Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Northern Pass and the WMNF (Part 1)

In order for Northern Pass to go through ten miles of the White Mountain National Forest in the towns of Easton, Woodstock and Lincoln, it will need to obtain a Special Use Permit from the Forest Service. It cannot take federal land by eminent domain. This post and the next one will examine recent policy decisions regarding the WMNF and the Special Use Permit process. Today is the 100th anniversary of the Weeks Act, legislation named after sponsor John Wingate Weeks of Lancaster NH that created the WMNF and other eastern national forests.

Recent Policy Decisions: The 2005 Forest Plan

In 2005, the WMNF completed an exhaustive eight-year study to chart its course for the next ten to fifteen years. Unlike National Parks, National Forests are designed for multiple use, including timber harvest, and finding the right balance of activities for the WMNF with its 7 million annual visitors was a challenging task. 6,000 public comments were collected, numerous public hearings occurred, and a veritable library of study documents was generated. Special attention was given to the impact of the WMNF on towns like Easton, Woodstock and Lincoln, which lie within the overall forest boundary.

The 2005 plan represents a compromise, of course, but there is an underlying direction in its provisions to manage the 800,000 acre WMNF as a natural and scenic refuge. Alternative 2, which was selected at the end of the process, reduced the allowable timber harvest by one quarter; it added 34,500 acres to the existing wilderness areas, increasing total wilderness acres in the forest to approximately 130,000; and it continued its ban on all-terrain vehicles.

Implementing the 2005 forest plan, The New England Wilderness Protection Act of 2006 increased the Sandwich Range Wilderness to its present size and created the Wild River Wilderness area. These areas now follow regulations designed to lessen the evidence of human impact on nature. Trails will not be brushed and otherwise maintained to the same standard as in non-wilderness areas; unpainted natural color wooden trails signs, fewer and further apart, will replace more obtrusive ones; painted trail blazes on trees will not be refreshed; when existing shelters require maintenance, they will be removed; dispersed and compacted earth tent pads will replace wooden decks; bridges will be removed; and so forth. For those of us who treasure the old Wild River shelters, even the dilapidated one in muddy Perkins Notch, it's like losing old friends to see them go. But it's an acceptable trade-off that acknowledges the WMNF's mission to offer its users the chance to experience solitude in nature, a vanishing resource for the millions of visitors who live within a day's drive of the forest in the densely populated urban centers of the Northeast.   

A compatible and highly perishable resource in the urban Northeast are natural scenic vistas, and throughout the 2005 planning documents, natural landscapes are consistently elevated as one of the WMNF's most important assets. The Executive Summary of the decision to choose Alternative 2 notes that all four possible alternatives prioritized natural scenery:

Research indicates that beyond their contribution to tourism, high quality
scenery and a natural appearing landscape enhance people’s physical and
psychological well being. Given the large population within a day’s drive of
the White Mountains and increasing populations near the Forest, the scenic
attributes of the White Mountain National Forest benefit a large portion of
the people in the northeast. All four alternatives would retain the vast
majority of the Forest in natural appearing conditions, so all should continue
providing these non-priced benefits. (Record of Decision Executive Summary)

As you drive north on I-93 and round the bend near Exit 28, the majestic vista of the Franconia mountains suddenly unfolds before your eyes. It's for good reason that 19th century travel writers dubbed this area "the gateway." For those of us who live in the North Country, when the confines of the near ground drop away and this view opens up, we know that we are home again; and those who visit from down under realize that they are finally away from home. Everyone who has seen this view instantly understands what the Forest Service meant when it wrote that high quality scenery and a natural appearing landscape enhance our physical and psychological well being. This is not merely a "non priced benefit" of the WMNF, it's a priceless benefit, one vigorously defended and prized in the 2005 forest plan. It is now under attack by the proposed Northern Pass project, which would place a row of 90-135' steel towers right across the gateway and up into the breath-taking vista if it is granted a special use permit.

Sign Gallery (21-30)

Please send pictures of signs opposing Northern Pass to burynorthernpass<at>gmail.com and we'll post them here. Each sign gallery will feature ten signs. Sign Gallery 1-10 is here, Gallery 11-20 is here.

#21. Rte. 3, Stratford. March 1, 2011.