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Thoreau swam in Walden Pond, but purists want others barred

In the fall, the loon . . . came, as usual, to moult and bathe in the pond, making the woods ring with his wild laughter before I had risen. -- Henry David Thoreau in ``Walden'' In the fall, the loon. But in the summer, it's the swimmers -- sometimes as many as 10,000 a day -- who flock to historic Walden Pond about 20 miles northwest of Boston.

The swimmers, whose numbers far exceed the park's unofficial capacity of 1,500 visitors, have transformed it ``into Coney Island,'' says naturalist Mary Sherwood. She heads a committee of concerned citizens called Walden Forever Wild Inc., which has lobbied for years to ban swimming here on grounds that the environment is too fragile to endure ``trampling by the mob.'' Mrs. Sherwood stated her case again Tuesday at a legislative hearing for a bill that would make the site a state sanctuary -- a sort of literary shrine to 19th-century author Henry David Thoreau.

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``None of us is against young people going swimming,'' she explained in an interview. ``But there should not be swimming at a historic site.'' In recent weeks, dozens of letters -- some from places as far away as Michigan and Minnesota -- have poured into the legislature's Committee on Natural Resources, backing Mrs. Sherwood's position.

Each year more than 500,000 people visit Walden, said commissioner Jim Gutensohn of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management (DEM), which oversees the state park, at least 300,000 of them for the sole purpose of swimming.

``Walden is one of the best swimming areas we manage,'' he said, noting that Thoreau, as well as poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, swam in the pond. ``It's only fair that citizens of the commonwealth be able to swim there,'' he said.

State officials say the 415-acre park is one of the major recreational facilities in Massachusetts. State officials insist that the two uses -- recreational and historical -- are not incompatible.

Some letters sent to the State House commend the department for its open-house policy. ``The preservation of nature is meaningless unless it is truly for the good of all the people, rich and poor, urban and suburban,'' wrote Patricia Libby of Charlestown, Mass.

In addition, the DEM has already acted on a number of provisions included in Sherwood's bill, says Stuart Weinreb, DEM's project manager of Walden. Late last year, the swimming dock near the tiny beach was removed. Currently, the bath house is being renovated while two others have been demolished. And the DEM is undertaking a landscape project designed to halt erosion along the steep banks of Walden Pond.

Those improvements will deplete the $1.2 million that has been allocated for upgrading the park. But Mr. Weinreb says DEM will be asking for more money to make additional improvements.

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Mrs. Sherwood, who has worked every spring and fall since 1979 to replant a slope that had been bulldozed under county management, says the improvements are too little too late. ``The state does things by the fire-alarm system. They [state officials] wait until the place is totally devastated before they do anything to correct the problems,'' she says. ``That environment does not get managed; it gets damaged.''

Even on a blowy March day, the parking lot across from Walden Pond is one-third full. A mother maneuvers her baby's carriage over tree roots that jut, bare and exposed, from the eroded path that encircles the pond. A fisherman in waders, thigh-deep in the frigid water, stands near an area where the path has simply fallen into the pond.

Jim Tantillo, a park interpreter at Walden, says erosion was particularly bad last summer because the water was higher than usual. With most of the beach under water, sunbathers were forced to spread out their blankets on the steeper slopes, dislodging vegetation that prevents erosion. The real problem at Walden, he says, is not swimming itself, but the huge number of swimmers. The best answer would be to provide swimmers with alternatives.

DEM Commissioner Gutensohn says that for proximity to Boston, for scenic beauty, and for popularity, ``none of these can compete with Walden Pond,'' he said.

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