A Small Town Thinks Big—Land&People

The Northern Forest is as large as the town of Randolph is small. It covers 26 million acres of land–roughly the size of Kentucky–extending from New York State's Adirondack Mountains, across Vermont and New Hampshire, to the vast woods that blanket much of Maine. Yet the forest is at risk, and the tiny town of Randolph, tucked between two units of the White Mountain National Forest in northern New Hampshire, is playing a disproportionately large role in its protection.

Sure, a lot of projects cost more than protecting Randolph's Pond of Safety forest. And some involve larger tracts of land. But consider this: Randolph's purchase of this land will protect some 13,500 acres of Northern Forest, at a cost of over $5 million. And the town has exactly 341 full-time residents.

While public attention has focused on the West's old-growth forests and their threatened wildlife, the fact is that three-quarters of the nation's forests are in the East. That forest is growing, has been growing, ever since farmers discovered it was easier to plow Ohio sod than New England stones. In 1850, forest covered 35 percent of Vermont; today it has spread to more than double that amount.

In the New England tradition of free access, most of the Northern Forest is open to hunting, fishing, trapping, hiking, canoeing, skiing, even snowmobiling. But open access masks the fact that the preponderance of the Northern Forest is privately owned. For generations, much of the land has been held by timber interests. There are still a half-dozen or more sawmills surrounding Randolph, cutting dimensional lumber–two-by-fours and the like–from local softwoods, dowels and veneers from birch, and furniture-grade stock from the maples.

But while forestry is still kingpin of the regional economy, the economic rules have changed–overnight, it seems. The mills started selling their forests. It began in the 1980s, when a British investor bought Diamond International. The forest products company was quickly broken up and its divisions resold. D-I's million acres of forest went to a French conglomerate, which in turn subdivided the land for resale. Almost 200,000 acres went to developers.

"Buyers were paying good prices, more than expected," says Lloyd Irland, author of The Northeast's Changing Forest. "Forestland became richly prized." Land sales became a quick way to pay down the debt acquired in the frenzy of mergers and takeovers that swept the forestry industry. During just four weeks in 1998, 2.1 million acres, or 10 percent of the state of Maine, changed hands.

A Town and Its Forest

Such sales raised the Northern Forest to the top of the agenda for many conservation groups, which began scrambling to find the financial means to be at the bargaining table. "There was a deep, fundamental shift in land ownership patterns," says Andrea Colnes, executive director of the Northern Forest Alliance, composed of some 40 organizations ranging from national players like the Trust for Public Land and the Wilderness Society to local and regional groups like the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks. Forest conservation gathered steam, with The Nature Conservancy of Maine purchasing a 185,000-acre tract on the St. John River and the New England Forestry Foundation negotiating a $28 million conservation easement on 762,000 acres of Maine forest–the largest forestland conservation easement in American history.

The forests surrounding Randolph were highly vulnerable. They and the mills in Berlin had been owned by the Brown Company for nearly 100 years. But over the last 20 years, says John Scarinza, "the land's value for development increased to more than its value for timber." Ownership of the forest changed six times in rapid succession. And with each sale, says David Willcox, "the decision process for managing the land moved farther and farther away."

Scarinza and Willcox, both members of the Randolph Planning Board, became involved in the project because they were concerned that the forest surrounding their town would be sold for development. "Any development would have to be large to pay back the cost of acquiring the land," says Willcox, "and a large subdivision would overwhelm our tiny town."

The Pond of Safety, which gives the forest its name, is a ten-acre, pellucid blue gem that forms the headwaters of the Upper Ammonoosuc River. It was so remote in Colonial days that it provided safe refuge for a small group of patriots caught in a Revolutionary War catch-22. The soldiers, captured by the British, were released on the promise they would not again take up arms. Fearful they would be treated by their own side as deserters, the men sought safety in the woods around the pond. At war's end, the tale goes, they were exonerated and became "upstanding citizens of the community."

The coming of the railroad in the mid-1800s made the Pond of Safety and its forest accessible to Victorians eager to escape summers in their un-air-conditioned cities. Tourism became an important part of the local economy, and before long summer residents–university faculty in particular–became an integral part of the regional fabric.

Randolph's bucolic coexistence with its forest went up in flames in 1886. Slash-and-burn logging had left the mountains buried in brush. A fire so great that its smoke was visible in Manchester, 125 miles away, swept Knife Edge Ridge. It was so intense the topsoil burned, and even a decade later the ridge was described as a "bleaching tract of desolation." The fire forged an alliance between summer and year-round residents that helped create New Hampshire's White Mountain National Forest, and that alliance is still evident today in Randolph's decision to protect the Pond of Safety forest.

