Landscapers clear acres of overgrown, invasive plants to improve Thompson Park

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WATERTOWN — Starting a more than weeklong project on Thursday, Brian R. Percy sat perched a couple of stories above the ground in Thompson Park operating a Prentice log loader.

The loader, fitted with a claw, grabbed pesky underbrush, picked it up and placed it in the back of a dump truck.

Back on the ground, another employee of B&R Tree Experts, Black River, maneuvered a Bobcat, equipped with a Fecon head on it, as it placed smaller debris in an industrial chipper. Two other employees with chain saws also helped out with the project.

Within three hours, the four B&R tree experts removed about an acre of European buckthorn, clearing out an area near the Gotham Street entrance that will be used by park-goers in the near future.

“We don’t mess around,” Mr. Percy said. “We get in and get out.”

Over the next week or so, the company will remove about 11 acres of buckthorn, an invasive species that has gobbled up lawns in the historic city park for decades.

It’s part of the city’s ongoing efforts to make the park “more accessible and more usable,” according to City Manager Kenneth A. Mix, the city’s resident Thompson Park expert.

After the work is done, Mr. Mix, who’s spearheading the improvements, envisions adding picnic tables to the cleared space or creating a disc golf course, an amenity that park enthusiasts have requested in recent years.

While the heavy equipment will remove gobs of buckthorn quickly, other park improvements began four years ago.

In 2018, volunteers and members of the Friends of Thompson Park, a group dedicated to the 355-acre park, started gathering one Saturday a month in the summer months and into the fall to work on Thompson Park’s trail system.

“They’ve done a lot of work,” Mr. Mix said.

Over the past 20 years, mountain bikers have created a series of trails around the park.

But many of the trails that snake around the park have been covered by the invasive species. Others have disappeared after years of neglect, Mr. Mix said.

The improvements began with volunteers using tools to remove brush by hand to widen trails, create new ones and reopen underutilized portions of the park.

They dragged out the debris, where it was picked up by public works crews and carted away.

Park enthusiasts were back at work on Saturday placing wood chips on some of those improved trails.

During the past few years, Walter Zabriskie, who has lived in Watertown for 40 years, has participated in about a half dozen of the Saturday volunteer efforts.

“We love the park,” he said. “We think it’s the best thing about Watertown.”

On a recent humid day, Mr. Mix took a reporter on a hike through a trail off West End Drive, near the Gotham Street entrance.

Across the road from the West End Drive Overlook, the trail entrance has been marked by logs on either side. The trail quickly narrows. Only one person can hike on it at a time.

It meanders past Goose Pond, a depressed water area on the left, and the Watertown Golf Club on the other side. It loops around and comes back out to the overlook.

“I know people who have lived here 30 years and don’t know this is here,” Mr. Mix said.

He’s hoping to change that with the ongoing improvements.

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