by Mary J Metzger
“This park was built by a Green Beret and some kids.” Marion Stoddart stands at the Petapawag Canoe Launch in Groton, one of the first protected stretches of land along the Nashua River, taken by tax title in 1966 by the Groton Conservation Commission.
“It was very hard to convince people to invest in land along the river back then. The river ran a different color every day from upstream paper mills. The sulphur smell reached a mile away. You could drop a stone from the bridge here and it wouldn’t sink through the cellulose sludge.”
From her earlier work with the Sudbury League of Women Voters’ study of water and related land resources, Marion knew that protecting the riverside land was as important as cleaning the water itself, and sometimes a harder challenge, as timing was everything.
“I had been going into Boston encouraging the Mass Fish & Wildlife to buy land along the river, because it was cheap.”
With the Water Quality Act in 1965, Congress required states to establish water quality standards, and the emphasis passed to cleaning the water. Marion was able to organize a burgeoning group of volunteers who worked out of her new home in Groton. They were able to help make Massachusetts become the first state in the nation to pass clean water legislation.
“I made friends. But, I never expected to get help from the military.”
One day “out of the blue”, the Commander of Fort Devens, Brigadier General John Cushman called and asked what he could do to help with
the river’s restoration. Cushman believed Devens had a vested interest in the project as 8.2 miles of the river flowed through what at the time was New England’s largest military base.
“I made a long list and met with him the next week. He fulfilled everything on the list and more. He gave us a meeting place and professional staff. And he encouraged me to start the association.”
Ed Rizzotto was one of the young Army engineers assigned to the project. He had come to Fort Devens after being wounded in Vietnam. A graduate of UMass Amherst with studies in natural resource conservation, he joined a team that provided professional assistance as the new Nashua River Watershed Association (NRWA) took form.
“We researched watershed lands, mapped all the properties, and created a greenway and clean-up plan,” said a spokesman.
The military personnel also helped with hydrology studies, legal counsel, and accounting issues. The base paid for the heat and cleaning of the Devens office (T2608, a now-demolished wooden “temporary” converted WWII barracks) and provided a vehicle. Their work eventually won a Department of Defense competition as the best Army conservation program worldwide. Rizzotto went on to a career in the National Park Service.
“At the time, we surmised that, if the Nashua could be cleaned up, then any river, could, and, as you know, it actually happened.”
Rizzotto credits Marion Stoddart’s uncanny ability to “herd cats” as 32 different towns in the watershed were involved in the clean-up.
The Fort Devens Commanders who followed General Cushman continued support for the river clean-up. In 1972, working with the Department of Labor and NRWA, the Fort provided a project coordinator for CURB (Project Clean-up our River Banks) which paired Green Berets with
disadvantaged high-school drop-outs, to help their employment potential. One of their eleven work sites was the Petapawag Canoe Launch.
This old riverside factory site was unsafe with dangerous debris and large holes. The CURB crews made a picnic area and simple canoe launch. Petapawag is used now by NRWA River Classroom and is the site of the Groton Greenway Committee’s annual Riverfest in June.
In 1974, Fort Devens helped with a number of land transfers from the Department of Defense to the US Fish and Wildlife, which resulted in the establishment of the Oxbow National Wildlife Refuge.
Marion Stoddart is soldiering on. Though 200 miles of stream-side land has been protected in the Nashua River Watershed, an equal number remains unprotected. “I’m not going to rest until the greenway is fully protected,” she says. “Hurry up! I’m 91 years old. There’s not a lot of time left.”