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Forest Society unveils new blocks to Northern Pass

With just weeks to go before Northern Pass officials said they’d unveil the route of their proposed hydro-power line from Canada, a local conservation group says it continues to throw up roadblocks.

The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests secured two conservation easements along Route 145 in Clarksville this week, in a spot that could significantly interrupt the route Northern Pass is building. The society has options to conserve two other parcels in the same area.

And yesterday, the forest society announced it had secured a conservation easement on 530 acres in Stewartstown that it believes will also hamper Northern Pass’s efforts to acquire enough land in the North Country to connect to the rest of the proposed 140-mile route. That easement cost the society $600,000, according to the deed.

“Our purpose is to force (Northern Pass) to consider a real alternative,” said Jack Savage, a forest society spokesman. The society, along with other conservation groups, wants Northern Pass officials to consider burying the power lines rather than running them overhead. “Our strategy is not to stop the importation of this power, but to force them to do it in a responsible manner.”

Michael Skelton, a Northern Pass spokesman, responded to the society’s announcement in an email.

“It’s unfortunate they have chosen to stray so far from their mission as a conservation group in order to block a project that will bring cheaper and cleaner energy to the state along with new jobs and tax revenue,” Skelton wrote. “Remember, this is the same group that falsely claimed they would block the project at the Balsams. This is the same group that continues to use the project to raise funds well past their own deadline, claiming their efforts will again block the project.”

Northern Pass, announced in October 2010, is a partnership between Hydro-Quebec, Public Service of New Hampshire and Northeast Utilities to bring hydro-power from Canada, through New Hampshire and into the New England energy grid. Most of the route – from Groveton to Deerfield – would run alongside PSNH’s existing power lines.

But the $1.1 billion project has faced considerable opposition for its plan to cut a new 40-mile clearing for power lines through the northernmost part of the state. Project officials have made considerable progress, purchasing nearly 45 parcels for the route since May 2011.

But they’ve delayed a route announcement several times as they try to get the remaining parcels needed to connect the pieces they have. It’s those remaining pieces the forest society has focused on.

If you plot the parcels Northern Pass has purchased on a map, a route emerges that runs from Pittsburg, east through Clarksville and then south through Stewartstown to the Balsams.

The forest society already had what it considers one block, in Pittsburg, through land it conserved several years ago. It then worked with the owners of the Balsams property to put a conservation easement on a parcel similarly along the apparent Northern Pass route. That move alone won’t block Northern Pass because project officials have bought land to get around that block.

But they need to get there from Pittsburg. This week’s actions by the forest society make that harder.

The land along Route 145 in Clarksville is a major gap between two long stretches of parcels Northern Pass has secured. Two owners have granted the forest society easements, one of them for $5,000, the other one for nothing. And two others have signed options with the forest society for easements. Diane and Donald Bilodeau of Gilford gave the forest society the easement on land they’ve had for 26 years for free after rejecting overtures from Northern Pass officials.

The Bilodeaus spent 120 days at their home there this year, and they spend every New Year’s there.

“When this all came up, my family got together and discussed it,” Diane Bilodeau said yesterday. “We knew we would be offered quite a bit of money, but (our daughters) decided they would like to keep it in the family. They love it up there. Both of them spent part of their honeymoons up there.”

When Northern Pass officials approached the family, they said they were not interested in selling, Diane Bilodeau said. They were approached again but never offered a price.

“It’s a beautiful piece of property,” Diane Bilodeau said. “A lot of people stop at the top of the hill (there) and take pictures. You can see into Vermont and Canada. Why would I give that up? Money isn’t everything. Would it have helped us? Oh, my gosh yes. But it isn’t everything.”

The larger 530-acre easement in Stewartstown announced yesterday is not on what seems to be Northern Pass’s direction. But the forest society believes Northern Pass would have considered it to get to key property around the Balsams. The large parcel sits next to another large parcel the society is also raising money to conserve.

But the owners of the Stewartstown piece did not sell the easement to block Northern Pass, said the property’s manager, Bob Berti of Rumney. He said the family that owns that land and other pieces in Vermont and New Jersey are conservation minded. They are working now to conserve 6,500 acres in the Hebron area. And they’ve been talking with the forest society for years about an easement.

A conservation easement that allows hunting and hiking but no development complements the family’s other efforts to protect wildlife habitats, Berti said. Northern Pass officials never approached them to buy the acreage, he said. “Quite frankly, we don’t know if (Northern Pass) had an interest in the property.”

In addition to receiving $600,000 for the easement, the family also reserved three lots that can be developed into house lots, Berti said.

Skelton, the Northern Pass spokesman, declined to say whether the latest easements acquired by the forest society would hamper efforts to secure a route for the project.

“Any discussion of route location, properties involved, or impacts is pure speculation by opponents and not based in fact,” he wrote in an email. “As we’ve said before, we’ve continued to make significant progress by working with willing landowners and we are optimistic that we’ll have secured the land we need for the new route by the end of the year.”

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323, atimmins@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)

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