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Conservationists discuss funding with Kuster

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BRETTON WOODS — Five members of New Hampshire’s conservation-environmental community held a distanced round-table discussion on the full and permanent funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund with Congresswomen Annie Kuster (D-Hopkinton) on Wednesday, Aug. 26, at the AMC Highland Center during her first stop on a three-day stay in northern N.H.

Susan Arnold, vice president of the Appalachian Mountain Club, hosted the group in Thayer Hall.

The director of North Country programming and outreach for the AMC, Chris Thayer, stopped by. He is winding up his work at AMC before taking on the duties as executive director of the Ammonoosuc Conservation Trust, headquartered in Franconia.

White Mountain National Forest Deputy Supervisor Diane Taliaferro explained that Derek Ibarquen, the new forest supervisor, will be starting his new job Monday at USFS headquarters in Campton.

Other attendees included Phil Bryce, director of the state Division of Parks and Recreation; Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests President Jack Savage of Middleton; and Rob Riley, president of the Northern Forest Center

All of the participants took time to thank Kuster and the rest of the N.H. congressional delegation (Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, and U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas, all Democrats) for voting in July for the Great American Outdoors Act that funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Support for permanently funding LWCF came from every quarter of the state, including the Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce, based in North Conway.

“Non-profits, businesses, local elected officials, recreationalists and other stakeholders created a powerful coalition that led to success,” Riley said.

With the program fully funded at $900 million a year across the country, it’s anticipated that the Granite State will receive about $4.5 million annually for various conservation efforts. Taxpayer dollars are not used. Rather, revenues generated from energy companies by drilling offshore oil and gas on the Outer Continental Shelf are segregated in this fund.

The just-passed legislation also allocates $9.5 billion over the next five years to address critical maintenance backlogs on America’s public lands. In New Hampshire, this will help address the more than $43 million in backlogged maintenance projects already identified on public lands, much on the White Mountain National Forest.

Taliaferro also thanked the AMC for hosting Kuster and members of the conservation community.

“We’re very excited about the deferred maintenance component of the act,” she said, noting that the list of 2021 projects must be submitted up the USFS’ chain of command within days.

Taliaferro explained that the Forest Service had not yet determined exactly how the list of backlogged maintenance projects would be determined for years 2022-25 but said its “checks and balances” would include: communication with non-profit organizations, such as AMC partnerships and The Conservation Fund; municipalities — the host communities — in which the nearly 800,000-acre WMNF is located, some in Maine; plus various stakeholders.

She pointed to the Rumney Rocks project, completed in February, as an example of a community working with the USFS/WMNF to achieve mutual goals. Top considerations in choosing which backlogged maintenance project to address include access to public lands; encouraging a diversity of users; maintaining recreation opportunities; and customer service.

Likely to be on the five-year list are campgrounds, hiking and snowmobile trails, toilets and possibly parking. “We’re looking at maintaining what’s already in place and not new projects,” the deputy supervisor said.

Kuster reminded everyone thate funding opportunities exist through the Northern Border Regional Commission. A $250,000 NBRC grant will provide the bulk of the funding to rehabilitate the Nansen Ski Jump in Milan, opening up the possibility of bringing back competitive ski jumping to the Androscoggin Valley.

Savage suggested the next big effort to increase funding should be directed at helping to keep working forests in private hands, Savage said.

The Conservation Fund recently initiated a Forest Legacy project in Gorham and Shelburne that seeks to buy conservation easements on four tracts totaling nearly 5,000 acres from the Gorham Land Co.

”The problem now is that private landowners must be able to be very patient, since they could have to wait up to seven years before funds become available for their project,” Savage said, adding that the forest society has an opportunity right now in the Durham area, “but Forest Legacy needs more funding.”

He also touted the importance of the just-achieved victory to secure permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

“The forest society’s Moose Mountains Reservation, now enlarged to some 2,500 acres, is just one example of how LWCF has strengthened the connection between healthy forests and a healthy quality of life,” he said.

When the society bought the reservation’s core acreage, its foresters knew it would be a few decades before timber harvesting could take place. So, the availability of LWCF funds “changed the trajectory” of these towns — Middleton and Brookfield — in which it is located, he said.

One benefit of working in New Hampshire is that open lines of communication are the norm, Bryce said. For example, federal, state and non-profit organizations have exchanged information on how handling the surge of outdoor recreationalists that arrived after Gov. Chris Sununu with the pandemic.

The state park system, with the exception of most of Franconia Notch, expanded the use of its modern reservations system, which has been well-accepted by the public, Bryce said. State Parks employees also stepped up under stressful conditions, but the lack of sufficient workers meant Mollidgewock, Coleman and Milan State Parks did not open.

Bryce said he is concerned that some towns with worthy projects might not be able to come up with “match” monies or have sufficient administrative staff to prepare applications. He would like to see that addressed.

Riley spoke enthusiastically about the seven-participant Bike Borderlands trails consortium that includes the Coos Cycling Club of Gorham and Parker Mountain Trails in Littleton.

The North Country is continuing to reinvent itself by drawing new residents to live and work here, he said, sharing a link to an online video series that highlights young adults pursuing their livelihoods in the North Country: