Column: Land conservation should be championed by all
John Swope and his family are planning to donate a parcel of land on Long Pond Road to be turned into a park by the City of Concord to be called Marjory Swope Park. The plan is to place the land under a conservation easement managed by 5 Rivers Conservation Trust. The city would build a trailhead, a small parking lot, trail bench and a kiosk in memory of Swope's wife Marjory who passed away in 2007. Saturday, November 12, 2012. (John Tully/ Monitor Staff)
In a sense, it’s not much of a story. This year the Henniker Conservation Commission arranged conservation easements on some land, not unlike actions taken for decades in other communities all across New Hampshire. There were, to be sure, some unusual aspects of the Henniker easements. The conservation commission stopped development on four town-owned properties, working closely with town officials and then getting local voter support. You wouldn’t normally think that a town would need to put a conservation easement on property that it owned, but Henniker voters agreed this was the only way to stop future town officials from selling the properties off to some developer in order to hold down the tax rate some year in the future.
Now, after Henniker volunteers and town employees pulled out piles of trash and hauled out the remnants of fallen-down buildings and rusted-out cars, those four beautiful pieces of nature will add to the substantial amount of land in Henniker that is to be kept in its current attractive state forever.
Two regional environmental groups, the Piscataquog Land Conservancy and the Five Rivers Conservation Trust, will monitor these sites annually to assure there is no prohibited development happening on them.
The real story is that, with so many easements in place statewide, there is now growing evidence that this kind of cooperative venture is starting to have a real impact on the quality of life in this state. There are large tracts that have been conserved near the White Mountain National Forest and around Mount Monadnock, but there are many smaller sites you can see and enjoy all around the state.
Most have been initiated by landowners, working out arrangements with the town or city, and relying on easement monitoring with a local conservation group or with statewide groups like the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests or the Audubon Society of New Hampshire. The forest society alone claims responsibility for protecting more than 1 million acres statewide.
Landowners who allow conservation easements on their land don’t usually do it for free. After all, they are encumbering their property with restrictions against future development that will reduce the sale price whenever they do sell it or pass it on to their heirs.
So they deserve to be paid the difference between what the land is worth without an easement and what they could sell it for with the easement on it.
Up until the 1980s there was no reliable source of money to use for paying the landowners for agreeing to put such easements on their property, so most of the conservation easements before then were put on by people wealthy enough to give up the value of those “development rights” for free.
But then, in the 1980s, the longtime president of the forest society, Paul Bofinger, came up with a strategy to fund land conservation every year. He convinced prominent landowners and business leaders, representatives of many local and statewide nonprofits and, eventually, enough state legislators and the governor, to support legislation that would channel some of the proceeds from New Hampshire land sales fees into a new organization, the Trust for New Hampshire Lands, which started the Land Conservation Investment Program.
Starting in 1989, that trust chose projects every year to which it gave matching grants for part of the cost of purchasing conservation easements or entire parcels of land. Soon it became obvious that much more land could be protected per dollar by creating matching grants for easements than for outright land purchases.
A hundred thousand acres of land were protected by the efforts of this trust and the local groups that raised the rest of the money.
Many years later that organization was replaced by the current one, the New Hampshire Land and Community Heritage Investment Program which was created to encourage not only land conservation but also the conservation of certain farm and historic buildings as well, mostly through conservation easements.
LCHIP is funded by part of the recording fees paid for property transfers each year and by most of the fees for conservation license plates that you see on cars all around the state.
Why use state money to conserve land and other special places? In 1901, when the forest society was created, the White Mountains were ugly, stripped of their trees by shortsighted timber harvesters, crisscrossed by small-gauge train tracks built all over the mountain sides to haul out the trees, and blackened by annual forest fires that ignited in the huge piles of debris left by the timber harvesters.
Many summer days the smoke from the annual forest fires obliterated the views of the White Mountains that out-of-state tourists and New Hampshire citizens had long enjoyed. A key part of the New Hampshire economy was at risk of dying, not only from spoiled views and smoky air but also from the lack of an ongoing, sustainable forest products industry in our woodlands.
The newly formed forest society gathered enough money and political muscle to convince Congress to create the White Mountain National Forest in 1911, and those forest lands were protected forever.
The results are visible to millions of tourists and New Hampshire residents each year, and the forest products industry has been boosted by the managed cutting that has been allowed in the National Forest every year since 1911.
We New Hampshirites also benefit from the conservation of natural lands that jack up the values of homes with “executive views” or with lake or river frontage throughout the state.
People pay more to own such houses in New Hampshire than they would if their homes looked out on subdivisions or charred mountain sides. As a result, they pay more in property taxes, thus holding down the taxes on other homeowners in the same towns who can’t see or aren’t surrounded by such attractive land.
Furthermore, one of the reasons New Hampshire businesses can attract good employees from all over the country is our natural environment, which is a free employee benefit that our employers can offer to workers from other states. So the employers can pay somewhat lower wages than otherwise would be necessary to attract good employees.
Limiting development on key natural land in the state helps keep New Hampshire a competitive place in which organizations can stay in business and make money.
Finally, how attractive would New Hampshire be to live or vacation in if we didn’t have such high quality air and water? Conservation of forest land in our state helps to clean pollution out of our air and create shade and living spaces for our wildlife. Trees, bushes and untilled fields protect our land from erosion and thus limit the amount of soil runoff into our beautiful streams and rivers.
Conservation of wetlands and river banks protects not just the beautiful scenes we enjoy from our homes, offices and cars, but also the habitats of wildlife such as deer, ducks and trout that make New Hampshire such a popular state in which to hunt and fish.
The word “conserve” is the joining of two words that mean “together” and “watch or maintain.” This really sums up conservation easements, those challenging cooperative arrangements between state, local and private groups and individuals who spend countless hours working together to maintain forever the special places in New Hampshire for our use, and for future generations’ use.
A hundred and one years after the creation of the White Mountain National Forest, our state’s economy is clearly benefiting from all the conservation easements now in place.
(David Woolpert heads a personal investment management and financial planning firm in Concord. Thirty years ago he was director of finance for the forest society and now is a member of the Henniker Conservation Commission.)