Sunday, May 1, 2011

The White Mountain National Forest “Roadless Rule” and Northern Pass

In 2005, the WMNF raised the idea of removing the current PSNH power line in Easton, Lincoln, and North Woodstock. It's time to revisit the idea.

Issued in 2001, the Roadless Area Conservation Rule is a guideline that prohibits a wide range of activities, most notably road building, in America’s wildest remaining national forests. The Roadless Rule is less stringent than the earlier Wilderness Act. For instance, the former allows limited timber harvesting, provided it does not require building new roads; the latter does not. It allows some off-road vehicle use (e.g., snowmobiles); the Wilderness Act does not. The Roadless Rule might be seen as a Wilderness Act “lite” or precursor: areas designated as roadless periodically come under scrutiny for reclassification into the stricter management regime of wilderness areas. Management of wilderness areas is more aggressive; non-conforming structures, for instance, are removed, trail maintenance is minimal, etc.  The Rule has undergone numerous challenges and modifications in ten years, including state control, and there appear to be constant efforts to reinterpret it, but it now protects some 60 million acres of national forest in 39 states from certain kinds of development that fragment habitation, open up corridors for invasive species, and lessen opportunities for experiencing solitude in nature.
Nearly half of the White Mountain National Forest’s 800,000 acres has been classified as Inventoried Roadless Area (IRA), while only 115,00 acres are managed as wilderness area. The WMNF lies within a five hour drive of twelve million people in the urban northeast, and there is relatively little national land managed as wilderness within their reach. Prior to 2005, the WMNF documented an increasing demand for wilderness experience by its visitors, and, accordingly, it considered reclassifying some IRAs to be managed as wilderness in the 2005 forest plan. Two of the IRAs that were considered for this “upgrading” share a common boundary: the current PSNH power line that runs through ten miles of the WMNF in Easton, Lincoln, and North Woodstock on a renewable special use permit. Built around 1950,  this line pre-dates current WMNF management techniques as well as NEPA.
Indeed, the PSNH power line determined the boundary of these two IRAs when they were designated within the last ten years. IRA #2272, Kinsman, is bounded on the east by state land adjacent to US Rt 3/93, on the west, by private land adjacent to Rt 116, and on the south by the PSNH high voltage line. IRA #2275, Mt. Wolf-Gordon Pond, has the same eastern and western boundaries, and its northern boundary is formed by the PSNH power line. An IRA would not ideally have even a pre-existing power line bisecting it, and the cart drove the horse, so to speak, in order to configure IRAs that were nominally unfragmented by such a corridor.
But even if the waters parted around it, the PSNH power line has not been a welcome feature of the WMNF. The 2005 forest plan targets it as one of the reasons neither IRA could currently qualify for wilderness management:
The Inventoried Roadless Area [2772] is of adequate size and general configuration
to be managed as Wilderness. The most significant influence on the
Inventoried Roadless Area is the adjacent powerline, which provides a
significant visual intrusion to the area. (C-115)

However, it’s important to note that PSNH does not hold a permanent deeded easement or right-of-way over the national forest. It is granted a special use permit that must be renewed periodically. This temporary arrangement acknowledges the fact that forest usage and management goals change over time, and this line has been there for over 60 years. The continuing existence of a visually intrusive power line is always subject to review. And the 2005 plan raises the idea several times that the removal of the power line would be a good thing given the changing use and perception of the forest but defers it as not feasible at the time, e.g.:
As stated above, the area’s southern boundary is delineated by the powerline.
Removal of the powerline between this Inventoried Roadless Area and the
Mt. Wolf-Gordon Pond Inventoried Roadless Area would facilitate
Wilderness management of a combined, significantly larger area. The
powerline’s removal, however, is considered prohibitively impractical at this time. (C-106)

Removal of the powerline and combination with the Kinsman Inventoried
Roadless Area would result in a larger, more easily managed unit, however
powerline removal is impractical at this time. (C-108)

From a management perspective, the WMNF thought it was a good idea in 2005 to remove the powerline, albeit impractical at the time. If it found the current 60’ wooden poles to be a significant visual intrusion, how will it find the towers “in excess of 130 feet” that Northern Pass is proposing for the WMNF (Martin Murray, Union Leader, March 27, 2011)? This will be a monstrous visual intrusion. It flies in the face of current WMNF efforts to manage the area as roadless and to provide more naturally appearing landscapes for increasingly urban-weary visitors and second-home neighbors. Not only should Northern Pass be denied a special use permit, the WMNF should begin taking steps now to remove the current PSNH power line when its special use permit expires. Almost everyone who hikes into this area wonders why it was ever allowed to go through back in 1950.

Next: as a guest blog, a field report with photos written by one of three hikers who visited the Mt. Wolf-Gordon Pond roadless area on Saturday, April 30.