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Maynard Biodiversity Talks: John Dwyer

Updated: Oct 12, 2023

Biodiversity is an important measure of the health of our wildlife. The greater the variety of plants and animals, the healthier and more resilient the environment—and the better able it is to adjust to a changing climate.

So how do citizens of Maynard think about biodiversity, and what steps are they taking to foster it? What do people value about the wildlife in the gardens, woods, wetlands, and meadows in town? How and why do they cultivate biodiversity in their gardens? How do they protect and enhance biodiversity in the landscape? This blog attempts to answer these questions through conversation with a range of individuals with diverse viewpoints and approaches. We will look at efforts both small and large, from the cultivation of a single Bee Balm plant in a pot to town-wide initiatives.

First, a bit about me. I am interested in the biodiversity in my garden, and my efforts have been rewarded with a steadily increasing range of insects, plants, and amphibians. But I am neither an expert gardener nor a botanist, so I am curious to learn from others. I bring my interest, my questions, and a desire to understand how people think and respond to a changing world.

John Dwyer standing among flowers and tall grasses in his garden
John Dwyer in his garden (see more photos at end)

Conservation & Biodiversity with John Dwyer

John Dwyer has lived in Maynard for 35 years. I first met him a couple of years ago when I joined the Conservation Commission, of which he has been a member since 2002. It was immediately obvious that he had a clearheaded understanding of the laws involved and remembered details about town land from 20 years ago. He has spent decades volunteering on Maynard committees, and he is known in Maynard for being passionate about his work on the Conservation Commission. I was curious about what had inspired him, so we had lunch at the Boston Bean.

SM: Tell me a little about your background.

JD: I grew up in Wakefield. Our house was on a dead-end road, and at the end of the road was a wetland with a good size stream. This was where we played and built a tree house and spent our time as children. When I entered sixth grade, my family moved to an old Victorian house big enough for all five children. There was a small, hilly woodland behind our house. I have always had an area nearby that was natural.

Perhaps these were influences that led me to study zoology at UMass Amherst for undergraduate and then on to Michigan State University for graduate study in animal behavior. There I became particularly interested in analyzing data, and it was in the area of biological computer modeling that I found I had a talent. I developed a model to coalesce the results of 30 years of work on how hormones affect rat behavior. This was both satisfying and innovative. After graduating, there were no jobs using my PhD in zoology. It was a tough market.

In 1987 I got a job as a software instructor at Digital Equipment. I taught five different programming languages. Programmers made good students, and I was surrounded by a good team of people, many of whom became friends. I also taught software development tools and the programmer interface to the Rdb database. These tools were top of the line.

After Digital was taken over, I had trouble finding what I really wanted to do. Often in between jobs, I would be casting around looking for something. At the first economic downturn in 2002, I joined the Maynard Conservation Commission. I did continue in corporate education, building online training and developing multiple choice testing. And at another break, I got involved with SuAsCo CISMA. [John indicated this work was very meaningful for him.]

Challenges to Biodiversity and Conservation Land Management

JD: As a Commissioner on the Maynard Conservation Commission, I was mostly concerned with the legal aspects of administering the Mass Wetland Protection Act and the Maynard Wetlands and Stormwater Bylaws. The Conservation Commission indirectly promotes biodiversity because of its role in protecting wetland habitat and the quality of water in water ways and wetlands.

SM: By reducing the amount of pollution in waterways, biodiversity is supported. By implementing the Wetlands Protection Act and the Maynard Wetland bylaws, habitat destruction by development is limited or slowed down.

JD: The Conservation Commission could do a lot more to promote biodiversity and needs to do more. In particular, there is a need for proper maintenance of Conservation Commission–owned conservation lands. However, the Conservation Commission and its agent are dealing with limited resources and time.

One of the main issues is that all of the land we have is managed one way or another. There is no truly wild land either locally in Maynard or in most of the U.S. We have to continue to manage the land to increase diversity as much as possible. This is one of the things that the Conservation Commission falls down on.

One of the biggest threats to biodiversity is the constant increase in invasive species, which are degrading town land and Conservation Commission–owned lands. The invasive species outcompete native species because the native ecosystem has not evolved to effectively compete with them. The invasive species out-produce native species, and some exude chemicals from their roots that deter the growth of natives. Furthermore, local insect, bird, and other species are not adapted to eat them. There have been attempts to tackle invasives, but with too little investment in time and money to control them. This is a real battle and needs a lot of organizational investment.

