Freedom — November 6, 2006 — Freedom’s Forest Advisory Committee will hold a public hearing on Thursday, November 9th to consider an application by West Ossipee-based Valley Trails Association to open the Town Forest for ATV use. The hearing will be held in the Freedom Town Hall at 7 PM and will be moderated by Don Johnson.
ATVs and other motorized off-road vehicles have been prohibited in the Town Forest since it was purchased in June, 2005 for $2.3 million after a four-year effort led by the group Friends of Trout Pond. Funding for the purchase came from state and federal grants, individual contributions and town funds.
The purchase ensured that the 2,660 acre parcel, once slated to be the site of hundreds of homes and an airport, will be permanently protected from development. Its stewardship plan stipulates that the property will be managed for sustainable timber resources, wildlife habitat protection and low impact recreation.
In the year since the purchase, off-road vehicle enthusiasts have lobbied town officials for an opportunity to make a case that ATVs qualify as a low impact recreational use. In August, Valley Trails Association secretary Lisa Charette complained to the Selectmen that her group was being “stonewalled.”
ATVs once had unrestricted access to the property. After the plan for a huge residential complex on the site failed in the 1980s, ownership passed from receivership to several absentee owners. With no one managing the land, off-road riders moved in with ATVs, dirt bikes and SUVs, attracted by miles of graded roadways, an airstrip and old logging roads connecting to trails in Madison.
Advocates for purchasing the property as a Town Forest pointed to years of environmental damage caused by off-road use, including mounds of refuse and washed out trails, as one of the reasons the undeveloped tract should be permanently protected as conservation land.
Tug of War
Complicating the question of whether ATVs qualify as a low impact recreational use is the open disagreement between the Board of Selectmen and the Conservation Commission over who has the ultimate decision-making authority over the property.
Citing State law RSA 31:112, the Conservation Commission says the Selectmen have final decision-making authority over every piece of property in town except a Town Forest. The Selectmen point to a document crafted by the Town Attorney outlining a decision-making process giving the Selectmen ultimate authority.
Last month, Selectman Les Babb told the Carroll County Independent that differing attitudes toward ATVs could be the reason for the disagreement. Saying that he has spent “hundreds of hours” reviewing the Town Forest stewardship plan, he told the paper he believes “based on soil types, plant life, delineated wetlands, animal habitats and wording about low impact uses that ATVs would be permissible, but only in a very limited area.”
Another Selectman, James Breslin, has publicly criticized the Forest Advisory Committee and Conservation Commission for not moving fast enough to consider requests for ATV use in the Forest.
In an e-mail to Forest Advisory Committee member Katie Gove published in the Independent, Breslin questioned whether the members of the Committee and Conservation Commission are “so blinded by their hatred of these ‘ATV people’ they have become too functionally crippled to help the land they purport to love.”
Breslin, who was removed as the Selectmen’s representative to the Forest Advisory Committee last month for inappropriate behavior, goes on in the e-mail to call the minutes of one of the Committee’s meetings a “gaggle fest,” adding that “Applicants have a right to a fair and timely hearing with no ‘what should we do’s’ and similar indications of organizational clutter.”