Replacing Thoreau Falls Bridge far outweighs removing it, commentors say

  • After Hurricane Irene damaged the Thoreau Falls Bridge in 2011, the U.S. Forest Service imposed a limit on hikers crossing the 60-foot span. Oct. 3, 2015. DAVID BROOKS

  • The Thoreau Falls Bridge on a crisp, sunny day, Oct. 3, 2015. DAVID BROOKS

  • The underside of the Thoreau Falls Bridge shows some of the damage that the two 60-foot logs have incurred. Some cracks cut halfway through the two-foot-diameter logs. Oct. 3, 2015. DAVID BROOKS

In Depth NH
Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Replace the decrepit Thoreau Falls Bridge in the Pemigewasset Wilderness instead of removing it: That’s what the overwhelming majority of people told officials from The White Mountain National Forest.

And that’s contrary to the forest service’s proposed action, which is removal without replacement.

Early in August the forest service began accepting suggestions on what to do about the bridge over the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River. The comment period ended earlier this month.

That period followed an 18-month study. It concluded most of the bridge traffic occurs during the summer and fall and it is used by fewer than 1,000 people.

It also said for much of the year the water flow would not pose a serious problem, the exceptions being after storms or when the snow is melting in the spring. But it acknowledged crossing at those times would be hazardous.

The action the forest service was proposing was removal without replacement.

“Overall this alternative would enhance the wilderness character of the area by removing an unnecessary structure and increasing the opportunities for solitude and primitive forms of recreation,” the study says.

Thirty-five of the 41 comments were in favor of replacing the bridge; four argued for removal and two suggested other strategies, including a cable that hikers could hold.

One of those favoring replacement is state Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro.

“I appreciate the concerns for wilderness preservation, but I believe that safety and access are vitally important. Without a safe and secure bridge at this location safety will be undermined,” Bradley wrote.

James Soukup also favors replacement.

“I use the Thoreau Bridge often when hiking in the Pemi Wilderness. That river is far too difficult to cross without a bridge,” Soukup wrote.

Several others argued that removing the bridge would make winter use by cross-country skiers or those on snowshoes dangerous, if not impossible.

One of those who argued for permanently removing the bridge is Erin Paul Donovan.

“The Pemigewasset Wilderness…is unique and unlike any other area in the White Mountain National Forest,” Donovan wrote.

“If it is managed like the rest of the national forest the meaning of wilderness will be lost. And if the values of the Wilderness Act are not upheld it is senseless to preserve the Pemigewasset Wilderness as a designated wilderness,” Donovan said.

The forest service has been working on the issue since 2011 when it was determined that the bridge – built in 1962 – was so old it wasn’t safe and it’s been trying to figure out whether to replace it.

But that’s been a tricky issue since it is located in an area Congress later designed a wilderness area.

A wilderness area isn’t supposed to have such manmade structures. But there’s been a concern about hiker safety fording during high water.

A decision will be made by Brooke Brown, the ranger for the Pemigewasset District. The schedule calls for a decision in November. Given the public interest in the issue the forest service adopted a special procedure allowing for the study, comments – and an appeal of Brown’s decision.

The bridge is a six-mile hike from the Lincoln Woods Ranger Station, which is off the Kancamagus Highway. Coming from the other direction, the bridge is almost 10 miles from U.S. Route 302.