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2,920 acres added to Umbagog NWR

subhead: First of planned 5-phase project

July 11, 2011
ERROL — Nearly 3,000 acres of wetlands, ponds, and Androscoggin River shorefront in this town and the Unincorporated Place of Wentworth's Location were added on Wednesday, June 29, to the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). Umbagog already had about 26,000 acres, including the 8,500-acre Umbagog Lake itself, located in both Coös County and Oxford County, Me.

The 2,920-acre addition was purchased for $3,210,000 by the nonprofit conservation organization, Trust for Public Land (TPL), which, in turn, had purchased it earlier from the Plum Creek Timber Company, a real estate investment trust (REIT).

The newly protected land includes four undeveloped ponds — Long Pond, Round Pond, Big Bear Pond, and Little Bear Pond — that are home to loons and osprey, plus a brook trout fishery.

"The land will be managed for wildlife which includes commercial harvesting to replace, improve and maintain high-quality wildlife habitat," explained Refuge Manager Paul Casey in an e-mail exchange. "All land within the Refuge is within our habitat management plan. We are more conservative around wetlands and critical wildlife habitat used by eagles and osprey."

This transaction is the first phase of what project partners hope will be a five-phase, 31,000-acre, $19 million project to conserve land in an effort designed to sustain working timberlands, protect water quality and wildlife habitat, and expand public recreation.

The Androscoggin Headwaters conservation project aims to acquire outright more than 8,000 acres of the most sensitive habitat to be held as publicly owned conservation land by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and state Fish and Game, according to a press release issued by stakeholders.

The remaining 23,000 acres — owned by Plum Creek — would be protected with a conservation easement that ensures sustainable forestry and recreational access, but with the land staying privately owned to be managed as a commercial forest.

The land covered by a "working forest" conservation easement represents 73 percent of the overall project.

A June 15 letter addressed to members of the Congressional delegation from the county commissioners, who serve as selectmen to the Unincorporated Places, could affect these plans, however. The trio has called for a four-year moratorium on spending federal funds for land conservation projects in the UPs. (See page A4.)

Over the last year, the Coös County Planning Board for the Unincorporated Places has discussed at some of its meetings the idea of holding public hearings around the county to give residents a forum at which this topic could be discussed and debated. As yet, however, none have been held.

Although TPL anticipates that the bulk of the five-phase project would be paid for with federal funds, it would likely also have to raise $2.5 million from the private sector to complete the Refuge expansion by the end of next year, 2012.

No federal tax dollars were used to acquire the first-phase 2,920-acre tract that closed on Wednesday, June 29.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen announced in May that $2.24 million had been awarded to the Androscoggin Headwaters land preservation project from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). LWCF uses revenues generated from offshore oil and gas drilling leases, rather than taxpayer dollars, to acquire critical new lands. In addition, the project benefited from $1 million from the federal Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, derived from the sale of so-called "duck stamps."

TPL also received a generous grant from the Open Space Institute's Saving New England Wildlife Fund, designed to conserve critical wildlife habitat identified in the N. H. Wildlife Action Plan and established with support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

"On its own, this property is an ecological treasure and offers wonderful public access to the woods and waters of the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge," said Rodger Krussman, TPL's New Hampshire state director, in a prepared statement. "But we hope this is the first of many important conservation successes to protect tens of thousands of acres at the headwaters of the Androscoggin River, including the conservation of working forests and recreational access for fishing, hiking and snowmobiling."

The Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge's Comprehensive Conservation Plan calls for new family-friendly foot trails to be built and for an existing snowmobile trail to be maintained.

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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