Today, Randolph Community Forest is the cornerstone of the area’s growing outdoor recreation economy, which supports families like the Hunters across the region. At the same time, this vast and productive forest supplies a sustainable source of timber for local mills, protects clean water and wildlife, and helps the town balance its budget.
But two decades ago, the fate of this land—and the future of the people who rely on it—was a lot less clear.
Randolph Community Forest and downtown Gorham, New Hampshire
The land that’s now Randolph Community Forest once belonged to a local timber company. Its owners hired local loggers and allowed the public to hunt, hike, and fish on the property. But by the late twentieth century, this forest was one of many across the region that had ended up in the hands of far-flung investment firms.
Marcy Lyman, former coordinator of the Community Forest Collaborative, said timber investment firms started buying forests in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine in the 1980s. “In some cases, they would own it for seven to fifteen years, harvest the timber, and then sell the land into smaller parcels for development,” Lyman says. Meanwhile, rural communities for whom forests are an economic lifeblood were suddenly watching revenues flow to far-off boardrooms more concerned about shareholders than townspeople.
This was the situation Randolph residents faced, just as a brutal ice storm in 1998 decimated the region’s most profitable standing timber. The corporation that owned 13,000 acres surrounding the town sought to cut its losses and announced its intention to sell its holdings in northern New Hampshire.
Back then, Randolph resident John Scarinza worried that people would be kicked off the land if it were to fall into the hands of a housing developer. “There was always public access here,” says Scarinza. “It [could] dramatically change the town if, all of a sudden, you developed 13,000 acres into five-acre house lots.”
What’s more, the easiest land to build on sat on the other side of the mountains from Randolph’s town center. “Logistically, if you are the municipality of Randolph, you can’t get your garbage trucks, plow trucks, or maintenance trucks up and over,” says Scarinza, who chairs Randolph’s planning board. “It could dramatically change your tax base.”
So the solution slowly came into focus: the town itself could buy the land.
Town forests weren’t exactly a new idea at the time. In New England, it’s a tradition with roots in the colonial era, when surveyors set aside public commons for grazing livestock and wood lots to provide fuel for schools and churches.
But by the late twentieth century, the community forest model had become a relic of a time before global economic forces began chipping away at the region’s forest-based economy and way of life. So in the late 1990s, Scarinza and another Randolph resident, David Willcox, got together with Dave Houghton, a Trust for Public Land project manager, to hammer out an updated version of this time-honored tradition.
David Willcox and John Scarinza, early proponents of Randolph Community Forest
“We decided that ‘Well, we won’t know whether we can do it unless we try,’” says Willcox, then a member of the planning board. “We had no models. This was the first case of its kind in New Hampshire.”
As Willcox set about writing letters to state and federal representatives and identifying potential sources of funding to acquire the land, Scarinza embarked on a homegrown public relations campaign.
“Naturally there were concerns,” recalls Scarinza, a former state police officer who’s lived in New Hampshire most of his life. “Are you going to buy land that traditionally was logged and lock it up so you won’t be able to do anything except hike and look at birds? It was my job to go out and talk to those people and say, ‘You know what I’m about. This is going to be working forest … You’re still going to be able hunt and we’re going to harvest wood.’”
As Trust for Public Land helped secure public funding, residents pitched in $600,000 in private donations. In late 2001, the Town of Randolph became the proud owner of 10,200 acres of forest.
A hiker’s-eye view of Randolph Community Forest
In the two decades since, Trust for Public Land has helped create more than 30 community forests, from New England to the Pacific Northwest. The organization also advocated with lawmakers to create a federal program to fund community forests, which over 60 American communities have so far tapped to gain local control of their surrounding woodlands.
“Today, these town forests are still sustaining local timber economies,” says Shelby Semmes, the organization’s Northern New England director. “But they’re also proving beneficial in ways earlier generations didn’t anticipate: protecting watersheds, attracting tourists, and safeguarding green space as communities grow.”
“When Randolph Community Forest was created, we wanted the highest priority to be good forest management,” says Scarinza, who’s long held a seat on the town’s forest commission, which makes decisions about the forest’s future with the community’s benefit—economic, social, and environmental—in mind.
Malcolm Washburn has cut trees in the community forest in recent years. A third-generation logger, Washburn grew up in Pittsburg, the northernmost town in New Hampshire. As a veteran of the timber trade, he is keen to see working forests remain active and intact in New Hampshire, where the forest products industry contributes $1.4 billion annually to the state’s economy. “It’s nice to know that it’s going to be available as a timber resource and managed for that,” he said of Randolph Community Forest. “It’s important for logging jobs.”
Malcolm Washburn, third generation timber worker
In addition to providing livelihoods for local timber workers, revenues from timber harvests provide a steady source of funding to towns, contributing to much-needed economic stability. “This is a very depressed area in northern New Hampshire,” Scarinza says. Median incomes in the county are about $13,000 below the national average, and one in five children is living in poverty. Last year, the town made $105,000 on the forest’s harvest—plus $20,000 in revenues from maple syrup production. Across New England, revenues from community forests are directly benefiting locals’ pocketbooks, funding important municipal investments: a new school bus here, a new fire truck there—without costing local taxpayers. In Randolph, most revenue from the community forest is reinvested in the land itself: maintaining 26 miles of roads and six bridges, building new trails, and improving wildlife and fish habitat.
“The Trust for Public Land’s work to create community forests shows the economic benefits of strategic conservation guided by locals’ priorities,” says Trust for Public Land board member Sheryl Tishman, who’s also on the board of NorthLight Foundation, which supports the organization’s community forest program. “It’s an investment in a more equitable, democratic future for rural communities.”
By promoting a vibrant forest, the town is aiding another key driver of the region’s economy: tourism. Three hours from Boston, the region is gaining steam as a weekend destination.
The shelves of Gorham Hardware and Sport Center are divided between traditional hardware and outdoor gear. Mike Chabot, the owner, sells trail maps, wool socks, cast-iron camping stoves, fishing tackle, snowshoes, and “the little odds and ends you forget when you come up here,” he says.
Chabot took over the store from his father, who opened it in 1964. He applauds Randolph’s decision to take control of the forest, rather than let it slip away to a developer. “As far as business is concerned, the more options for people to get out and explore, the better,” he explains. “The people who come up and visit, they stay at an Airbnb or go to the local diner down the street. And then the people who own those businesses buy my hardware.”