Annual Meeting Remarks by President/Forester Jane Difley

New Hampshire's Big Idea 2.0: Turning Stewardship into Opportunity

September 29, 2014

by Jane Difley

The following are President/Forester Jane Difley's remarks at the Forest Society's 113th Annual Meeting held Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014.

Those of you who know me probably know the extent to which I prefer to look forward, not back. And while I am reminded daily of how the Forest Society’s 113-year history—a century-long legacy of forest protection—serves and informs our work today, I can’t help but think, “yeah, yeah, yeah, but what about tomorrow?”

So pardon me if I reach back into our history for a moment.

At the national land trust rally in Providence a week ago, I found myself explaining our history to a colleague from another land trust. “Defending the White Mountain National Forest,” I heard myself saying, “is part of the Forest Society’s DNA.” By which I meant that it is not only central to our founding purpose and our identity, but a manifestation of what I like to think of as New Hampshire’s Big Idea.

Filmmaker Ken Burns and author Dayton Duncan have celebrated our National Parks as “America’s Best Idea.” New Hampshire was instrumental in championing a different idea, our National Forests. To be sure, National Forests pre-dated the creation of “our” White Mountain National Forest in 1917. But those early national forests were west of the Mississippi, carved out from existing federal lands. In New Hampshire, we incubated the idea—born of the need for something to be done about the growing environmental disaster in the White Mountains—of a National Forest of land bought back by the federal government by intentional acquisition and conservation.

But as powerful as this idea was and is, the Forest Society expanded on this big idea of federal land conservation in two important ways:

First, we decided to take on ownership and long-term stewardship of lands ourselves as a private, non-profit Society. We were one of the first land trusts, and today there are some 1700 land trusts across the nation.

For more than 100 years we have continued to take on ownership and long-term stewardship of fee-owned lands. In fiscal year 2014, we conserved an additional 846 acres in fee, adding land to existing Reservations in Durham, Tamworth, Effingham and Deering, as well as closing on 576 acres in the Belknap Mountains in Alton as part of our Mt Major campaign. Today we own 174 different Forest Reservations making up some 53,000 acres, making us one of the top five landowners in the state.

The second way the Forest Society expanded on New Hampshire’s Big Idea was to promote “wise use” of all forests. We believed then, as we do today, that by promoting sustainable forest management among private landowners far more forestland would be kept as forest. The federal government may have been the only entity capable of conserving and managing a contiguous 800,000-acre national forest, but the private owners of the rest of New Hampshire—the other 5 million acres--were the ones who would determine, woodlot by woodlot, farm by farm, acre by acre—what would happen to our landscape and how it would be managed. They still do today.

In the 1970s we refined this approach by introducing conservation easements to New Hampshire, enabling those private landowners to extend their legacy of good stewardship through permanent conservation. The big idea would remain intact—those lands under easement continue to be managed well by the landowners themselves while the easement guarantees that those private forestlands will remain as forests for generations to come.

And so I’m pleased to report that in fiscal year 2014 we added another 1,947 acres under easement—we now hold more than 800 easements on more than 130,000 acres across the state—much of that privately owned and managed. This is NH’s Big Idea at work. Statewide we are now 30 percent conserved, and enabling private landowners to protect their land is a critically important tool as we advocate, through our New Hampshire Everlasting vision, reaching 40 percent.

Among the 28 land transactions we completed in FY2014, we worked with the Towns of Barrington, Fremont, Hooksett and Mason. At annual meeting a year ago we offered a field trip on Dennis and Liz Hager’s beautiful property in New Hampton, and I can report that those 140 acres are now conserved. And we were particularly proud of a project in Amherst and Mont Vernon, where thanks to donors and a generous bargain sale by the Tom and Sally Wilkins family, we put easements on more than 500 acres of working forest that will continue to supply the Wilkins Sawmill. The Wilkins chose to act on their conservation ethic. By turning away from potential development and granting conservation easements, the Wilkins’ chose to “perpetuate the forests”, and make “wise use” of them. That’s New Hampshire’s Big Idea at work, but requires some big hearts.

As I contemplate New Hampshire’s Big Idea—the idea that we don’t rely just on the federal government to protect “The People’s Forest” but we encourage and enable the people to protect their own forests—I can’t help but turn my attention to what’s next. I believe that we must be asking ourselves today how we need to harness the strength of that idea to make New Hampshire a better place, a more sustainable place, tomorrow.

First, we must make difficult but well-informed choices about what land to permanently protect. We continue to expand and refine our conservation planning efforts. Working with partners, we have built on the success of our Quabbin-to-Cardigan regional conservation initiative to include plans in the Seacoast, Lakes Region, and most recently the Merrimack River Valley from Franklin, through Concord, Manchester, Nashua and--working with Massachusetts-based groups—downstream to Newburyport. The US Forest Service has determined that the Merrimack River is one of the two most threatened in the nation by projected development trends, and it’s apparent that the last best opportunity to protect it is now.

Second, we must be prepared to defend our conservation victories. In the 20th century we had to save Franconia Notch twice—first by creating a State Park, second by forging a compromise on a proposed four-lane Interstate highway through that park. Our historical connection to state parks is strong—Sunapee, Kearsarge, Monadnock—and how those public lands are used, and for whose benefit, matters. In the 21st century we are seeing that existing conserved lands are too often viewed as easy targets for special interests who are more than willing to hire a barnful of lawyers.

