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Conservation groups aim to purchase land along Mount Major

  • From left, Brian Webb, of Hooksett, Sarah Beth Immonen, of Raymond, and Katlyn Eldeb, of Massachusetts, eat lunch on the summit of Mount Major after a hike in the hot temperatures on Tuesday afternoon, June 25, 2013. The three said they used water from runoffs along the trail to splash themselves to keep cool. The Society for  Protection of New Hampshire Forests and Lakes Region Conservation Trust are working on a campaign to protect 950 acres around Mount Major in Alton and Gilford.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / monitor staff)

    From left, Brian Webb, of Hooksett, Sarah Beth Immonen, of Raymond, and Katlyn Eldeb, of Massachusetts, eat lunch on the summit of Mount Major after a hike in the hot temperatures on Tuesday afternoon, June 25, 2013. The three said they used water from runoffs along the trail to splash themselves to keep cool. The Society for Protection of New Hampshire Forests and Lakes Region Conservation Trust are working on a campaign to protect 950 acres around Mount Major in Alton and Gilford.

    (JOHN TULLY / monitor staff)

  • From left, Brian Webb, of Hooksett, Sarah Beth Immonen, of Raymond, and Katlyn Eldeb, of Massachusetts, eat lunch on the summit of Mount Major after a hike in the hot temperatures on Tuesday afternoon, June 25, 2013. The three said they used water from runoffs along the trail to splash themselves to keep cool. The Society for  Protection of New Hampshire Forests and Lakes Region Conservation Trust are working on a campaign to protect 950 acres around Mount Major in Alton and Gilford.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / monitor staff)

Along Mount Major’s 1.6-mile Boulder Loop, you’ll find pristine water running down crafted waterfalls, lush green trees and large granite boulders that tell a story of the land’s former days as a quarry.

“The Belknap (Mountains) are full of museums of New Hampshire history,” said Dave Anderson, director of education for the Society for Protection of New Hampshire Forests. “But you won’t find it on a map or in a book.”

Right now, all of that land along Boulder Loop, along with all of Mount Major’s other trails, is privately owned, meaning there’s always a risk it could be closed off to public access, eliminating the chance for hikers from across the state to experience the land’s beauty. Only the parking lot at the base of the mountain and the 60-acre summit are public lands.

Yesterday, the forest society and the Lakes Region Conservation Trust announced they are teaming up to raise $1.8 million to purchase 950 acres of that privately owned land on or around Mount Major to ensure its future conservation. They have until Dec. 1 to raise the money.

The mountains, together with the area’s lakes, are a “combination that’s hard to beat anywhere else in New Hampshire,” said Russ Wilder, chairman of the Belknap Range Conservation Coalition, which is also working with the two groups.

Mount Major is one of the most popular mountains in New Hampshire, with cars packing the parking lot all the way out to Route 11 on nice summer weekends. There are three main trails – Boulder Loop, Mount Major Trail and Brook Trail – and the summit offers stunning views of Lake Winnipesaukee and the White Mountains. The trails on the way up are home to many ecological habitats and wildlife and offer a window into the history of New Hampshire’s land. Thousands of people hike the mountain each year, ranging from school groups to beginning hikers to more advanced hikers who like to carve out their own trails. Some enthusiasts have been known to hike the mountain up to three times a day.

For all these reasons, the three conservation groups want to guarantee the land will always be open to the public. The forest society will purchase three parcels on Mount Major, totaling about 620 acres, and the Lakes Region Conservation Trust will purchase an additional 330 acres in Gilford’s Molton Valley and on the slope of Piper Mountain. The campaign is called “Everybody Hikes Mt. Major,” in reference to the mountain’s popularity.

Purchasing the private property has been a goal for years, and the groups have negotiated sale agreements with all of the property owners. The groups will seek government and foundation grants, as well as private donations, and the forest society expects to announce commitments of nearly $400,000 soon. The conservation commissions in both Alton and Gilford also plan to donate money to the project.

The 75-acre parcel near the base of the mountain, which encompasses Boulder Loop, belongs to Dave Roberts, a longtime hiker and member of the Belknap Range Conservation Coalition. The previous owner was ready to sell immediately, so Roberts purchased it and will hold it until the forest society raises the money to buy it.

Roberts has been hiking the mountain for decades. He used to climb it every single day, but can’t anymore due to an injury. Members of the forest society call him an encyclopedia of knowledge about the land. Over the years, he’s marked out at least 20 of his own trails.

“It’s an iconic mountain of the area,” he said.

Yesterday, as the groups were announcing the fundraising campaign from the base of the mountain, many hikers passed by, braving their way to the trails in the hot sun. They ranged from couples dressed for a casual walk to more serious hikers equipped for tougher trails. Girls from Zion’s Camp in Raymond arrived to take on the mountain.

Hearing the discussion about conserving the land, they briefly stopped to listen, and a counselor said they bring campers to the mountain every single year.

“We expect it to be here,” the counselor said.

Shirley Woodward of Gilford is another frequent Mount Major hiker. She remembers hiking the mountain as a kid at summer camp and hating it. But now in her 70s, she and her husband hike trails in the Belknap Range “all of the time.” Woodward said she enjoys the many easy hiking trails.

“I am all for preserving these lands,” she said.

Purchasing these four parcels will still leave many trails on privately owned property, but it is one large step toward ensuring the land is available for generations of future hikers.

“Every generation has an opportunity to protect some iconic, some really special, place,” said forest society President Jane Difley. “This is one of those moments.”

( More information about the conservation campaign is available at forestsociety.org or lrct.org. Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309,
kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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