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Debate swirls around fate of dilapidated Thoreau Falls Bridge

Last modified: 10/12/2015 5:10:32 PM
There’s something about knowing that you’re a 5-mile hike from the nearest road that lends itself to being philosophical.

“There is an aspect to wilderness, call it spiritual, that is hard to quantify,” said Dan Abbe, who supervises dispersed recreation in the White Mountain National Forest, as he led a group of 10 people into the early autumn glory of northern New Hampshire.

That’s exactly the thinking behind the creation of the Pemigewasset Wilderness Area, roughly 45,000 acres of the White Mountain National Forest between Franconia Notch and Crawford Notch. The rugged swath was placed under the federal Wilderness Act in 1984, carving out a section of the North Country where human activity is limited to the bare minimum.

As the largest such area in the Northeast, the Pemi Wilderness, as it is usually called, has long been cherished – but now that special quality has led to a lengthy, rancorous debate about whether to replace the dilapidated Thoreau Falls Bridge, a pair of 60-foot logs spanning the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River that act as a major gateway into the heart of the region.

The issue has divided outdoors advocates: the Appalachian Mountain Club, for example, wants the bridge replaced, to allow continued access to the eastern half of the Pemi Wilderness, while the national group Wilderness Watch wants it removed, because building structures in a wilderness area goes against the whole idea of creating a place where people can escape civilization.

“This has been a polarized discussion,” admitted Jon Morrissey, who as Forest Service district ranger for the Pemigewasset District will be making a final decision about the bridge’s fate, probably next year. “People are passionate about it, on all sides.”

Damaged by hurricane

The Thoreau Falls Bridge was built in 1962, apparently by the U.S. Forest Service, which placed two huge spruce trees across the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River, covered them with decking and railings, with steps leading up each bank. It sits near the southern end of the 5-mile-long Thoreau Falls Trail, which connects the Ethan Pond Trail in the north to the Wilderness Trail in the south.

Thoreau Falls Bridge is rustic to the point of being alarming, especially when compared with the suspension bridge over the same river that exists near the Kancamagus Highway, where foot traffic is much higher.

The bridge’s decking, railing and steps have decayed and the logs have shifted, creating a deck that has lurched and bent.

Age was already taking its toll on the bridge when Hurricane Irene tore through the area in 2011, sending so much water pouring down the Pemigewasset River that it flowed completely over the bridge. The Forest Service sent in an engineer, and after reading his report it imposed a traffic limit of one person crossing at a time.

Debate began, with public hearings and discussions. In August of this year, the Forest Service released what is known as a scoping report, asking for comments and suggestions about the possibility of removing the bridge entirely; more than 75 comments were sent it during the 30-day comment period, covering the gamut of opinions.

Morrissey says the damage was so extreme, including cracks halfway through at least one of the logs, that the bridge cannot be repaired; it has to either be replaced or removed before it falls into the river and hurts somebody.

The legal argument seems straightforward: The Wilderness Act in general does not allow large structures like bridges to be built in wilderness areas. If construction does happen, it must use local materials, which doesn’t seem possible in this case.

But some note that the Thoreau Falls Bridge existed before the Wilderness Act was passed by Congress, let alone applied to the Pemi, so perhaps that requirement isn’t absolute.

Further, exceptions are allowed in wilderness areas for safety or administrative reasons. Notably, a suspension bridge over the Dry River, which is in the Dry River Wilderness Area in northeastern New Hampshire, was rebuilt in 2009 for the same reasons that advocates urge the Thoreau Falls Bridge to be rebuilt.

On the other hand, a suspension bridge farther downstream of the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River was not replaced after it was removed due to damage in 2010, nor was a nearby beam bridge over Black Brook. Both of those decisions were made to preserve the area’s wilderness aspect.

Safety is a concern

The most public advocate for replacing the bridge is probably state Sen. Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican whose completion of the grid – hiking each of the state’s 4,000-foot mountains during every month of the year – makes him the best-known outdoorsman in the state Legislature. Bradley argues that losing a bridge would be dangerous because too many hikers would try to ford the river.