There is some grant money available through SuAsCo CISMA. Anyone in town can apply for a grant; it does not have to be a town representative. Currently the Conservation Commission doesn’t have the time or staff to make use of these grants. It does not have the time or the money to fully maintain its properties. If there was a major shift in the town administration to prioritize biodiversity, then some of the land management issues could be turned around. The Conservation Commission needs a full-time Conservation Agent, but it has so far been impossible to get the funding because of a town priority to fund building development over and above land management.

SM: That’s an excellent point. Ideally the Commission would seek a grant to hire a consultant to do a plant and wildlife inventory of town and conservation lands and develop a comprehensive management plan. Do you think the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge (ARNWR) is healthy in terms of biodiversity?

JD: Yes, but it is all secondary growth forest. It was once farmland and cranberry bogs. Later it was a military storage depot during World War II. Afterward, it was used as a testing and training area for the Army as the Fort Devens Annex.

It is forest gone wild rather than original habitat. It needs to be managed just like any other “wild” land, and management of a wild area does not mean doing nothing. It might involve active removal of non-native invasives. It might also include active plantings of native species that have been decimated by human-introduced blights (Dutch Elm disease, Chestnut blight, Hickory leaf spot, Ash borer, Butternut canker). Planting modern disease-resistant versions of these trees could help restore a natural area while fostering the insects, birds, and wildlife that populate them. Or it might involve limiting the deer population.

SM: There is a lot of biodiversity in the wildlife in those woods and in other town lands around it, such as School Woods. In the future, there is a risk that it will be increasingly an island of biodiversity with steadily narrowing corridors to the outside habitat.

JD: Most of the conservation lands are isolated in town. The lands are mostly leftover parcels following housing developments. School Woods is an exception because it abuts the national wildlife refuge, which allows some room for species movement.

SM: Yes, that makes School Woods particularly important. What has been your involvement with SuAsCo CISMA?

JD: During another lull in my career, during the recession, I joined CISMA soon after the organization was formed. Jeff Collins from Mass Audubon was very helpful in structuring CISMA. I was on the steering committee and got Maynard to join. The primary focus at that time was issuing grants to applicants and organizing volunteers for invasive removal projects. It was a strong group at that time. I chaired the education and outreach subcommittee that developed the CISMA website. There was also training on identification and removal procedures for the different invasive species. Later the organization ran into funding restrictions that hampered operations, and CISMA consolidated with Sudbury Valley Trustees (SVT).

SM: Is there anything else you have been involved in?

JD: The Community Preservation Committee (CPC), which awards town funds in four defined categories; open space and recreation are the two that deal with land use projects in town. I currently serve as chairman and am very involved with the group. We have recently completed the project at Marble Farm in the north corner of Maynard next to the Assabet River Railtrail. The CPC also helped fund some of the work for the Railtrail.

Why Biodiversity Matters

SM: What has been most encouraging for you to see in Maynard?

JD: Volunteers in town have done more plantings of flowers and shrubs in various locations around town. I loved the pollinator garden behind ArtSpace. I hope they can find a new space. There are also lovely plantings in the historic water troughs around town, for example the trough in front of the old Fire Station.

SM: How would you define “biodiversity”? It would be nice if people in Maynard started to think about what biodiversity loss means locally.

JD: “Biodiversity” is a global term. It is hard to get people to understand it. A “diverse ecology” might be easier for people to think about than “biodiversity.” They might then think about what they can do to improve it.

Ecological systems are in layers and layers of different species interacting with each other. You can’t go out and buy a new non-native species and assume that it will be integrated into the system. It may or may not work to increase biodiversity. One of the things that is working is to encourage native wildflowers. It is simple enough, and wildflowers form a base for a diverse number of species. You can sell this. And those flowers help bees and also help moths, flies, and amphibians.

The general public is much more aware of global warming than biodiversity. It’s easier to grasp. It is difficult to see biodiversity loss. Changes to complex biological systems are often not immediately observable. However, most people are aware that there are fewer insects around these days. When I was growing up, you could not go into natural areas without bug spray on. You would be attacked by insects. Not anymore. I find many fewer insects in my backyard, often having no need for bug spray.

How Maynard Can Help

SM: They say a million species worldwide are at risk. What do you think may be the most effective way to make a difference in Maynard?

JD: If people plant a variety of native plants, that helps the baseline for a pyramid of life. Most people do not get excited about insects; however, you could ask people to stop using pesticides and herbicides in their yards, which would help a number of species recover and be able to our yards and lawns.


SM: Thank you so much for sharing your experiences of decades of commitment to supporting biodiversity at a town level.

Photos of John Dwyer's Garden

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