January 11, 2012ERROL — The two-page petition that Robert "Bob" Lord is circulating locally and to downstate snowmobilers has been signed by about 1,000 New Hampshire citizens, he said in telephone Jan. 2 interview.
Lord, a retired Berlin High School science teacher, is alarmed by what he sees as a "federal land grab" that he believes is forcing local property taxes up and suppressing year-round population growth. He fears that this could result in the closing of the kindergarten-to-grade 8 Errol Consolidated Elementary School, requiring youngsters — including his own granddaughter — to take long bus rides to go to school elsewhere.
With an enrollment of 13, the Errol School's two multi-age classrooms are staffed by a kindergarten-to-grade 4 teacher and para-professional and a grade 5-to-8 teacher, plus principal Kathy Urso who teaches social studies and serves as guidance counselor. A full-day pilot kindergarten program is now underway, and information is being gathered on starting a pre-school program.
Lord's petition lists his number one concern as being that Errol now has "more un-taxable land than taxable land due to the takeover of land by the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge and the resulting loss of tax revenue."
The petition to members of the Congressional delegation from both Maine and New Hampshire, asks that federal funding for further land acquisition be "curtailed," so that local residents won't be "forced out of their homes due to excessively high property taxes."
Refuge manager Paul Casey, an employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), said in a Jan. 5 telephone interview that he checked the town's assessed valuation numbers at town hall.
The Refuge lands make up about 2.5 percent of the town's assessed valuation, he explained. The Refuge in Errol is assessed at $2.5 million, including two buildings on Lake Umbagog that have been taken down.
The town's total assessed valuation stands at nearly $96,500,000. All the buildings that have been removed were located within the original acquisition boundary, he said. Three lease camps with 50-year leases remain on the Refuge in Errol, he said. Other non-taxable lands include the Errol Town Forest, state lands, churches and the school.
The Refuge pays the town $13,690 in revenue sharing funds, which is, Casey admits, some $16,000 to $17,000 less than the town would receive if the program were fully funded. Congress decides each year what percentage of the established revenue sharing rate it will pay, Casey said.
Lord's petition also addresses his concern that Casey would like to close down all snowmachine trails on the Refuge lands and was only prevented from doing so by the threat of a court injunction.
Casey explained that the issue of snowmobile trails is specifically addressed in the Jan. 2009 Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) that resulted from a six-year planning process. The CCP will be used to guide the management of all Refuge programs for at least 15 years from that date, that is, 2024.
The Plan states (in Appendix p. C-50): "Snowmobile recreation is a critical part of the local economy during winter months and that of northern New Hampshire." It details that when the Refuge purchased 4,375 acres in 2001 from the Boston-based John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. it included a 1992 snowmobile trail agreement between previous owners James River and Irving P & P to maintain and groom a snowmobile trail near Mountain Pond and Eames Roads.
"The USFWS is following through on earlier commitments and ensuring that it continues to work effectively with the affected States (NH and Me.)," the Plan reads.
Casey explained that there is an obstacle to trail connectively in the 13-Mile Woods in Cambridge, but that he is working with N. H. Trails chief Chris Gamache of DRED to see if a land exchange can be worked out in which the Refuge would gain acreage with higher wildlife value. This would create a "win-win" situation, he noted. "I say 'let's look at solutions,'" Casey said. Lord's petition states that "the agreement with the Refuge manager will expire in a few years, leaving Errol and the surrounding area with no winter tourism if the agreement is not renewed."
Unlike most large private landowners, the Refuge has published its 15-year plan. "We've put it in writing," Casey pointed out.
The Refuge must come up with a new CCP every 15 years, according to a carefully spelled out up-front public review process, he explained. The 2009 document not only took into account comments from local residents but also weighted them more heavily, Casey said.
"The Plan's highest priority is to protect the biological integrity, diversity, and environmental health of Umbagog Lake and its associated rivers and streams," the CCP states (p. iii). "Its second highest priority is to conserve upland mixed forest habitat and sustain the native species dependent on it."
Meeting these top-priority goals means that carefully planned sustainable timber harvesting will take place, Casey said. These cuts will be on smaller parcels and more frequent than those conducted on commercial timberlands. And, he explained, similar to the White Mountain National Forest, the state's 10 percent timber tax will be paid by the logging contractors who win the competitive bidding process. "We're looking to have diverse habitats for wildlife on the Refuge with multi-age stands," Casey said.
Lord's petition also complains that the "Refuge has grossly exceeded the initial boundaries. It was created to protect Lake Umbagog and has expanded to include land that is literally miles away from the Lake and threatens to totally surround and suffocate the Town of Errol. This land could have been protected by conservation easements that would have resulted in less restrictions as far as recreational pursuits. The land would remain in private ownership with more local, sustainable logging, and result in taxable land and timber taxes…. Therefore, we petition that all future land transactions be in the form of conservation easements and any (federal) monies be used for that purpose. This would result in sustainable logging practices and greater recreational opportunities controlled by the state of New Hampshire and not Washington, D.C."
The following chart outlines the five-phase project now underway. Phase I — 2,920 acres — was purchased in fee for the Refuge in June 2011.
Rodger Krussman of the nonprofit conservation organization Trust for Public Land (TPL) that acts as project facilitator provided the chart to show that 73 percent of the pending projects in Phases III and IV — a total of 22,845 acres — would remain in private ownership, with a working forest conservation easement. Phases II would purchase 4,532 acres in Cambridge to the Refuge. Phase V, representing 3% of the project with 938 acres would create the Greenough Pond Wildlife Management Area that would be owned and managed by the state Fish and Game Department. The two Greenough Ponds are popular with those who fish; local residents have sought to keep these lands undeveloped, Krussman said.
"Throughout the northern forest, The Trust for Public Land is proud to have helped communities and agency partners craft conservation solutions that focus on, and strongly favor, sustainable timber harvesting and public access for recreation, including hiking, hunting and snowmobiling," Krussman said in an e-mail exchange. "We have always supported and encouraged public participation in our conservation work; it is a valuable part of the process."
Casey said that he understands the passion behind land-use decisions, but firmly believes that Errol and the surrounding communities have benefitted and will continue to benefit from the Umbagog Wildlife Refuge, which has sparked new businesses and attracted outdoor enthusiasts and many recreationists.
Lord believes that his petition will help local residents a chance to discuss their grievances. "Trust me, this will all come to an end someday when the poor working man along with his working wife can't support themselves anymore," Lord said in an e-mail exchange. "We won't see the second American Revolution, but I fear our kids and grandkids will. Just look overseas, people have just about had enough with overbearing government and those that benefit from it. These regulatory agencies that make up rules and regs on the fly have trashed our Constitution, personal and State rights, trumped common sense, and enriched themselves of the backs of the common working man."