Ossipee Lake Natural Area
State-owned Ossipee Lake Natural Area, also known as Long Sands, is the rarest and most threatened of the lake’s special places.
Comprised of 400 acres with an extensive undeveloped shoreline on the southern part of the big lake, it is New Hampshire’s finest remaining example of a coastal plain pondshore, nurturing an array of rare plant species including Fine Grass-Leaved Goldenrod, Hairy Hudsonia, and Sand Cherry.
Biologists studying the preserve have found that it harbors natural communities that are not known to exist elsewhere in the world. Additionally, the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources says the Natural Area contains the remains of some of our area’s oldest settlements.
Background of the Property
Ossipee Lake Natural Area was originally part of a much larger tract of land which extended from the “Iron Works Falls” on the border of Freedom and Effingham, through land on Leavitt Bay (including the island), Broad Bay and on to the western side of Pine River and south to the Effingham border.
This land was variously owned by the Pepperell Manufacturing Company, Saco Water Power Company and Central Maine Power Company as protection of the water power source. Even when the land was acquired by property developers White and Sawyer in 1945, Central Maine Power reserved to itself all riparian, water and flowage rights of the waters.
Purchase by the State
The state purchased the preserve for $320,000 in 1969 and it is now managed by the New Hampshire Department of Resources and Economic Development (DRED). The transfer was subject to a deed provision specifying that the property be used for education or recreation.
Recreation has been a traditional use at the site since the lake began to be developed in the 1940s. As the number of powerboats grew, the isolated shoreline of the Natural Area became a popular gathering place for boaters to swim, fish, and sunbathe. In modern times, however, recreation soared with as many as 3,000 boaters at the site on a single day. DRED biologists and other researchers documented that recreational use was destroying the fragile habitat and creating public safety issues.
The unique nature of the Natural Area has been known for many years. Biologist and long-time lake resident Barre Hellquist has studied the preserve since the 1960s, and he included it in his 1971 monograph “Vascular Flora of Ossipee Lake New Hampshire and Its Shoreline.”
The Natural Area is also featured in Daniel Sperduto’s 1984 University of Vermont study “The Vegetation of Seasonally Flooded Sand Plain Wetlands in New Hampshire.” Sperduto further studied the Natural Area for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the 1990s under the joint auspices of DRED’s New Hampshire Natural Heritage Bureau and the Eastern Heritage Task Force of The Nature Conservancy.
As the author of the group’s 1994 report “Coastal Plain Pondshores and Basin Marshes in New Hampshire,” Sperduto wrote that the Natural Area is “N.H.’s most significant sandy pondshore ecosystem, including the largest collection in N.H. of rare plants among pondshores and basin marsh communities.”
The report states Ossipee Lake Natural Area has “the highest species richness of any site sampled in N.H., with a total of 146 species. This is a full 50% of all species documented from pondshores and basin marshes in the State. Other pondshore sites have richness, but Ossipee has numerous unique taxa, covers a larger area, and has a broader diversity of habitats.”
The report further states that “The inland beach strand community is an assemblage of plants which apparently does not occur anywhere else in the world outside Ossipee Lake.”
Sperduto concludes the report by saying that state officials and the New Hampshire Natural Heritage Bureau “are committed to making a more concerted effort to work with local residents and planners to maintain traditional recreational use of Ossipee Lake without sacrificing the unique features of the Natural Area. Support and enthusiasm from local residents is crucial to a successful solution to maintaining this unique site.”
The plan to balance preservation and recreation that Sperduto and his fellow researchers envisioned in 1994 did not materialize and DRED initiated a follow-up study by the Natural Heritage Bureau in July, 2003. The resulting report designated Ossipee Lake Natural Area as a state “hotspot” – an environmentally significant property that is seriously threatened. The report stated:
“Erosion and extensive recreational use of the Ossipee Lake Natural Area have severely degraded the rare coastal sand plain pondshore natural communities and two rare plant populations, and have eliminated populations of two state threatened species and two state watch list species.”
The report went on to detail damage to rare plants along the shore, human waste found on footpaths that have been beaten into the inland vegetation, and a large padlocked storage box erected by boaters to store lawn chairs and recreation equipment. Further:
“There has… been a significant increase in downed trees and driftwood along the shoreline due in large part to the erosion of the soils that support the trees… Trash and clothing litter the shoreline, signs are gone or vandalized, numerous fire pits are evident, [and there are] small to large structures built from driftwood.”
A Call to Action
Despite the damage, the State’s research team confirmed the overall integrity of the natural communities at the site and the continued presence of rare plants. Among the plants cited in the report are Hairy Hudsonia, Fine Grass-Leaved Goldenrod, and Sand Cherry. The State report concluded with an urgent call for protection and restoration efforts at the site:
“Management of recreational use is necessary at this site to prevent the loss of the remaining rare species and attempt to restore natural community and rare species habitat conditions… Restoring the pondshore communities and rare species from the site is still possible provided that steps be taken as soon as possible to protect the area.”
In August 2007 DRED closed a majority of the Natural Area’s shoreline to allow it to recover while a management plan for the property could be written. In November 2008, DRED convened a working group of lake stakeholders – including the Alliance, members of the boating community and other State agencies – who helped craft a plan that balances recreation and preservation at the site. That plan went into effect in June 2009 and has been a success.