Ralph Jimenez: The other residents of Hoit Road Marsh

Monitor staff
Published: 2/21/2021 6:10:31 AM

There is a constituency that hasn’t been heard from in the long debate over the ban on off-road vehicle use on Concord’s Hoit Road Marsh, as well as contemplated bans on other New Hampshire water bodies.

It is an underwater constituency whose members may be voting with their lives, though we could find no hard science that answers the question.

The marsh is shallow so in winter there is just a few feet of water between the bottom of the ice covering it and the floor of the marsh, where frogs, turtles, and other creatures shelter to keep from freezing. Frogs, which like most amphibians are in decline globally, drastically slow their metabolism to survive in a low-oxygen environment. They lie atop the marsh mud, and breathe through their skin.

Turtles, which like frogs are ectotherms, which means that their body temperature is that of their surroundings, breathe, as one naturalist put it, “through their butts,” absorbing oxygen through the veins in their cloaca. Some, like painted turtles, burrow beneath the marsh mud for a bit of additional protection and enter brumation, the reptile equivalent of hibernation.

They survive on stored glycogen, the equivalent of fat in mammals. In the low-oxygen environment, metabolizing their energy stores produces cramp-inducing lactic acid, which they “buffer” by dissolving some of the calcium in their shells.

Some turtles, among them snappers, which can live as long as a human and weigh as much as the average third-grader, remain somewhat active and cruise beneath the ice in search of food. They have been around, in pretty much the same form, for 90 million years.

What impact does the noise and vibration from several, or dozens, of speeding motorcycles with studded tires zooming around a few feet overhead have on these somnolent creatures? I don’t know, but lawmakers should find out before sanctioned the use of motorized recreation vehicles on the states marshes and ponds.

Wildlife evolved to survive winter in peace and quiet. Do motorcycles, ATVs and snowmobiles, particularly if as at the Hoit Road Marsh the racket lasts hour after hour, trouble their sleep? Do creatures meant to sleep, when awakened, use precious energy they need to survive? We suspect so.

How long has it been since choruses of bullfrogs rumbled the New Hampshire night? I haven’t heard them in years. Frogs and other amphibians are in trouble, beset by climate change and a global collapse in insect populations. They need every break they can get.

As a young man I raced motorcycles in hare scrambles, dirt track, and motocross, and spent whole days roaring around the countryside with fellow cyclists, including through woods and field. It was great fun, but no longer sustainable on a warming planet. The world’s population then was less than half what it is now. It’s past time for lawmakers, state agencies like Fish and Game and Travel and Tourism, and the state’s recreation and hospitality industry, to think more seriously about the impact promoting recreational activities that involve internal combustion engines is having on abutters, neighbors, wildlife, and the planet.

In 1972, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, in a dissent in a case involving the Sierra Club and a ski area developer, argued that nature, and its landscape and wildlife, should, like corporations or ships under maritime law, enjoy standing as people. “Then there will be assurances that all the forms of life . . . will stand before the court – the pileated woodpecker as well as the coyote and bear, the lemmings as well as the trout in the streams. Those inarticulate members of the ecological group cannot speak,” Douglas wrote.

Frogs and turtles can’t vote. We have to vote for them. I vote no to motorcycles on the marsh.

(Ralph Jimenez of Concord is a member of the Monitor’s editorial board.)

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