Freedom—November. 1, 2023—When state official Don Kent assembled lake stakeholders in 2007 to help write a management plan balancing recreation and preservation at Ossipee Lake Natural Area, he cautioned that no one would get everything they wanted.
The determining factor, he said, would be what was best for the site’s rare plants, wildlife and ancient artifacts, a decision that led to part of the shore being made available for recreation, while the rest was closed to recover from decades of abuse by boaters.
Since then, the cooperation of boaters in the arrangement has had its ups and downs, but the headline from last week’s Natural Area forum for lake stakeholders at Calumet Conference Center was that rare plants and natural communities are continuing their recovery and holding their own.
One hundred feet of newly-installed deer fencing at what’s known as the Big Pine proved to be an effective improvement in protecting the plant Hudsonia this year, and surveys showed the documented acreage containing Bog Birch—the state’s only known location of the shrub—increased from 4 to 10.5.
While the plant news was welcome, the continued lack of state resources to address boater compliance at the site was a familiar disappointment for lake property owner organizations like Long Sands Association (LSA).
“I was hoping to get some resolutions, but my feeling is that not much is going to change,” said LSA President Mark Eisener, one of three LSA members who attended the meeting.
The Long Sands community abuts the Natural Area property and is directly affected by what takes place there. Its members have seen the number of rafting boats soar since the pandemic, and have watched as violations of state regulations have become more brazen.
Many property owners remember the decades of state neglect of the property during which the lawlessness was dire enough to alarm local police officials, and a State Representative described the site a “minefield with used toilet paper.”
That changed after the state adopted a management plan in 2009 that challenged boaters to influence one another to comply with the site regulations or face having all shoreline recreation prohibited.
It was a deterrent that worked, until it didn’t. Now, the continued decline in boater cooperation has groups like LSA fearful that a recurring failure to address the compliance situation is once again inviting trouble, especially given reports of aggressive behavior among the boaters who flaunt the rules.
“My concern as always is the quality of the water and the number of boats,” Eisener said. “The lake is becoming like the wild west.”
Lack of Deterrence
Eisener’s sentiments are widely shared on the lake, and not just by property owners. Boaters from outside the area who raft at the Natural Area say they don’t understand why so many people defy the state by trespassing, using portable grills and taking their dogs onto the property despite extensive awareness campaigns, brochures and signage.
“There’s no talking to these people,” a boater told Ossipee Lake Alliance earlier this year. “They don’t want anyone telling them what they can do.”
Only one boater attended last week’s stakeholder forum at Calumet, and if the state has a plan to recruit others to revive the boater-to-boater influencing campaign that is central to the property’s management plan, it didn’t present it.
That said, the property’s steward, the Department of Forests and Lands, has not been totally inactive on compliance. A suggestion earlier this year by State Representative Mark McConkey that the fine for violations be increased to a meaningful level has gotten traction within the agency, per Director Patrick Hackley.
The rule-making process for increasing the penalty amount is a long one, and it involves a joint effort with the legislature. But the process has started.
An increase in the fine could be a deterrent if there are Forest Rangers to issue tickets. Forest Protection Bureau Chief Steven Sherman said there will be more rangers next summer and, he hopes, more site visits. But forest fire emergencies can make that impossible, as was the case this year.
More promising is the use of wireless technology to identify violators and send tickets by mail. Tests of the method have been promising, according to Forest Ranger Thomas Trask. Until the price of a ticket is increased, however, the method will have limited utility.
New Ideas Needed
Those who regularly attend the biannual Natural Area meetings say what’s missing is new members and new ways of creatively approaching old challenges. They also pointed to key stakeholders who did not attend.
The N.H. Fish & Game representative missed the discussion about the consequences of unlimited, unmonitored free public access to the lake from its Route 25 boat ramp, including over-crowded boating conditions, and cars and trailers parked on the shoulder of the highway when the ramp’s parking lot is full.
Marine Patrol was also missing, but sent an email saying its officers issued 11 summonses and 40 warnings on the lake for the season, a seemingly small number given the lake’s crowded conditions. The agency has struggled for years to recruit new officers.
“The lake community understands that shortfalls in funding and staffing limit the ability of the state to ensure boating safety and support a high-quality recreational experience,” said Ossipee Lake Alliance’s Susan Marks after the meeting.
“But understanding doesn’t mean the state shouldn’t be required to do better,” she added.