Buying the Woods—Land&People

Like many conservation projects, this one began when a single community member encountered a “For Sale” sign on a much-loved property.

“I saw the sign, and I decided that I’d had it,” says Jennifer Molin, a wry, middle-aged woman whom friends and neighbors invariably describe as “a character.” They also describe her as determined in the face of obstacles and the driving force behind an effort that eventually protected 12 percent of her town as a working community forest. She thought: “We’ve got to do something about this. I didn’t want to see another place where I played destroyed.”

Freedom, New Hampshire, population 1,400, is tucked away in the state’s lakes district, south of the White Mountains—a rolling region of water, woods, and low, dark mountains. The town’s name commemorates its freedom from neighboring Effingham, on the other side of the Ossipee River, from which it seceded in 1832. But the name also suggests patriotism, and on the week after July Fourth, Freedom was hung with American flags and red, white, and blue bunting.

In the southwestern reaches of town, lakeside homes and shady old summer camps grace the shores of Lake Ossipee, one of the region’s major recreational attractions. Here a half dozen friends, neighbors, and conservation partners gather at a trailhead, preparing for a hike to show off their new forest to a visitor. In addition to Molin, the group includes Chuck Depew, a retired business executive who served as a fundraiser for the conservation effort; Katie Gove, chair of the town’s Conservation Commission; and Barry Keith, a professional forester who manages the new forest. Also present: Blair Folts, director of the Green Mountain Conservation Group, a six-town watershed conservation group; and Rodger Krussman, a Trust for Public Land project manager whom Folts and the others called on when they realized that the scale and difficulty of the $2-million-plus project demanded outside help.

“What I like about this project is that it started with one person,” says Katie Gove. “That person involved the community. Then a local nonprofit got involved. Finally, we called in a national nonprofit. It’s nice to see it all come together.”

Certainly the land was worth protecting. At 2,660 acres, it was the largest undeveloped parcel in town, and it also overlays an important aquifer. And since it abuts both the town forest of the adjoining community of Madison and The Nature Conservancy’s Ossipee Pine Barrens reserve, protecting it would safeguard from development more than 5,000 acres of contiguous land.

When Jennifer Molin went into action, calling a meeting of folks from Freedom and Madison who might want to see the land protected, about 40 people showed up—the first gathering of a group that came to be called the Friends of Trout Pond, for the pristine, 20-acre pond that is the land’s loveliest and most iconic feature. One of those attending the first meeting was Chuck Depew, who had been concerned that the property might end up in houses since the late 1980s, when a developer announced plans to build an airstrip and a “fly-in” second-home community there. (Two of these already exist across the line in Madison: Windsock Village and Soaring Heights.)

Back then, the town passed a zoning ordinance that made the fly-in community impossible. But it was only a matter of time until someone tried to develop the land. By Depew’s reckoning, town zoning would have allowed as many as 350 new homes. “I simply didn’t want the changes in town that 350 houses would have brought,” Depew says. Specifically, he worried about the increased cost of town services—schools, roads, and other infrastructure—that the new residents might have required.

But after that first meeting, Depew didn’t hold out much hope that the land could be protected. The potential cost was enormous, much more than a town of 1,400 people could come up with on its own. And how would Freedom manage and steward such a large amount of land? “I thought it was useless to go to the second meeting,” he says. But he told his friend Ed Reed, a banker who had also attended the first gathering, “If you come back, so will I.”

A Hike to Trout Pond

Accompanied by Katie Gove’s golden retriever, Murphy, and Blair Folts’s lumbering Swiss mountain dog, Orion, the group heads up a shaded trail into the forest. The path, lined with pale birches and overhung with beach, maple, and oak, climbs gradually. The dogs range ahead, splashing in puddles along the trail. Here and there chunky stumps bear witness to successive waves of land clearing and timber cutting since before the Civil War, when some of the land was denuded for farming. As they walk, the conservationists tell the story of their project, one voice giving way to the next.

Like many privately owned forests in the Northeast, this one had long been open to recreation, and many people in town simply assumed it was public, says Gove. They had used it for years, for hiking, fishing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling. They had hunted on the land; their fathers and grandfathers had hunted on it. “They thought they already owned it,” she says. She remembers when she first heard the property was for sale. “I thought, someone should do something about that.”

Blair Folts, director of the Green Mountain Conservation Group, at first was skeptical when Jennifer Molin asked for help with the ambitious project. “The best thing I could think to do was to stall her,” Folks recalls. “I asked her to gather some materials, lists of abutters, stuff like that, thinking it should take her awhile. She was back the very next day with everything I had asked for. I thought to myself: she can do this. There was just so much passion around this project.” But Folts also understood that the scale of the effort demanded more financial capacity and negotiating support than her local watershed association could offer. One of the group’s members had read about TPL’s work protecting more than 170,000 acres of working forest around the Connecticut River headwaters in far northern New Hampshire. So they contacted Rodger Krussman in TPL’s Northern New England field office.

