Rare Plants, Artifacts Require Ossipee to Pay for Expensive Studies at Natural Area

Ossipee — July 20, 2005 — Artifacts 3,000 to 8,000 years old are sitting at what could be the future site of a town beach on Ossipee Lake, state preservation officials confirmed Monday. But the presence of stone chips, which may predate the Abenaki tribes in the area, doesn’t necessarily mean town and state officials can’t work together to carefully plan a public beach there.

And, officials say, it can’t stop selectmen from trying — especially since Ossipee taxpayers are the ones who would pay for extensive archaeological and botanical studies needed to design a public ramp over the potentially fragile, state-owned lot near Long Sands that selectmen hope to lease.

“I have no idea how much it might cost,” Edna Feighner, an archaeologist working for the state told selectmen Monday. “That much of it is up to town of Ossipee to foot the bill.”

Feighner, a N.H. Division of Historical Resources review and compliance coordinator, stood next to Ossipee Selectman Harry Merrow Monday night with a bag of several-thousand-year-old stones, and a 4-foot mailing tube apparently containing specifics on rare plants and relics at the site.

Merrow has taken up the beach as a pet project, and spent months chasing the document in the tube only to find it classified and unavailable to the general public. Coming out of a non-public meeting with several state officials Monday night, Merrow said he has learned nothing from them, or the document, that would end his quest for the beach, which would be the town’s only on its largest lake.

Selectmen will decide if Ossipee will pursue the beach at their regular meeting next Monday, he said.

In a public announcement immediately following the non-public meeting, state officials said nobody knows exactly what is underground at the site, but confirmed that the area had been occupied as early as 10,000 years ago, and stone chips were found near the surface from as early as 8,000 years ago.

But officials said details of what the site may hold will only come out after a town-funded dig, which will yield just a few chips or may reveal a hearth or living area for prehistoric itinerants from the Northwest coast of the continent.

“We don’t know exactly how far the site is in this area,” Feighner said. “We only know there is a site there because there has been surface collection.”

The dig could take months or more, and the more that is unearthed, the longer the process could take and the more it could cost, officials said.

Best-case scenario, Ossipee residents could be splashing at a new town beach in about two years. Worst case, they could spend thousands on archaeological studies that turn up sensitive relics, and should the N.H. Department of Resources and Economic Development commissioner oppose the project, the money and the beach would be scuttled.

Officials described a progressive series of study phases and public hearings that would happen before a final decision on the lease and the beach by DRED Commissioner Sean O’Kane.

Merrow said he hunted long and hard through records for the secret report on the site that is apparently shielded by a state law restricting public access to archaeological data. According to the law, sensitive sites need protection from vandals and amateur collectors. Feighner Monday called past vandalism to the Ossipee Lake site “inexcusable,” and occurring “through, unfortunately, the ignorance of people. They don’t know what they’re doing,” she said.

A spokesperson for N.H. Division of Parks and Recreation Director Allison Mc Lean confirmed Monday that the project could also place rare plants at risk. In an April letter to Merrow, Mc Lean wrote that plants had been identified there that are found nowhere else in the world. “There are documented sensitive botanical species,” her representative, Gail Wolek, told selectmen Monday.

Even so, Wolek said, state agencies are willing to work with the town if it opts to go through with the extensive studies. Officials said the state agencies weigh preservation against the best possible use of the state land, and work to prevent, or at least minimize, damage to protected sites from needed development.

“Best case you’ll probably have a town beach up and running probably by the spring of 2007,” Wolek said, adding her agency is hopeful that the plan works out.

“I’m sure we will have chance to work with you in the future,” Merrow told her after the presentation.

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