Shelter from the Storm

The story unfolded over a lingering lunch served in David Willcox's dining room, where large windows offer a sweeping view of Knife Edge Ridge. Willcox, a retired urban and regional development consultant, began visiting Randolph as a child. His home is warm with art and artifacts collected over years of work in Asia. John Scarinza grew up in Randolph and stayed to become a New Hampshire state trooper. Now assistant troop commander, he still puts some 30,000 miles a year on his cruiser, parked outside. The two men, emblematic of the close relationship between the town's summer and full-time residents, finish each other's sentences.

Following the 1886 fire, townspeople created the Randolph Mountain Club, which still counts most residents as members, to restore trails and "promote the enjoyment of Randolph's forests and mountains." And residents rallied behind the Appalachian-White Mountains Forest Reservation Bill, introduced in Congress by native son Representative (and later Senator) John Wingate Weeks. At the time, national forests were unique to the West, where land was publicly held. The Weeks Act, passed in 1911, allowed the federal government to purchase private forestlands and created the first national forests in the East.

The White Mountain National Forest, which started with a 7,000-acre purchase, has grown to include some 800,000 acres in two units, the larger Presidential Unit to the south, the smaller Kilkenny Unit to the north. Randolph sits sandwiched between the two, and the Pond of Safety forest forms a bridge between the units. There were seven million visitors to the White Mountains last year, double the visitation at Yellowstone.

Those who may think of Eastern mountains as hills on steroids are in for a surprise. These are rugged mountains with elevations that support alpine forest and tundra, where stunted trees give way to fragile alpine flowers like the rare dwarf cinquefoil, which can take as long as 25 years to reach first bloom. During a great storm in 1934, scientists at the weather observatory on Mount Washington recorded a wind gust of 231 mph, the highest wind speed ever observed on the earth's surface.

In fact, it was this famously extreme weather that brought protection of the Pond of Safety forest within reach. TPL for years had sought to safeguard the land. As early as 1991 a joint study conducted with the Appalachian Mountain Club found that nearly a quarter of the trail mileage through the White Mountains was on private land and in need of better protection. Twelve of those trails were in the Pond of Safety forest. But not until a 1998 ice storm reduced much of the forest to tangled salvage was the forest's owner, the Hancock Timber Resource Group, willing to deal.

"It looked like a nuclear bomb went off at treetop level," recalls John Scarinza of the ice storm's aftermath. As skidders and chippers moved in to retrieve the downed wood, Hancock realized that the forest would not generate significant income again for decades. And with TPL at its side, the Randolph planning board was emboldened to consider buying the forest for the town.

Randolph Shows the Way

"Personally, I was skeptical of the town's ability to put the dollars together and to manage a business like this," Willcox recalls. "But as we dug in and found the forest could be managed by professionals, it looked to me to be more possible. And then, as we talked around town and found an enthusiastic response, we decided to go forward."

The agreements that TPL negotiated to conserve the Pond of Safety forest are as creative as the problems were complex. Roughly a quarter of the forest's 13,500 acres lies within the boundaries of the White Mountain National Forest. This land will be added to the national forest, through funding by the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. An additional $2.5 million came from the Forest Legacy Program, a small but growing federal program that makes grants to states to protect working forestland. Key support came from New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, a member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, which funds land conservation programs. "The Pond of Safety project is exactly the type of local forest protection effort envisioned by the Forest Legacy Program," Judd says. U.S. Representative Charles Bass of New Hampshire's 2nd District, who worked to build support in the House, notes that Randolph's commitment carried a lot of weight on Capitol Hill. "Workable solutions," he adds, "are best developed from the ground up."

But despite the federal money, the town of 300-plus people needed another $2.3 million to complete the purchase. The decision whether to proceed with conserving the Pond of Safety was put on the agenda of the town's annual meeting. Management of the forest was a major concern. An evaluation of the forest found that just enough timber remained to be harvested over the near future to cover the cost of forest management.

Six feet of snow covered the ground on the second Tuesday of March 2001, but 150 people–nearly every adult in town–showed up for the discussion. And when it was over, the vote was 150 to none in favor of purchase.

That's when Randolph's long history of civic action came to the fore, combining the resources of the town's summer population and its year-round residents. The Randolph Foundation, created in the 1950s, already had experience with protecting the town's Durand Lake recreation area and now stepped in to work with TPL on a campaign to protect the forest. Local fundraising helped leverage grants from larger foundations and the state of New Hampshire. By fall 2001, Randolph was able to meet its goal.

David Houghton, director of TPL's Vermont office, says that protecting the Pond of Safety forest represents a new approach to land conservation in the Northern Forest. "We wanted to find a way to keep the ownership of the Northern Forest in local hands, to sustain local timber-based jobs as well as protect wildlife habitat."

John Scarinza feels the approach was a success. "We think this can be a model for other projects," he says. And Houghton agrees. "By working with local residents and officials to help them develop a vision for their land–and then implement that vision–we are not only helping to conserve land for recreation and wildlife, we are helping to maintain a way of life. We are giving communities the tools they need to control their own destinies."

Richard Stapleton is a sailor, gardener, and freelance journalist living in New Jersey.