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Link to the past, the future

Forest society hopes to conserve 1,750 Ashuelot acres
By Anika Clark
Sentinel Staff
Published: Monday, September 14, 2009
LEMPSTER — On a recent afternoon, on a mountain not far from Keene, D. Jackson Savage 3rd stood with outstretched arms.

“You come up here and you say, ‘Why shouldn’t this be something that the people of New Hampshire can come and enjoy?’ ” said Savage, vice president for communications and outreach at the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. “It should be. That’s part of our mission.”

If the Forest Society reaches a $2.18 million fundraising goal, Savage will be able to declare that mission accomplished.

The spot where Savage stood on Lempster’s Silver Mountain is part of a land conservation project to protect part of the Ashuelot River’s headwaters. It would be a major step toward creating a corridor of conserved land from the Pillsbury-Sunapee Highlands to the Andorra Forest in Stoddard, according to Savage.

It would also help meet the goals of several land protection plans.

But there are other reasons why conserving this land is important.

Tucked within the project’s roughly 1,750-acres are the memories of the Wrights — of the former Keene silver polish firm J.A. Wright & Co. — who have owned the land for decades and left hulking stone posts as remnants of their family’s summer estate.

The project would safeguard Lempster resident James S. Beard’s hobby of picking blueberries on Silver Mountain — a tradition he’s kept since he was a boy.

And it would shelter from development a snowmobile trail the Washington Snow Riders revamped in memory of a fellow club member.

By conserving Silver Mountain, the Forest Society would also protect what Christopher L. Wells — the organization’s director of policy — described as a unique recreational opportunity.

“As the dad of a couple of still fairly young children,” he said, “a short hike ... with a pay-off view like this, there aren’t that many of them.”

Arthur Wright began buying land in Lempster after World War I, according to his grandson, Dublin resident Thomas P. Wright.

Then, probably around the 1930s, Thomas Wright’s father, John P. Wright, bought the land the Forest Society’s now trying to protect.

While Thomas Wright said he and fellow members of the John P. Wright Trust have opted to sell all but about 12 acres of this land, keeping it protected was still a priority.

In addition to the Silver Mountain summit, the property includes the southern slopes of Bean Mountain, more than 11,000 feet of frontage on the Ashuelot River and more than one mile of undeveloped shoreline on Long and Sand ponds.

If the Forest Society raises enough to buy all of this, Savage said officials hope to manage the property as one of the organization’s more than 160 reservations in the state. That would include opening it to public recreation and sustainable harvesting.

Meanwhile, several abutting property owners have said they’d consider putting their land under easements or donating it if the Forest Society reaches its goal — so many, according to Wells, that the amount of protected property could potentially double.

One of these residents is Beard, who lives in a waterside cottage his family built in 1959.

While the Wright family welcomed hiking and hunting on its land, Beard said the possibility that it would be sold and developed one day concerned local property owners.

“This (project) with the Forest Society has certainly eased people’s minds,” he said.

If the conservation effort comes to fruition, it will also preserve property identified as a conservation priority in the N.H. Wildlife Action Plan and a protection plan for the Ashuelot River Watershed, according to Savage.

The value of the Wright land was similarly noted in the so-called “Quabbin to Cardigan” plan, which was finalized in 2007. That document represents the efforts of a slew of organizations and agencies, coordinated by the Forest Society, to identify conservation goals from the Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts north to Mount Cardigan in Orange and Alexandria and the White Mountain National Forest.

The plan highlights 600,000 acres of “core conservation focus areas,” which include the Wright property. According to Wells, these priority areas were identified because of features such as size and connectivity, water quality, recreation and habitat value.

Throughout the “Quabbin to Cardigan” region, he said, “what makes this area unique is you still have these big chunks of unfragmented, undeveloped forest land that are both big and also still relatively well connected to each other as a natural landscape. Other than up north,” he said, “that’s the only other place left in New Hampshire where you’ve got that.”

There are a couple of reasons this connectivity is important, said Charles A. Bridges, administrator of the wildlife, habitat and diversity programs at the N.H. Fish and Game Department.

Larger land tracts facilitate the daily and seasonal movements of many different animal species. And, he predicted, unbroken corridors will only grow more important because of climate change.

With global warming, “over time we’ll see (a) shifting of southern species of plants in a more northerly direction,” he said. Land corridors — and particularly those stretching south to north — will be key in the ability of animal species to migrate with the vegetation they depend on.

Meanwhile, Bridges said, the Wright property has large areas of wetlands and “high quality, forested habitats,” and the stretches of undeveloped shoreline represent “a fairly unique habitat within the state.”

Savage also described the importance of protecting the Ashuelot River where it begins.

“What science has shown us is that the most effective way to protect the water quality, and in fact the least expensive way,” he said, “is to protect the source ... the little streams right in the headwaters that are feeding the river.”

In recognition of the Wright property’s ecological significance, the N.H. Fish and Game Department awarded the project more than $100,000 in federal funds from its Landowner Incentive Program. The grant provides money to conserve at-risk habitats and species through conservation easements.

According to Bridges, the land in Lempster is believed to have several species the state considers of conservation concern, including great blue heron, wood turtles and Eastern brook trout.

A secondary goal of the grant, he said, is to maintain the prevalence of other animals, such as the black bear, bobcat and moose that also inhabit the Wright property.

The Forest Society’s efforts also were bolstered by $500,000 from the N.H. Land and Community Heritage Investment Program (L-Chip) and two large private grants.

“We’ve raised over a million dollars,” Savage said.

But with less than 90 days to raise $925,000 more, it’s hardly a done deal.

With a purchase-and-sale agreement deadline swiftly approaching, Wells said, “We’re getting down to the wire now.”

And if funds come in short?

“If we can’t raise the full amount of money, we’ve got to go into, ‘What do we do now?’ mode,” Savage said.

Possibilities include conserving the land by easement but reselling a parcel of it, according to Savage.

Still, he stressed, “That’s not our plan.”

On September 26, the Forest Society will make a marketing push by offering guided tours up Silver Mountain and around Sand and Long ponds.

In the meantime, Savage is keeping up his hopes.

“The history that we’ve had tells us that this can be done,” he said. “But it’s going to take a region-wide effort of people who will walk up here on September 26 and say, ‘Oh. I get it.’ ”

Anika Clark can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1432, or

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