Going ‘Out On a Limb’ to Protect Habitat

Madison — July 1, 2006 — The Nature Conservancy is in the final stages of a risky $3.8 million plan to save a rare habitat, racing against developers in their purchase of valuable properties. The group’s most recent victory took place in May, when it secured an option to purchase 355 Madison acres last month. The conservancy has until March 2007 to find the money necessary to buy the land.

The property is referred to as the Goodwin Tract, after the property’s current owners. It will join over 2,000 nearby acres that the conservancy has purchased over the last 20 years. Since December 2005 alone, the conservancy has bought more than 230 acres in Freedom and Ossipee.

With the purchase of the Goodwin Tract, the Nature Conservancy’s $3.8 million plan to protect the pine barrens habitat, safeguard groundwater supplies and ensure public access to the wilderness properties is nearly complete.

Pine barrens are considered a rare habitat. Their soil is sandy and acidic. The dominant tree, pitch pine, is gangly and gnarled, with 2-inch-thick bark that allows the trees to survive wildfires.

The last viable N.H. pine barrens sit where the corners of Tamworth, Madison, Ossipee and Freedom meet — just off the Route 16/Route 41 junction. This pine barrens was once 8,600 acres large, but widespread development has reduced it to 2,500.

Another critical aspect of the local pine barrens is what lies beneath: the most productive aquifer in New Hampshire, according to Nature Conservancy Spokesman Eric Aldrich.

The barrens’ underground root system, as well as its sandy soil, allows rainwater to seep easily into the ground, replenishing the aquifer. The aquifer provides five local towns with “safe, clean drinking water,” according to Jeff Lougee, program manager for the Nature Conservancy’s Mount Washington Valley chapter. Ossipee, Freedom, Madison, Tamworth and Effingham’s public water supply systems, as well as the majority of private wells, draw from the underground water source.

While the barrens’ sandy soil helps to filter impurities, it can only filter so much. And the amount caused by sudden, widespread residential development (and septic systems) is too much. Were a significant amount of barrens destroyed, the aquifer would not be as easily replenished. Were these conservancy parcels developed, septic waste is likely to contaminate the aquifer, according to Lougee.

The Goodwin Tract
The Nature Conservancy’s most recent conservation prospect is the Goodwin Tract, which sits between Silver Lake and Cook’s Pond in Madison. A stream runs from the pond to the lake, making the area a favorite spot for canoers and kayakers.

The tract is also along the northern border of the Madison Town Forest, which is next to the Freedom Town Forest and other Nature Conservancy parcels. While any pine barrens land is valuable, contiguous parcels are even more so — contiguity allows important interactions between barrens species, the conservancy says. (The fragmentation of habitats is nearly as detrimental to the barrens as outright clearcutting and development, the group notes.)

Of the 355 Goodwin acres, about 135 are intact pine barrens. Another 53 are wetlands. The site’s northernmost point is marked by a kettlehole bog — a sort of pond formed by receding glaciers. Typically, a layer of peat sits on a bog’s watery surface.

“This site is ecologically valuable. It’s really a gem,” Lougee said. “People love this property. The paddle from Cook’s Pond to Silver Lake is heralded as one of the best in the area.”

It’s also in great condition. There has been no commercial use of the property since an unsuccessful leadmine shut down in the early 1900s; now, the only hint that commercial activity ever existed near the site is an old mining shaft on the Goodwin Tract/Madison Town Forest border. Parts of the shaft are 90 feet deep, but you’d never know — the chasm is filled with water, plants and bullfrogs.

Going Out On a Limb
About five years ago, The Nature Conservancy got its first “wake-up call” to the immediate need for aggressive conservation efforts, according to Lougee. “Land values were skyrocketing,” he said. “In the last five or 10 years, they’ve doubled.” People were willing to spend enormous sums of money to live in the scenic North Country, and developers were scrambling to accommodate them. The Nature Conservancy suffered another blow when their bid for a valuable Tamworth property was unsuccessful.

“We weren’t able to get it,” Lougee said. “We weren’t competitive. And now, 50 homes and 12 commercial lots are going in there.”

That’s when it became clear to the conservancy: If they were going to compete against developers for valuable land, they would have to be aggressive. As a result, the conservancy has made three major land purchases in Ossipee and Freedom in the last seven months. It has also secured options to purchase on both the Goodwin Tract and a 25-acre parcel southwest of Silver Lake.

If the group can make good on its options to purchase, it will have snapped up those five parcels to the total tune of $3.8 million. According to Lougee, they didn’t have much of a choice.

“We’re taking a significant financial risk,” Lougee said. “But we didn’t have much of a choice. If we wait another five years, these lands are either going to be even more expensive or developed.”

But it makes the conservancy’s job easier when landowners seek out conservation groups, not developers, as buyers. One of the three co-owners of the Goodwin Tract, Sue Goodwin, explained that she and her siblings wanted to preserve the land that gave them hundreds of precious childhood memories.

“When we were young, my brother and sister and I loved the boatride down Cook’s River. We would see beavers, deer, moose, all sorts of wonderful birds,” Goodwin recalled. As a young girl, she and her family had been seasonal Silver Lake residents. Now, with her husband, she has retired to the area.

“It’s a beautiful area, and we wanted to be sure that others would be able to love it the way we have,” Goodwin said.

Besides a landowner’s eagerness to see her land protected rather than developed, it takes money — and lots of it — to make conservation efforts successful. Right now, The Nature Conservancy doesn’t have the money to pay off the loans it’s taken out to purchase the three Ossipee/Freedom properties. It’s also missing the funds to make good on its options to purchase both the Goodwin Tract and the nameless 25-acre parcel.

The conservancy plans to apply to the federal Forest Legacy Fund to cover almost 75 percent of the $3.8 million. If the conservancy’s application is approved, it will need to raise the rest — roughly $1 million — through private donations. That’s a lot of mailings, a lot of fundraisers, a lot of networking.

It’s a whole different story if the group’s application is denied. Needless to say, it would result in a whole lot of scrambling.

“We’ve extended ourselves,” Lougee said. “We’ve gone out on a limb. This is the future.” When asked whether he meant “this is the future” as a warning against unbridled development or in support of aggressive conservation, Lougee paused, then laughed. “That’s a good question,” he said. “I guess it’s all up to us.”

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