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Northern Pass squares off against forest society over hydropower route

Northern Pass officials, fresh off buying a couple of key pieces of land in the North Country, said this week they’ve secured 99 percent of the land needed for their hydro-power line from Canada. They’ve even begun meeting with New Hampshire business owners who want to work on the project.

But the remaining 1 percent is an equally big part of the story.

The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, determined to block the hydro-power line, owns a key piece of that 1 percent and is trying to raise $2.1 million by Wednesday to conserve critical sections of the rest. As of last Wednesday, the society had raised $827,000 from 810 people in 23 states. An unnamed donor has said he or she will make a sizable gift if the other donations show broad support for the society’s conservation effort.

“They are 100 percent away from complete,” Jack Savage, forest society spokesman, said yesterday. “Without eminent domain they have nothing. And they don’t have eminent domain.”

If Northern Pass officials are worried, they aren’t showing it.

“We feel like we are very close and the finish line is in sight,” said Michael Skelton, Northern Pass spokesman. “If the forest society wants to position themselves as blocking the jobs and benefits of this project, that is their prerogative. We are going to stay focused on working with willing landowners so that we are able to secure a route by the end of the year.”

Northern Pass, announced in October 2010, is a proposed 180-mile hydro-power line that would run from Canada, through New Hampshire and to Deerfield, where it would connect with the New England grid. The $1.1 billion project is a collaboration between Hydro-Quebec, Northeast Utilities and Public Service of New Hampshire – and it has been controversial from the start.

That’s been especially true north of Groveton, where Northern Pass must clear a 40-mile corridor for the transmission lines. It scratched an earlier route in the North Country after public protest.

The Legislature voted this year to prohibit private projects like Northern Pass from taking land by eminent domain, an option Northern Pass has said it didn’t intend to use. Instead, it has been buying land.

As of August, Northern Pass had spent more than $14 million buying land in the North Country for the route, according to information it gave analysts at the time. This month, it paid $4.1 million for a 362-acre parcel in Pittsburg owned by a California woman who told the Monitor several months ago she had no intention of selling the land, which had belonged to her father.

The woman could not be reached yesterday for comment. Getting her property was a strategic win for Northern Pass because it sits near the Canadian border and abuts a piece Northern Pass had already purchased. Northern Pass also bought access to a critical piece near the Coleman State Park this month that allows it to connect to land it already owns.

But the forest society can block the start of the route with land in Pittsburg it conserved years ago as part of the Washburn Family Forest, Savage said. And the money the society is raising now, would allow it to conserve a 967-acre piece that would also block Northern Pass’s developing route. The land is owned by a Stewartstown dairy farmer. The conservation effort also includes a 500-acre piece next to the farmer’s land and a smaller piece that interrupts the route a few miles away.

The remainder of the Northern Pass route would run within the existing transmission corridors already owned by Public Service. Eight miles of the route would run through Concord, near the Steeplegate Mall and the airport.

Skelton declined to discuss the project’s real estate transactions.

“It’s really unfortunate (the forest society) is using a fundraiser tool to lock up land that could be used for job creation and economic development,” he said.

Northern Pass officials just wrapped up a series of meetings with more than 150 small-business owners in the North Country who have told project officials they are interested in working on the route.

Skelton said the Northern Pass website contains a link for business owners to register their interest. Skelton said the project will create 1,200 landscaping, surveying, trucking, logging and construction jobs for three years. “We want to make sure our jobs go to New Hampshire businesses first,” he said.

Skelton also accused the forest society of harboring disingenuous motives as it asks for money to conserve land. “If not for Northern Pass, would they even be interested in conserving this land? I don’t think the answer is yes.”

Savage said Skelton is wrong.

He said the forest society raised more than $2 million to conserve the Washburn Family Forest in 2007 and 2008. The society has other easements in Colebrook and Pittsburg that pre-date Northern Pass.

“It’s because we’ve been doing this conservation work and because of the damage (Northern Pass’s) private project would do to those existing conservation lands that we felt this is a priority for our organization and the state,” he said.

To learn more about the forest society’s fundraising effort, visit forestsociety.org. For more information about Northern Pass and opportunities for New Hampshire businesses, visit northernpass.us and click on “get involved.”

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