces impart a feeling of well being and relaxation to many of us. Foresight and proper management of open spaces will ensure an abundance of native wildlife for Ashby residents to enjoy for many years to come.

 

Scenic Resources and Unique Environments

The town of Ashby is replete with scenic beauty. Sawtelle’s History of Ashby, Massachusetts speaks of Ashby in glowing terms, "The surface is hilly and diversified. The outlines of the landscape are majestic and grand. Many of the elevations are bold and rough, while others are gracefully rounded and some of the elevated swells of land are fertile to the summit." For those fortunate enough to live in Ashby in 1999, it is a joy that Ashby has retained the scenic beauty that Sawtelle spoke about over 100 years ago.

Ashby enjoys abundant wooded areas including Willard Brook State Park, a treasure of thickly forested woodlands with clear flowing streams. Damon Pond, nestled in the State Park, provides a lovely, tranquil setting for a refreshing swim on a hot summer day. The hike along Valley Road is easily accessible for young children because it is relatively flat and is a wonderful place to go cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, or horseback riding. The hand-built arched bridge is beautiful. The keystone bridge on Route 31 is a fine example of the particular historic building style. It has been rescued from demolition once already when Route 31 was widened and repaved in the 1970s. Keeping the bridges repaired and maintained as scenic/historic sites would be a special gift to future generations.

Our many hills afford unparalleled views of Ashby’s surroundings. From atop Blood Hill, located in the west part of town, or Caton Hill located near the center of town, one can look eastward and see the skyscrapers of Boston. Pine Hill and Battery Hill along Ashby’s eastern border overlook the valley around the Squannacook River. Mount Watatic views are lovely and tranquil in all directions. Jones Hill, a little west of the center of town, Jewell Hill in the southwest part of town and Caton Hill are primarily open and agricultural. All provide grand views of Mount Watatic and the Monadnock Range that stretches north into New Hampshire.

The Indian Caves, found in the West Road and Jewett Hill area adjacent to the Western Middlesex Stock Farm are an important remnant of Ashby’s past and should be preserved for future generations. Rattlesnake Hill and Fort Hill are two more areas where Native American artifacts, such as arrowheads, have been found.

Throughout town you can find large parcels of land that provide corridors for wildlife migration. Beavers have been busy in several locations creating larger wetland areas where wildlife is abundant. Great Meadow, located off Foster Road, is a beautiful beaver-flooded field that is home for a variety of plants and animals as well as a place for migrating waterfowl to feed. These wetland areas help to recharge our water supply and serve as a holding area that moderates the effects of high and low water seasons downstream.

Ashby’s natural beauty provides the perfect backdrop for her picturesque village green. The Town Common was recently named among a list of "perfect village greens" by a writer for the Sentinel & Enterprise newspaper. "The Common has a fine green surrounded by two churches, a burial ground and a weathered old Grange Hall. On the green itself is a gazebo, an old hand pump, monuments to the early settlers and Ashby’s war veterans, and a couple of ancient gnarled maples." The town pump is still available to folks when their wells run dry. Band concerts have been held on the Common on Wednesday nights in the summer since 1897. The town of Ashby flows in all directions from the Town Common and has many beautiful historic homes set against the backdrop of her rural landscape.

Ashby has an active Historical Society. There is a collection of local artifacts housed in the refurbished Fire Station located in the Ashby Historic District. Among other historically significant buildings in Ashby, there are still many large barns, both attached and detached, which help maintain the rural feel of the town. Our Historical Society recently hosted a well-attended barn tour. Many people again expressed their interest in preserving the rural charm and character of the town.

Environmental Problems

Although Ashby is both rural and sparsely populated it has not escaped the scourges of modern life. The points of vulnerability are groundwater contamination, erosion, loss of open space, and loss of wildlife diversity.

Ground Water Contamination

The town is served solely by private wells. There is no remedy, other than point-of-use treatment, for degraded water quality.

Hazardous Materials

Ashby has little industrial and commercial property use which helps limit the potential for hazardous materials contamination. The worst known incidence of ground water contamination by hazardous materials is at the Mr. Mike’s gasoline filling station at the corner of Erickson Road and Route 119. At that site there was a gasoline release which contaminated a number of private drinking water wells along Main Street. Point-of-use treatment systems were placed on the contaminated wells in the 1980s. Due to a failure of the regulatory system and intransigence on the part of the party responsible for the spill, no additional progress was made until 1994, when the Board of Health and citizens petitioned the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to designate the contamination site a Public Involvement Site. Although progress has continued to be slow, the point-of-use systems have been upgraded. Remediation of ground water in the source area has begun.

The other threat is home-based disposal of hazardous waste. In the past ten years, there have been only a couple of hazardous waste disposal days for residents to safely discard of paints, turpentine, antifreeze, and other harmful household chemicals. Too often the septic system, backyard, or nearby wetland has been used for disposal. The town needs to be far more proactive in this area.

Septic, Road Salt

Ashby is served entirely by private water supply wells and private septic systems. In many areas of Ashby the overburden deposits are thin and contaminants can easily enter the bedrock aquifer. Gradual deterioration of water quality from long-term septic and road salt impacts associated with development poses the most serious town-wide threat to Ashby’s water supply. Zoning build-out analyses typically demonstrate that septic inputs on numerous contiguous lots of 1.5 acres to 2 acres will, over time, result in nitrate concentrations approaching or exceeding the drinking water standard. These analyses are based solely on septic inputs, and ignore additional contributions to nitrate concentrations from animal pens. The Board of Health has noted that the keeping of large animals, especially horses, is becoming more widespread.

 

 

Surface Water

Several ponds in town have various residences on their shores. Many of the houses were built as camps but are increasingly being used as full-time residences. Ground water near these residences may become enriched in nutrients and then discharge to the ponds, resulting in eutrophication. In addition, sedimentation of surface waters from road runoff is a constant threat to surface waters.

Solid Waste

Ashby has been forced to close our landfill to comply with the DEP’s solid waste master plan, which makes little sense for small rural towns. To pay for the DEP-mandated closure, the town decided to sell available airspace in the landfill for construction and demolition debris. The result is that a landfill that would have lasted the town for decades has instead been filled in one and an half years. The town is now grappling with how to maintain its curbside pickup and recycling programs in the face of the increased disposal costs resulting from the use of a transfer station for disposal of trash out of town.

The landfill is also surrounded on two sides by wetlands. The great weight of trash being dumped is squeezing the wastewater out of the landfill, potentially into abutting wetlands. One of these areas feeds into Trapfall Brook that supplies water to Townsend.

Subdivision and Loss of Open Space

Over the past several years, a large percentage of available lots with road frontage have been built out, and developers have started to purchase and subdivide larger parcels. This trend will have a marked impact on wildlife. It will impact human perception of the environmental quality of the town as the large, interconnected parcels of woods and fields start to disappear.

Poor Quality Logging

Numerous large parcels have been logged over the past several years. The environmental impact of logging varies from minimal to extensive. The worst of these operations have had severe impacts on wetlands, with skidder roads cut perpendicularly up and down slopes and through wetlands in muddy conditions. These operations have often preceded sale, and in some cases subdivision, of the land. Supervision of the logging operations by the state forestry office could be improved with more state funding instead of the trend towards less funding. The foresters could also be helped by the active participation of town residents as additional eyes and ears.

Off-Road Vehicle Impacts

Many trails, logging roads, and old byways experience moderate to heavy use by dirt bikes, 4-wheelers and other off-road vehicles. The erosion from this use is occasionally severe. Notable examples include Mount Watatic and the road up Blood Hill.

Ashby Open Space & Recreation Plan
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