Monday, February 7, 2011

What Price Freedom?

Certificate of Purchase from the Save Franconia Notch campaign, 1928

I framed the above certificate and keep it on my wall. It's a nice bit of history about a place that I love, Franconia Notch, and it's on the wall to remind me that freedom sometimes comes at a price. It comes from the era of devastating, non-sustainable lumbering by J. E. Henry Co. and others. In "The Northern Pass Project: A New Boa Constrictor in the White Mountains?," Rebecca Weeks Sherrill More has written eloquently about the similarities between the dire threat that faced northern New Hampshire one hundred years ago and the equally dire threat that the Northern Pass project poses today. The Weeks Act of 1911, which authorized the federal government to purchase the private lands that form our White Mountain National Forest, was unprecedented legislation that ultimately saved the North Country from ruin. Lumber companies and private landowners had to sell voluntarily; no land could be taken by eminent domain. Acquisition got off to a slow start. Many landowners were simply not ready to sell until the 1930's and 1940's and even later. But today, the WMNF comprises 800,000 acres, and it belongs to the entire nation. (Northern Pass, by the way, has proposed erecting its monstrous towers through a stretch of this public land that the nation owns; the towers would be visible from Franconia Notch.)

In 1923, the 6,000-acre Franconia Notch came up for sale after a fire destroyed its grand hotel and the owners decided not to rebuild. The lumber barons began moving in to evaluate its timber potential; the area had not been logged for a generation. This time, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (SPNHF) stepped up to save the land. The state of New Hampshire contributed $200,000; a private Boston financier, James J. Storrow, contributed $100,000; and SPNHF and the New Hampshire Federation of Women's Clubs (NHFWC) raised the remaining $100,000. NHFWC conducted a brilliant nationwide grassroots fund raising campaign: it sold sponsorships of individual trees in Franconia Notch for $1. Newspapers across the country advertised the campaign. As the above certificate witnesses, on February 5, 1928, the Warren NH Graded School purchased two trees for a total of $2 (equivalent to approximately $20 today). How the school raised the money is not known. Perhaps there were bake sales, auctions, hay rides.

As Kimberly Jarvis comments, the primary impetus for saving the Notch was "the sense of public responsibility for preservation of the threatened beauty of nature." People understood that their civic duty obligated them to conserve this land forever and that it wouldn't happen for free. They also understood, however, that spreading the cost over a large number of people would lessen the impact. $1 for a tree.

This is important to think about right now. PSNH has rolled out an old financial analysis and published it in yesterday's Union Leader. There's no news here, and one has to wonder why they chose to recycle it to the public on February 6th. In any event, their analysis calculates the tax savings to individual towns of the Northern Pass project. Even the newswriter who reports the story feels compelled to point out that the analysis does not include the offsets from tax abatements on property rendered valueless by the towers, and there will be other revenue losses. Stay tuned until you hear the adjusted tax benefit, if any. And you can probably expect to start hearing figures about the cheap electricity that Hydro Quebec will sell us. Stay tuned here too, until the wholesale prices are translated into the retail prices that you will pay and you know how much your monthly household bill is supposed to go down. Don't hold us to it, we're working on an estimate, but your supposed saving could be as little as $1 or less per month.

But that's not the point of this blog. Even if your monthly bill went up $1, would you pay that price to preserve the threatened beauty of the North Country? Will you feel the same public responsibility as did the thousands of ordinary people and school children who saved Franconia Notch for our perpetual use and enjoyment? What will your legacy be?