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Preserving an Age of Innocence : Don Henley Rallies Artists to Save Walden Wilderness From Development

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Don Henley, the rock singer-songwriter who has long been active in supporting environmental causes, still remembers the day 18 months ago that he got involved with his biggest crusade: saving the historic Walden Woods.

Tucked away along the edge of State Route 2 in Concord, Mass., Walden Woods is a 2,680-acre tract of trees and water where in the 1840s philosopher Henry David Thoreau lived and formulated the theories he outlined in “Walden,” his acclaimed 1854 work on wilderness preservation.

Henley was shocked when watching CNN to learn that 68 acres of Thoreau’s famous stamping grounds were about to be bulldozed for an office complex and condominium development.

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The Grammy-winning singer, who co-wrote the Eagles’ environmental anthem “The Last Resort” more than a decade ago, contacted the Thoreau Society in Concord and offered to lend his support to any campaign to save the acreage.

“Many people in the environmental movement consider this piece of property to be sacred,” said Henley, who had been a fan of Thoreau since his college days in Texas. “But this battle is about more than just a chunk of land. Thoreau was one of America’s greatest prophets and, the way I see it, his vision is under siege.”

Shortly after the phone call, Henley founded the Walden Woods Project, a wide-ranging coalition of musicians, authors and environmental activists, to raise $8 million to purchase the 68 acres from developers so that it could be placed in a local land trust for public use.

The group’s membership includes recording artist Bonnie Raitt, actress Meryl Streep, author Alex Haley and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), as well as leaders from the National Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and the National Parks and Conservation Assn. It has already raised approximately $2 million through celebrity benefits, foundation grants, corporate donations and a book co-edited by Henley, titled “Heaven Is Under Our Feet,” which includes pieces written by Paula Abdul, Sting, Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, James Michener, Garry Trudeau, Jesse Jackson, Bette Midler, Kurt Vonnegut, E.L. Doctorow, James Earl Jones and others, along with a foreword by former President Carter.

But the organization hopes to more than double its $2 million next week with a gala series of benefit performances at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

At the sold-out shows, which run from Monday through Thursday, Henley will be joined on various nights by Sting, Billy Joel, Jimmy Buffett and Raitt.

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About a quarter of the 68 acres in question is owned by Boston Properties, a real estate investment company whose chairman is Mort Zuckerman. Ironically, Zuckerman also owns the Atlantic, a 134-year-old magazine that first published Thoreau’s essays.

But Zuckerman--whose company has proposed a 147,000-square-foot office complex on about 18 acres of the property--doesn’t believe he is violating the spirit of Thoreau by pressing forward with the development plans.

“It’s not as if I am insensitive to Thoreau’s cultural contribution,” Zuckerman said in a phone interview. “I have spent $35 million to preserve the magazine that captured the best of Thoreau--which is what he wrote, not where he went for a walk.”

About 60% of the entire 2,680-acre Walden Woods, including the famous Walden Pond, already is under state or local protection. That’s an area a little less than half the size of Griffith Park. The remaining 40% includes Brister’s and Bear Garden Hills, sites associated with writers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott as well as Thoreau.

The area has long been settled, however, and Zuckerman maintains that its pristine nature has been greatly exaggerated.

“This is not the idyllic wilderness area Mr. Henley would like people to believe it is,” said Zuckerman, who also owns U.S. News and World Report. “The parcel we purchased is an eyesore. It has very little topsoil and lies situated next to a well-traveled road. More than 40,000 cars whiz by it every day at about 50 m.p.h.”

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And the highway, according to Zuckerman, is not the only problem. A train track laid in the 1860s runs near the pond, and the town dump and a trailer park are within walking distance of Boston Properties’ 18.5-acre parcel. There are also 35 exclusive homes less than a mile away.

However, to appease Henley, Boston Properties--which claims to have spent millions of dollars on permits, taxes, architectural blueprints, environmental studies, legal fees and interest payments in preparation to develop the property--is willing to sell the land rather than develop it, Zuckerman says.

The catch: Boston Properties, which purchased the property in 1984 for $3.1 million, is asking $8.3 million--about $5 million more than Henley believes it’s worth.

“What people don’t realize is that Mr. Henley doesn’t just want us to sell him the land,” Zuckerman’s partner Ed Linde, president of Boston Properties, said in a phone interview. “He wants us to subsidize his preservation dream.”

Henley disagrees.

“Nobody’s ever going to pay them $8 million for that property and they know it,” Henley said. “The amount they are asking is outrageous and unfair.”

The property was recently appraised by an independent firm at $2.85 million. Henley’s Walden Woods Project and the Trust for Public Land made a deal last month to buy a nearby 24-acre parcel for $3.55 million, about $2 million below market value.

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Regarding Zuckerman’s complaints about the dump and the trailer park, Concord town manager Alan H. Edmond says both are expected to be phased out around the turn of the century and reforested.

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