New Hampshire’s North Country Profiled in Statewide Magazine
The relationship between New Hampshire’s North Country landscape and the region’s residents was recently explored in a statewide magazine. New Hampshire native Laura Alexander, now an assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, wrote “The Meaning of Place” for the summer issue of Forest Notes, published by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. The article features key excerpts from Alexander’s doctoral dissertation.
The author met with residents of Pittsburg, Dalton, Colebrook, Berlin, Groveton and other North Country communities. Her in-depth interviews revealed how the landscape has shaped the ecological identity of the region’s inhabitants.
For North Country residents, the landscape doesn’t just whiz by the pickup truck window. Rather, these individuals spend time on the land paying attention to its details – to which species are growing and at what rates, and to what has changed since their last visit. She discovered that for many long-term Coos County residents, the physical environment provides stability, remaining essentially the same although relationships and jobs may come and go. Even as timber harvests that have been the cornerstone of the North Country economy for decades alter the landscape, residents recognize these changes as temporary.
“If you go in the woods, you can see where it was logged years ago, and you can see how fast it’s grown and at that rate what it’s going to be in 10 years,” said Pittsburg resident Lindsay Gray.
Many who live in the region derive their income directly or indirectly from timber harvesting, farming, and tourism related to the area’s natural setting. Almost all of the individuals interviewed by Alexander talked about harvesting gardens, putting up produce, and raising their own meat.
Spending time in the woods is also how North Country residents recover from the stresses of everyday life through walking, hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, and even driving along woods roads. The natural setting is restorative, and area residents prize the opportunity to escape into the natural world.
Open access to the land is the cornerstone of attachment, however. “You get out there, and you actually feel a part of it,” said Berlin sawmill owner Barry Kelly. “You feel you belong here.”
Traditionally, open access coupled with the area’s history of timber harvesting has meant that vast tracts of the North Country have remained undeveloped and accessible. Because of the region’s long history of forest management, roads have been constructed and maintained throughout these undeveloped lands to get timber out. These roads have traditionally remained open to the public. Up north, “protected” land equals accessible land. This first-hand experience of accessibility has led to the perception that these lands will always be open to hunting, walking, driving on logging roads, and snowmobiling. In the past decade, this access has slowly eroded as second homes and recreational camps have been constructed on property formerly owned by timber companies.
One way to keep some lands undeveloped is to protect them via conservation easements. Ironically, as conservation groups have worked to preserve the most significant Coos County landscapes, such efforts have often been met with lukewarm local enthusiasm. While the lands formerly owned and logged by paper companies have been traditionally open to wheeled access, conservation land is most often accessible by foot-traffic only.
For generations, Alexander writes, people in the North Country have received criticism from their neighbors in the southern, more developed portions of New Hampshire about the amount, location, and methods of timber harvests. Some North Country residents will acknowledge over-zealous harvesting practices, but many will hold their ground: Their personal experience watching the forest re-grow tells them that their land ethic is a more accurate representation than the feedback they receive from others.
“As the North Country struggles to define itself in the wake of changes to its economic base and landscape, it will become increasingly important for residents to consider strategies for preserving the lands most meaningful to them,” writes Alexander. “The conservation community – and all of us from ‘down below’ – may be able to assist by demonstrating how preserving land can protect the vital relationship between people and land.”
Alexander’s complete article can be found in Forest Notes magazine, available on news stands statewide, and on the Forest Society’s web site at http://www.forestsociety.org/news/forest-notes.asp.
Founded in 1901, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests is the state’s oldest and largest non-profit land conservation organization. Supported by 10,000 families and businesses, the Forest Society’s mission is to perpetuate the state’s forests by promoting land conservation and sustainable forestry. For more information, visit www.forestsociety.org.