Bradley was among 10 people who were led to the bridge on Oct. 3 by Morrissey and Abbe, one of two outreach tours organized by the Forest Service. He demonstrated his point by fording the river twice, once above and once below the bridge. Although the water level was relatively low, certainly compared with spring and early summer, he struggled at times as water went up to his thighs.

“This is not an easy river to cross,” he told the group. “If you’re going to make beginning hikers, even intermediate hikers, do this, you’re asking for trouble.”

Echoing the concern was Terri Wilson, who leads hiking trips for the AMC. She said she supports replacing the bridge out of concern that once people get this far into the back country, they will try to ford the river and will get hurt – particularly if they’re coming south along the remote Thoreau Falls Trail and are trying to get to their vehicle at the Lincoln Woods parking lot.

“They’re not going to turn around,” Wilson said. “It’s a safety issue.”

They and others argued that because the bridge can’t be seen by hikers after they have traveled about 50 paces up the trail in either direction, its effect on the wilderness experience would be limited.

And Scott Taylor, who leads trips as a volunteer for the New Hampshire chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club, pointed out that the river rarely freezes completely, meaning the lack of a bridge would block off a major route for increasingly popular winter recreation.

“I have been surprised that the most passionate responses have been from cross-county (ski) people,” said Morrissey. “I thought it would be hikers, but winter use seems to be the most important to people.”

But not everybody on the tour thought that way. Jill Mathers, another experienced hiker who joined the tour out of curiosity, said after visiting the bridge for the first time, that she thought it should go, that the safety concerns were outweighed by more intangible factors.

“There needs to be wilderness,” she said.

Wilderness isn’t pristine

There’s no good data about how many people cross the bridge because you don’t have to register to enter the national forest. Many people hike north from the Lincoln Woods parking area to Franconia Falls and the Franconia Brook tent site, but it’s unclear how many continue another 2 miles to the bridge.

On the north side of the river, the Thoreau Falls Trail is relatively unused compared to hikes such as the Bondcliff Trail, partly because it does not go near any 4,000-foot mountains or other obvious attractions. Morrissey said a few single-day counts along the Thoreau Falls Trail have found 10 or fewer people using it in summer, but there isn’t enough data to extrapolate that, or to tell how many use the bridge.

Some opponents of closing the bridge fear that the Thoreau Falls Trail will even fall into disuse if it dead-ends at the river, closing off access to a large section of the Pemi Wilderness.

The situation is further complicated because in this case, wild does not mean pristine.

This area was logged by infamous timber baron J.E. Henry in the late 1800s and early 1900s – in fact, the Pemi East Side Trail, used by the Forest Service sponsored hike, follows an railroad bed that was built to haul out logs, and if you’re not careful you can trip over the occasional railroad tie.

The area was also swept by severe forest fires due to badly run clear-cut logging, a disaster that helped prompt the preservation of the White Mountain region. Logging didn’t completely end until 1930, when the land was sold to the U.S. government.

As a result, virtually no trees exist in this wilderness older than a century. That’s one reason why the bridge couldn’t be replaced as is: No logs of that size can be found locally. Further, the U.S. Forest Services limits “natural” bridges, meaning those made of felled logs, to 20-foot spans, only a third the length necessary here.

As a result, Morrissey said, a new bridge would have stringers, the term for girders that support a bridge, made of manufactured lumber that are built elsewhere and hauled in, probably by helicopter.

“I can’t figure out how to get a 60-foot stringer in here, even with horses in winter,” said Morrissey.

The less-than-wild history of the area has been part of the debate, Abbe noted.

“People have said the Pemi Wilderness is not a pristine wilderness, not like areas out west, so what’s the big deal with the bridge,” he said. “But under the legislation, the Wilderness Act, there’s not really a differentiation between an area like the Yosemite wilderness and the Pemigewasset Wilderness. We’re supposed to manage them in the same way.”

The Thoreau Falls Bridge debate has attracted so much attention partly because all of New Hampshire’s wild areas attract attention.

The White Mountain National Forest alone, not counting state-run areas, attracts more than 6 million people a year, roughly twice the number who visit Yellowstone National Park annually.

But whether that’s a reason to keep a bridge to serve the needs of the many, or remove the bridge to help the wildest part of the area stay wild, depends on your point of view. No matter what decision the Forest Service reaches, this sort of debate is likely to keep occurring.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)


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