September 19, 2012GREEN'S GRANT — What started as a concern about the possibility of an adverse impact on municipal property taxes in Errol and Wentworth's Location because of the expansion of the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge appears to be on its way to becoming a county-wide study of the economic impacts of all federal land ownership in Coös County.
County treasurer Fred King presented a draft of a proposed contract that the county commissioners after discussion unanimously approved at their Sept. 12 meeting, held at the base of the Mount Washington Auto Road.
The $5,000 contract between the North Country Council, the regional planning commission headquartered in Bethlehem, and the board of county commissioners is designed to start the process of fulfilling the commissioners' and county delegation of state representatives' call for an "Economic Analysis of Proposed Expansion Activity of the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge" to be conducted by an unbiased entity.
The document calls for the NCC to write a Request for Proposals (RFPs); solicit responses, advertise the RFP, review and score those received; and to start negotiating the scope of services. Not included in the agreement is assisting the county in contracting for services, contract administration and oversight, and the implementation any recommendations.
"The idea is to see what continued land purchases by the federal government may or may not be doing," King explained, noting that, when completed, the new wood-burning biomass plant in Berlin will require daily delivery of some 70 to 75 tractor-trailer loads of wood-chips.
"The federal government doesn't like to cut trees, and 50 percent of our county is now protected, leaving only 50 percent to support jobs," he said, urging that the effect of this on the human environment — the socio—economic effects — be considered and not only the effect on wildlife and its habitat."
He pointed out that the USFWS has also acquired lands for the Conte Refuge in Jefferson, Whitefield, and Carroll for the Pondicherry Division as well as in Columbia for the Mohawk Division.
The National Park Service has acquired Land in the Unincorporated Place of Success, said county administrator Sue Collins, who also serves as clerk on the Planning Board for the Unincorporated Places.
The three county commissioners voted unanimously to undertake a county-wide impact study.
In June 2011 the commissioners asked for a four-year moratorium on further land acquisition in the Umbagog Refuge, allowing time for a study to be undertaken.
King also said he would continue to search for funding for the study from nonprofit organizations, such as Trust for Public Land and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (SPNHF) and USFWS as well as from the unexpended balance in the accounts of affected Unincorporated Places.
According to an August 2012 USFWS map, four large tracts within the 2009 Refuge Expansion program are already "in progress" to be protected under the Federal Legacy "working forest" program: one of 2,628 acres to be purchased in fee, plus three conservation easements: 2,189 acres; 2,048 acres, and 4,643 acres. Five smaller tracts, ranging from 174 acres to 39 acres within the 2009 Refuge expansion program remain in private ownership, three of which could be purchased outright in fee and two of which would be conservation easements, if "willing" sellers step forward.
Some parcels within the Umbagog NWR original acquisition boundary have not yet been acquired because there are no "willing" sellers. Three are in Errol: a 152-acre parcel in current use; a 150-acre parcel in current use; and a 10-acre parcel in current use.
The Refuge has purchased eight camps in Errol in the 20 years since its establishment. Those sold in the past few years have ranged in price from $90,000 to $125,000.
In other action, the commissioners and Umbagog Refuge manager Paul Casey worked the kinks out of a proposed land swap sought by the North Country OHRV Coalition whose members believe that ATV trail connectivity would boost motorized tourism, bringing area service jobs and out-of-state dollars to Coös County. ATVs are not permitted on Refuge lands, however.
The Refuge would exchange a 80-plus-acre parcel on which a short less-than-a-mile segment of an ATV trail could be located for the 130-acre Big Island State Forest outside the Refuge boundary in Wentworth's Location.
Because Big Island was purchased with state LCHIP funds, the state is prohibited from giving up fee ownership. Apparently, Casey explained, the state would give the Refuge a super-easement, turning management responsibilities over to the Refuge. This arrangement is now undergoing legal review.
A letter from King to USFWS officials in Washington, D.C., calling for a four-year land acquisition moratorium nearly scotched the deal, however, since technically the land exchange, which would also likely include a dollar amount, represents an acquisition. Casey explained that USFWS officials in the chain of command over him questioned why he was spending time on a project in an Unincorporated Place that the commissioners do not approve.
Commissioner Paul Grenier of Berlin scoffed at the idea that the proposed moratorium could have caused a deal-breaking problem when the swap does not involve "a wholesale acquisition." He said, "It doesn't pass the smell test."
Commissioner Tom Brady of Jefferson asked how this glitch could be solved. Casey replied that a clarifying letter of support from the commissioners pointing out that this acquisition has their support would solve the problem.
Casey told chairman Burnham "Bing" Judd of Pittsburg that once the legal review has been completed, he would seek a "transitional permit" to allow the trail to be used while the land swap is made final.