Ossipee — May 3, 2007 — When state parks officials touch down here on Saturday near the rim of the state’s fifth largest lake, the agency asked to coordinate environmental protection, recreation and economics will confront a long-building dissatisfaction with its leadership on and off the water.Looking to mold the future of its oversight of a rare state-owned tract of Ossipee Lake waterfront, the N.H. Department of Resources and Economic Development at 8:30 a.m. Saturday will wade into a half day of public discourse at the conference center at Camp Calumet, on Ossipee Lake Road.
Four hundred wild brush-tangled acres at Long Sands — the lake’s largest undeveloped parcel — are said to conceal rare plants and prehistoric Native American relics. It has sat at the forefront of a heated debate here over a proposal to build a town beach, one that pitted public access against the threat of environmental degradation before the proposal stalled over politics last year.
Meanwhile, many complain that the Ossipee Lake Natural Area, and the water that laps against it, has been left by the state to drift without a rudder. Environmental and anti-vandalism controls on the lake and the land, complain local officials and a group of lake front homeowners, have gone largely unenforced by thinly funded state agencies, including DRED and state environmental and water police.
Furthermore, the Ossipee Lake Alliance, the lake’s most prominent homeowners’ group, has been pushing DRED for years to permanently preserve the land. The measures put forward by the Alliance seeks to end any hope the town has of building a public beach there, and would prohibit boaters from paddling to shore, in a bid to curb drinking parties and erosion.
But given that water patrols have failed so far to stop years of illegal docking at an offshore sandbar, which some say has led to dangerous concentration of urine, who would police it, and how, ask frustrated lakefront residents?
“DRED does not need more input. It needs to make a decision and take action,” said Alliance director David Smith, who claims many boaters have agreed the land should be closed to boat access.
“Yet DRED has not demonstrated that it can get such a plan on the table, let alone gain the support of Marine Patrol and Fish and Game to make it work.”
But the town, following the lead of State Rep. Harry Merrow, set aside $20,000 to study the grounds, aiming to eventually engineer an environmentally sensitive boardwalk to a beach front. As he spearheaded the drive last year as a selectman, Merrow became deeply at odds with the alliance over the beach.
Both sides, however, have complained the state has provided inconsistent direction and has failed to enforce even the current laws, as budget cuts thinned the ranks of environmental protections across the state.
Nearly half of 200 lake dwellers, and residents and business owners of nearby communities surveyed by the alliance were critical of the state, Smith said. Topping the list are state funding levels of programs to rid the lake of invasive milfoil, a lake-choking weed. Management of the Natural Area is a close second.
Smith said DRED Commissioner George Bald declined to send a representative to a recent Alliance forum in which appearances were made by the N.H. Department of Environmental Services, Loon Preservation and the New Hampshire Lakes Association. The cry for heightened scrutiny comes as the natural area’s thickly gnarled wetlands remain a stand-alone of public ownership amidst increasingly valuable private lake front homes. Some have more than doubled in price in the last decade.
There is no town beach on Ossipee Lake. Meanwhile, Bald, who was reappointed last year after a stint away from the agency, appears to remain a formidable obstacle to a beach.
Merrow put his plan on hold after Bald was chosen by the governor, saying he respected the commissioner but that the two did not see eye to eye. The alliance says Bald had rejected a set of beach plans nearly a decade earlier.
While the state has laws that appear to limit how many boats can congregate near the shore, droves of craft in high season flock to a floating party at the sand bar. In effect, the Natural Area is now an unregulated beach, many complain, replete with illegal fires and litterbugs.
Environmentalists say the lack of a patrol presence has left rare ecosystems at risk. Further down the list on the alliance survey, released last week in anticipation of the DRED visit, were boating safety and wildlife protection.
“Just over half of the respondents, 51 percent, said it was ‘extremely important’ to protect wildlife on the lake, including eagles and loons. At the bottom of the list was ‘better communication with local elected officials,’ ranked as ‘extremely important’ by just 15 percent of those who completed the survey,” Smith said. In the survey, 63 percent cited at the top of the list milfoil funding as “extremely important,” while 54 cited permanent protection of the natural area.
At the Calumet conference, officials will explain current rules and new legislation. Then meeting-goers will be broken into groups to discuss options and resources. Findings will be posted at the Division of Forests and Lands web site at www.nhdfl.org.