Speaking of Northern Pass, I should offer an update: Northeast Utilities’ proposed 187-mile transmission line would directly impact three Forest Society Reservations. Because of that, and thanks to the landowners with whom we have worked to place conservation easements on nearly 8,000 acres of additional land that stands in the way of a Northern Pass route, we are confident that the proposed project does not have a viable route with site control. As a non-reliability project, Northern Pass does not have access to eminent domain. And it is our intent to make our case in court if it ever comes to that. As John Harrigan likes to say, “we own the dirt” and we don’t intend to invite Northern Pass to play in it. It’s clear to us that Northeast Utilities and PSNH are not interested in meaningful compromise and won’t voluntarily withdraw their proposal. It will be up to New Hampshire to tell them that they cannot deface our state, and with your help we will do everything we can to make sure they get that message.

The third thing I think we must do to expand on New Hampshire’s Big Idea—and this may be the most important-- is to turn Stewardship into Opportunity.

Too often we think of Stewardship—the responsible and sustainable management of conserved lands—as a budget-busting obligation that is certain to overwhelm. That defensive view sometimes leads us to turn away from conservation opportunities, fearing the stewardship obligation. This is understandable—any Tree Farmer or other private forestland owner well understands the costs associated with responsible stewardship of land.

I believe that we must figure out how to flip this paradigm on its head. For every environmental issue facing our world today, including climate change, forests are a big part of the answer. Similarly, for every stewardship challenge we face today, people are the answer. It is people, like those of you here tonight, who make everything we accomplish possible. And I thank you for that.

I highlight Stewardship because as of this month we stand at the trailhead of one of our greatest stewardship challenges. I’m pleased to announce that—in collaboration with the Lakes Region Conservation Trust and Belknap Range Conservation Coalition--we have successfully raised the $1.8 million needed to fulfill our Everybody Hikes Mount Major campaign, and we are now the proud owners of land over which 80,000 people climb each year to get to one of New Hampshire’s great views from the top of that little mountain in Alton.

Thanks to hundreds of individual donors, to the towns of Alton and Gilford, to the Open Space Institute, and to LCHIP--which for the moment has full funding--substantial portions of those trails are now conserved, along with some of the diverse and resilient landscape they transverse. But conserved does not mean well cared for and there is much work to be done. Mt. Major and the Belknap Range has the potential, from a land conservation standpoint, to be a 21st century Monadnock. But we must find ways to engage those 80,000 people and turn Stewardship into Opportunity—a truly Big Idea!

In closing, I would like to share with you just a few of the thousands of comments people have shared with us as part of a petition they signed urging the Governor to support burial of Northern Pass. When our board of trustees concluded nearly four years ago that the Forest Society has a legal and ethical obligation to defend existing conserved lands from Northern Pass as proposed, I never imagined the extent to which New Hampshire landowners and visitors alike would share our deep concern. The debate over the proposal to erect more than 1500 towers across two-thirds of New Hampshire has inspired people everywhere to recognize and articulate their love and appreciation of our scenic landscape. Everywhere I go, people ask me about Northern Pass—and virtually all of them thank the Forest Society for doing what we do.

The comments have come from across the country. From Ames, Iowa, Tracy Lambert said:

“I grew up in New Hampshire, and its wild places will always have a piece of my heart. I would love to see it stay as beautiful as it has always been.”

From Dayville, Connecticut, Gabrielle Meunier said:

“The White Mountain National Forest is my refuge. It is a beautiful land that should be respected and admired, not destroyed.”

From Pilot Point, Texas, Vicki Nolley said:

“Every summer my family would come to New Hampshire for summer vacation. I have wonderful memories of the time spent there. The views are breath taking and I love it there. It would be a travesty to destroy natures true beauty. Please don't do it!!!!”

From Golden, Colorado, Winifred Taylor signed the petition

“Because my heart is there, our old family home is in Franconia, We still cry about the Old Man.My ancestor Phillip Wheelock Ayres helped form the Society through its' infancy.”

From West Hartford, Connecticut, Karen Olson said:

“The pristine forests and mountains of new Hampshire are a national treasure. If we do not protect them, who will? These lines can and should be buried. Shame on us if we destroy our lands in this way.”

From here in New Hampshire, Ron King of Concord wrote:

“NH is a very special place. If we don't care for its beauty, its vistas, its unspoiled open spaces, it will become like every other place people try to escape.’

Also from Concord, Bruce Knee said:

“I have been nurtured by the beauty of New Hampshire's forests for 70 years. It is a gift that keeps on giving.”

And Kim Allison from Deerfield said:

“It is about quality of life.”

From right here in Londonderry, Susan O’Maley said:

“I love NH. Preserve it. If it has to happen bury it.”

And from New Boston, Jennifer Wilson said simply:

“My heart, my north.”

From that North, in Bethlehem, Mark Skellenger wrote:

“Please help preserve the beauty of not only my back yard (Bethlehem) but the one of a kind natural wonder of where we live. Please don't sell us out so a foreign or any company can make a profit. Its just not right.”

Gerd Lutter of Rumney wrote:

“It contradicts everything that New Hampshire represents. An eyesore that would affect tourism, property values, Ultimately it would affect the spirit of all those that make NH their home......”

And, finally, Marti Faulkner of Dalton said this:

“The preservation of the beauty of NH is our responsibility for generations to come.”

I agree. I thank you all for being her tonight, for being members of the Forest Society, for being conservationists. Let us all relish our responsibility.

Jane Difley is the President/Forester of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.