Two Coös parks face uncertain future
|The entrance to Forest Lake State Park is gated shut. It will be open soon during daylight hours, but remains unstaffed. (Photo by Jeff Woodburn) (click for larger version)|
June 24, 2009LANCASTER — Two State Parks in Coös County, Forest Lake State Park in Dalton and Nansen Wayside in Milan, may be up for grabs. A draft report prepared by the New Hampshire Division of Parks and Recreation suggests that the two local parks, as well as 25 others around the state, be handled through alternative management strategies — transferring the land to another public agency or entity, selling, leasing, acquiring sponsors or decommissioning the property altogether.
The report emerged on the Parks and Recreation website on June 8, after having been in the works for two years. In 2007, legislation created the State Parks System Advisory Council to assess and analyze the park system and its viability, according to Parks and Recreation Director Ted Austin. That started the process that created this "Strategic and Capital Improvement Plan" for the state's parks. Mr. Austin pointed out that this report stemmed solely from the legislative mandate and was not driven by any budget crisis the state may be facing. The draft report is not expected to be adopted as a final plan until mid-August to September, he said.
Mr. Austin explained that after extensive study, the Parks and Recreation division began holding public input sessions last year as they were developing the draft plan and also held stakeholder sessions with entities like snowmobile clubs, the Appalachian Mountain Club and equestrian clubs. All of the 68 State Park sites as well as the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters Working Forest — in which the state maintains easements of miles of roadway — were evaluated on a scale that determined how they met the four main criteria set out by the legislature in 1961 (with subsequent revision), when the Division of Parks and Recreation was established.
Each park was given a score of one to three for each of the four criteria with one meaning it did not meet the criteria. The parks were then categorized as A (10-12 points), B (7-9 points), or C (4-6 points). The category C parks are considered "unsustainable" by the report and all but one are recommended for alternative management. Both Forest Lake and Nansen Wayside fall into category C.
Public input will be taken around the state on this plan and a public input session was held in Lancaster on June 11, three days after this draft report was released. Mr. Austin said that 30 or 40 people attended the meeting, but the questions were not unique to the area. Everyone wants to know about their one specific park, he said, noting a "not my park" emotional atmosphere has been the norm at these sessions so far. He said the sessions are not presentations, but are more of a question and answer period where his agency can help people move from looking at the plan emotionally to a more theoretical view.
The need for action on these parks is highlighted in an excerpt from an earlier report, dated 2006, found in the new draft. "New Hampshire is the only state in the nation that attempts to fund its parks exclusively with the revenues earned at the facilities, and it has produced a systemic operating deficit. In addition, there have been no major system-wide capital investments since 1963, and our parks are saddled with a backlog of unmet capital improvement needs and a long list of deferred maintenance. As a result, many parks and historic sites show serious signs of neglect… disappointing visitors and wasting revenue opportunities." That 2006 report resulted in passage of a senate bill in 2007 commissioning this 10 year-development plan.
Mr. Austin explained that the committee looked at "what's essential and what's expendable" and worked from there. The department budget of just over $6 million comes nowhere close to the estimated cost of appropriate annual maintenance on all the sites listed in the report, which would total nearly $28 million. "That's meant to be a little bit of a smelling salt," Mr. Austin said, to illustrate just how much it would cost to maintain the state parks in a perfect world.
Since that kind of funding is unrealistic, the plan addresses the fact that the state just does not have the resources to take care of all of its state parks. By looking for someone else to take over the care or ownership of more than a third of the properties, the parks division can focus its efforts on the remaining 41 parks and the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters. The town of Dalton has already spoken favorably about taking over the Forest Lake property (see related story), but the Nansen site may not be as lucky. Chairman of the Board of Selectmen George Pozzuto said he had not yet received any information on the draft report, but doesn't know if the town of Milan would be interested in taking on the site as it might be more interested in seeing it on the tax rolls. He said the Wayside is used primarily as a boat launch. Occasionally, people fish or picnic there and the nearby fields may offer some decent bird hunting, he said. "People use it so there's some value there," he said of the Androscoggin River access. "Use of the river has been increasing every year."
While these two North Country parks are on the Category C list slated for alternative management, five Coös parks reached category A status — Jericho Mountain, Umbagog, Connecticut Lakes Headwaters Working Forest, Lake Francis and Mount Washington — and seven landed in category B — Beaver Brook Falls, Moose Brook, Weeks, Coleman, Dixville Notch, Mollidgewock, and Milan Hill.
The report makes recommendations for management improvements to all of these parks as well. While these suggestions have been outlined for all the parks in the system, the report does note that the division's limited resources will be focused on the identified category A parks. "Category B parks will be level funded or see a decrease in services and resources while we direct operational and capital funding to the Category A parks," the report states.
New construction or expansion has been suggested for Coleman and Jericho Mountain — with this park and a motorized trail network listed in the implementation as a priority development.
A recommendation has been made to increase or improve services at many of the parks including Connecticut Lakes Headwaters, Lake Francis, Beaver Brook Falls, Weeks, and Mollidgewock. The report lists potential methods as facility upgrades, added amenities and major reconstruction or rehabilitation.
Replacements and or repairs have been suggested for the Umbagog, Mount Washington, Moose Brook and Milan Hill parks in an effort to reduce deferred maintenance costs.
A reduction in costs is recommended for Dixville Notch, with possible methods including reduced mowing, removing buildings or facilities, removal of picnic tables or grills, or other changes to site design.