Natural Area Working Group Settles In

Ossipee – November 16, 2008 – There was a mood of optimism and cooperation in Ossipee Town Hall on Friday as boaters, environmentalists and state officials settled into the task of finding common ground in implementing the first-ever management plan for 400-acre Ossipee Lake Natural Area.

The 17-member Natural Area Working Group was formed by DRED in September as a way to involve lake stakeholders as advisers in the plan’s deployment next summer.

Setting the stage for the group, Don Kent, administrator of the N.H. Natural Heritage Bureau, said all eyes in the state are on the Natural Area project, which seeks to balance recreation and preservation at the fragile site.

The basics of the proposed plan are clear, with a portion of the shoreline to be designated for low-impact recreation and education, and the interior and the remainder of the shoreline to be closed for restoration and preservation.

But the devil is in the details, and as head of the Working Group, it’s Kent’s job to capture and assess ideas on how to address issues ranging from water quality to swimmer safety to nuisance behavior. By winter’s end, the agency will present its final recommendations to the governor.

Kent said the state’s primary responsibility is to protect the site’s natural and historic resources, which he said are found throughout the property and the near-shore waters. But he added he’s optimistic that recreation interests can be accommodated if there is public awareness and cooperation.

“We’re not here to look backward and assign blame to boaters or to the state for the damage that’s already been done,” he said. “Our job is to look forward and make this plan work.”

To clear the air about what he said was “a lot of misinformation” about the property, Kent and DRED environmental information specialist Melissa Coppola presented a chronology of research studies, from the early 1960s to the present, documenting the site’s rare plants and species richness.

Asked how unusual the site is, Coppola said some of the property’s natural communities exist nowhere else in the world.

Public Use Area
After the presentation, the group got down to work with a discussion about how to manage the public use portion of the property, a long stretch of sandy shoreline interspersed with rare plants and natural communities that have been under stress. Kent said the goal of the state is to permit recreation at that location while fulfilling its statutory preservation requirements.

Wayne Killam, who said some of his Lakeside Landing Marina customers use the site, suggested low fencing in addition to signs to keep people in designated areas and away from the interior land.

A question from environmentalist Susan Slack asking whether the state assumes it has a responsibility to provide bathroom facilities prompted a lengthy discussion about public health issues.

Alliance director David Smith suggested that land issues and water issues be considered separately. He said members of the boating community have been discouraging people from using the woods as a bathroom, and their efforts combined with the fences and signs can potentially resolve the onshore issue.

In regard to the water, Jacquie Colburn of DES’ Lakes Management and Protection Program said large numbers of boaters using the lake as a bathroom during the course of a long day is not unique to the Natural Area. She said DES has been looking at innovative solutions to the problem state-wide, including whether portable floating bathrooms can work.

Bud Berry, also from DES, said water tests next year may not immediately show if there is a bacteria problem. He said bacteria usually builds up over time and requires long-term monitoring to determine the environmental impact. Boater Allen McKenney said some people already bring portable on-boat toilets to the site, and he thinks the state should encourage others to do so.

Representing the Town of Freedom, John Shipman said the “carry in, carry out” principal of preventing litter can also be applied to the bathroom issue. He said purchasing a portable on-boat toilet and knowing where the public bathrooms are on the lake, such as at marinas, should be a matter of personal responsibility.

Enforcement Issues
Enforcement, perhaps the most difficult issue the state faces in making the management plan successful, has assumed an even larger importance in the current economic climate.

Josh Dirth, from the state’s Marine Patrol, said his agency can help, but only so much. Once parts of the shoreline are officially closed to the public, Marine Patrol officers can arrest trespassers in addition to enforcing boating regulations. Unfortunately, fewer Marine Patrol officers are likely to be on the lake next year since two positions have already been cut.

As far as enforcement on the public use part of the shoreline is concerned, DRED official Kent was blunt, telling the group his agency isn’t budgeted to fund compliance in natural areas. Beyond an initial period of creating public awareness, he said, local resources and the boating community will have to assume a large part of the responsibility for making the plan work.

To underscore the importance of such a volunteer effort, Kent said the state will likely close the entire shoreline if the public does not cooperate with the plan.

The Alliance’s Smith said he thought compliance with this year’s restrictions was good and that most boaters will comply if the state’s rules are clear, adding that there is still a lot of confusion about what is permitted and what isn’t.

Boater John Panagitakos agreed, saying people who rent or are just visiting the lake for the day are the ones most likely to break the rules because they are unaware of them. He said it is important to reach out to such people.

Consensus Items
Kent said the state has been rethinking the location of the open portion of the shoreline, which now runs from the tree known as Lone Pine east to the buffer zone with the Long Sands residential community.

He said DRED favors shifting the open-use part of the shoreline to the west based on practical and environmental considerations, including maximizing the protection of the property and obtaining the largest possible gain in restoration efforts.

Boaters in the Working Group said the sandy area of the new location has more beach-like space and will make it easier to block the interior property with fences. Jean Hansen of Long Sands Association said that since the new area is further removed from residential properties, it could stop people from illegally accessing the site from Long Sands Road.

On a voice vote with no objections, the Working Group recommended that DRED shift the open shoreline toward the west, and that it fence restricted areas in addition to posting signs showing use regulations.

The group also established a sub-committee to detail sanitation options. Town of Effingham representative Sheila Jones and DRED Parks and Recreation official Kevin Donovan will report to the group at the next meeting, tentatively scheduled for mid-January.

Kent said the state wants the final plan to be measurable, and toward that goal the Working Group decided informally that volunteers should be organized to conduct a spring shoreline clean-up. Once the shore is certified as free of litter and human waste, it will be easier to determine how well the rules work next summer.

Additional agenda items for January include discussions about permitted recreation, public education and awareness, and the potential for a designated area for kayaks and canoes.

Natural Area Working Group Settles In