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Katy Burns: Here’s your inspiration, Northern Pass opponents

Last modified: 6/14/2015 12:23:09 AM
A few years ago a West Virginia friend remarked that we in New Hampshire are lucky our mountains are granite, not coal. Otherwise, he said, our lawmakers would be falling all over themselves to let mining companies blow them up as they’re doing now in his beloved home state.

I think that was a bit harsh – we have a healthy population of enough mountain-loving tree huggers to give the would-be dynamiters an extremely hard time – but he had a point. In both historically hardscrabble states the citizenry’s need to survive has at times taken precedence over more aesthetic considerations.

By the end of the 19th century, New Hampshire’s hills and valleys had been deforested and its rivers polluted with sewage and chemicals, often in the service of outsiders. At various times, railroad and gravel interests effectively controlled the Legislature. And God knows that for years the company once known as Public Service of New Hampshire has had its way with lawmakers.

In recent years, as prosperity found its way north, Granite Staters have been able to devote more time and attention to the intangible benefits of life here, including the place’s immense natural beauty and small-town charm.

Thus we have the brouhaha over the gigantic electrical transmission towers that Eversource Energy – the newest incarnation of Public Service – wants to construct through some of New Hampshire’s most scenic vistas, vistas that are among our state’s most valuable assets when it comes to attracting both tourists and residents.

I thought about this project, called Northern Pass, a couple of weeks ago when we decided to show visiting kin another of our state’s most valuable assets – our tiny seacoast. Except for the blight of the Seabrook nuclear plant, those few miles contain a world of delight, and we wanted to show it off.

From whale watching out of Portsmouth to cruises to the Isles of Shoals to the 1,000-acre Great Bay National Wildlife Sanctuary on what was once part of a military base, the state is proud to proclaim this area an ecological treasure and to market it furiously – and successfully – to growing numbers of tourists who are just gaga over tidal marshes, migrating birds and fog-shrouded island outposts.

We relish the bustle of Portsmouth with its eccentric Colonial streets and smorgasbord of restaurants, galleries and offbeat shops. We celebrate Strawbery Banke and wax nostalgic over the little specks of rocky land where New Hampshire’s history began. History and scenery are really hot topics these days, preferably in tandem.

And we imagine how different things might have been had the late Meldrim Thomson – under whose watch that nuclear plant arose – and Aristotle Onassis and William Loeb had their way in 1973. Our precious seacoast would be an ecological wasteland.

Mel Thomson, the governor, you ask? Bill Loeb, the pernicious publisher of the Union Leader? And Greek shipping and oil magnate Aristotle Onassis? That Aristotle Onassis?

Yes, indeed! Those very men. They had a dream – more accurately, a nightmare – that our tiny seacoast would make an absolutely splendid deep-water port for oil tankers. All it would take would be a little dredging – okay, a lot of dredging – and in no time, instead of admiring graceful blue herons, the good citizens of New Hampshire would be contemplating New Jersey north, complete with 18 miles of pollutant-spewing oil refineries, with the biggest smack in the middle of Durham.

The story is told in a wonderful 1986 book, New Hampshire: Crosscurrents in Its Development, by Nancy Coffey Heffernan and Ann Page Stecker. (Patrons of Gibson’s Bookstore can order one of the remaining copies if they want a short, readable social and political history of the state.) Here’s the short version: In 1973, word began getting out that someone – turned out to be Onassis – was secretly buying up land in Durham. In short order, Thompson, Loeb and eventually a sizable portion of the state’s political leaders fell in step. A massive – and massively inept — public relations campaign ensued. The citizens of Durham, led by two women, Nancy Sandburg and Dudley W. Dudley, remained unmoved.

Desperate, the powers that be proposed fashioning a state Energy Facility Evaluation Commission that would be allowed to stick a refinery wherever it wanted, no matter what the people of Durham thought.

Bad move.

Dudley, a freshman legislator at the time and clearly a PR genius, took advantage of the situation to switch the discussion from issues like energy and ecology to its most basic: Home rule. Town meeting. If the state could form a commission to force Durham to capitulate on the refinery issue, what would stop the state from forming, say, a Commission on Really Big Garbage Dumps, with similar powers of eminent domain?

It caught fire. The Durham town meeting in March of ’74 overwhelmingly defeated the refinery proposal, and most other towns in the state chimed in with resolutions opposing any such thing without the specific consent of the townspeople.

Shortly afterwards the General Assembly, peopled by representatives who’d just been given a strong mandate from their local voters to eschew anything that might impinge on local control, met in Concord. And Dudley Dudley gave a speech that drove a stake through the heart of the proposed commission and the oil refinery. It’s worth quoting, and we’re indebted to the authors of Crosscurrents for preserving it.

“Make no mistake that the effect of this (bill) . . . is to override the century-old tradition of home rule in the State of New Hampshire, that tradition which is the very bedrock of democracy in New Hampshire . . . that tradition which, when challenged, called the people of New Hampshire to its defense in 1974 as it did in 1776.

“I want to urge you to vote no on this amendment and ask you to consider your vote on this matter as a positive one – a vote for your neighbors and friends, a vote for your town, a vote for your city – and most of all, for the maintenance of home rule in our whole state, from Coos to the sea.” The speech had its desired effect. Home rule carried the day.

Since then Onassis, Loeb and Thomson have gone to their graves, and we, the grateful citizens of New Hampshire, have a small but delightful coastline to savor.

It’s a tale that should hearten opponents of Eversource’s Northern Pass project. Sometimes community organizing really works.

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)


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