The state of New Hampshire grants town conservation commissions the power to own and manage a town forest, and this option soon emerged as the most logical one for the land’s protection. The project might qualify for state and federal funds available for the acquisition of working forests. And proceeds for sustainable timber harvesting could be used to help support the land’s management and improvement. If the town can come up with its share of the funds, and other public and private funds could be found, a community forest could give the town important new control over its own future.

Community Forests: A Tradition for Today’s Needs

Freedom is far from the only northern New England community to create a community forest in recent years. Town forests and woodlots are a tradition in Vermont and New Hampshire. In the past, harvested wood may have been used to pay the local schoolmaster, for example, or to defray the cost of other community services. Historically, these woodlands have been managed primarily for timber production but were also promoted for recreation, wildlife and watershed conservation, and other purposes.

More recent trends have prompted an upsurge of regional interest in community-owned forests. Many private timber companies—landowners of long standing—are getting out of the timber business, replaced by landowners who are more interested in turning a quick profit from the land, often through development. Millions of acres that long have provided jobs and recreation to local communities are coming up for sale. And in many communities, resources are being strained and community character is being threatened by second-home development that can only accelerate as private woodlands come on the market.

“Communities are realizing that protecting a local parcel as a community forest can be an economically feasible way to preserve recreation, rural culture, and the environment,” says TPL’s Krussman. “Most of all, towns want some control over what happens to the land.” Since 2000, TPL has helped create five community forests in northern New England and has launched a partnership with two other nonprofits—the Northern Forest Center and the Quebec-Labrador Foundation—to expand this work, while exploring new financing tools specifically targeted to community forest conservation.

The ultimate success of Freedom’s campaign was due to huge amounts of hard work. The conservationists organized an executive committee, each member heading up an area of focus. Jennifer Molin and the Friends of Trout Pond launched a public education campaign to explain the project’s goals to residents. Rodger Krussman and TPL negotiated an option to acquire the land for $2.3 million. Chuck Depew and Ed Reed spearheaded an effort that raised more than $500,000 in private funds from foundations and 750 individuals, more than half the town’s population. Katie Gove and the town selectboard worked to secure a $100,000 appropriation from the Freedom town meeting, with more than 90 percent approval.

Key support for the project came from New Hamp-shire’s Land and Community Heritage Investment Program, which kicked in $250,000, and especially from the USDA Forest Legacy Program, which granted $1.2 million as directed by Congress. U.S. Senator Judd Gregg, a member of the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, which oversees Forest Legacy Program funding, has been a longtime and energetic supporter of Forest Legacy projects in the state. Others in New Hampshire’s congressional delegation, U.S. Senator John Sununu and U.S. representatives Jeb Bradley and Charles Bass, also provided support. The land was transferred to the town in June 2005.

Managing a Working Forest

The trail grows steeper, then suddenly levels off in a clearing beside the glassy expanse of Trout Pond. Towering white pines cast the clearing into welcome shade. There really are trout in the pond, says project forester Barry Keith—native fish and others the state plants each year. Elena Piekut, an intern with the Green Mountain Conservation Group, who has come along to test the water quality of the pond, wades in with her water analyzer and soon proclaims the pond first-class for low bacteria and high levels of dissolved oxygen. Farther out, a chunky loon, the first the conservationists have ever seen here, dives for his share of the pond’s fish.

Make no mistake, this is a real working forest, declares Keith. “We will be managing it for forest quality, recreation, and wildlife habitat,” he says. A forestry stewardship plan has been written and a 100-acre timber harvest completed, the proceeds helping to defray the costs of future forest management. Informational kiosks now stand at the head of major trails, and nature trails are being planned. The community has applied for state and federal grants to create and improve wildlife habitat. But managing a forest is an ongoing responsibility; Keith and Conser-vation Commissioner Katie Gove will be deeply involved in stewardship decisions.

“Not only did they get the money and acquire the land, but in only a year they’ve gone a long way in turning this forest into an important community resource,” says TPL’s Rodger Krussman. “This land is already generating benefits for the community.”

As for Jennifer Molin, Chuck Depew, the Friends of Trout Pond, and the other partners, this positive outcome has given them the itch to do more conservation. They’ve launched a new group called Freedom Lands and are talking to private landowners about protecting their property.

“There are other conservation opportunities in town. We’ve learned a little bit in getting this project done,” Molin says. “Why not use what we know?”

William Poole is the editor of Land&People.