Lawmakers want limit on federal land ownership in NH enforced, expanded

Monitor staff
Published: 6/14/2016 12:28:22 AM

The federal government is limited to own just 2 percent of New Hampshire’s land area, under a mostly forgotten and largely unenforced law the state put on the books in 1935.

But now, as federal conservation agencies seek to expand wildlife refuges in the state, a coalition of lawmakers and landowners is pushing to resurrect and expand the policy.

“We don’t want to become Nevada East,” said Rep. James McConnell, a Keene Republican. “We don’t want to become a state that is largely owned by the federal government.”

Seeking to beef-up the decades old statute, the Republican-led Legislature passed a bill this year that would require landowners get local and Executive Council sign-off before selling property to the federal government. The bill would also expand the law, by including federally-backed conservation easements – like those that help landowners preserve wetlands and farmland – within the two percent cap. The Department of Resources and Economic Development would have to verify property owners meet the conditions before it issues a certificate of compliance, needed for a sale.

The bill’s supporters say residents should have a say in whether the federal government moves to town, because its purchase of local property can affect the tax base and the land’s use.

But opponents warn the legislation curbs landowners’ rights to sell their property and could hurt conservation efforts. The bill’s passage is raising concern among environmentalists, farmers and foresters who often rely on federally funded easements to maintain their land.

“The state is inserting itself in a very dramatic way into private land transactions,” said Jim O’Brien, with the New Hampshire chapter of The Nature Conservancy. “It could undermine conservation efforts across the state.”

The policy has yet to come to Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan’s desk. But spokesman William Hinkle said Hassan is unlikely to sign the bill, over questions of constitutionality and her concerns about infringing on the rights of private property owners.

Federal land ownership has taken a spotlight nationally after high-profile showdowns in Oregon and Nevada over cattle grazing rights on public land.

The disputes have even entangled New Hampshire residents. Jerry DeLemus of Rochester was arrested recently and accused of organizing and recruiting protesters in the 2014 standoff between Nevada ranchers and federal law enforcement officers.

The land debate in New Hampshire is emerging amid federal efforts to expand the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in the western part of the state, and to establish the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge in the south.

The New Hampshire law – put in place in 1935 – stipulates that the federal government can’t acquire more than two percent of New Hampshire’s more than 5.3 million land acres, excluding the White Mountain National Forest. The statute also puts a five percent limit on land the federal government can purchase in individual cities and towns.

The state is about 47,000 acres shy of the cap, according to Hebron Rep. Suzanne Smith, a Democrat who opposes the bill. But a few towns, including Success in Northern New Hampshire, have surpassed their limit, Smith said.

But oversight of the cap fell to a land use board that was abolished decades ago. The law has not been followed “in many, many years,” said DRED’s Brad Simpkins. The department did not take a position on the bill.

The federal refuge plans in the state have faced pushback from some local residents who are worried the efforts could restrict use of land.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to establish the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge in New England to preserve shrubland habitat, necessary for species including New England Cottontail. The two proposed New Hampshire sites are in the Londonderry and Madbury areas, and officially called Merrimack Valley North and Oyster-Dover-Bellamy, respectively. While site planners are evaluating thousands of acres in the two locations, they plan to acquire just 500 acres at each site. Buying wouldn’t begin until the refuge proposal is approved.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been acquiring land along the Connecticut River watershed for the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge; its creation was approved in the 1990s. The service is now seeking to expand the conservation area in New Hampshire, and weighing a number of options, which include acquiring land in Alstead, Columbia, Lyme and Canaan.

“We buy land from willing sellers only,” said project leader Andrew French. “Someone doesn’t want to sell, they don’t sell.”

Nashua Sen. Kevin Avard, a Republican who sponsored the bill, said there’s no reason for Hassan to veto it and he will bring it back next year if his constituents ask.

“It’s not going to hurt anyone,” Avard said. “It’s just going to protect property rights.”

Even if the bill goes down this year, the debate has accomplished at least one thing, Simpkins said.

“Everyone is aware of this law now.”




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