The Silvio Conte Wildlife Refuge, comprising the Connecticut River watershed from Canada to the Atlantic Ocean, crosses four states, including New Hampshire. Established under the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge Act of 1991, the Refuge currently operates under a management plan adopted in October 1995. The management alternative selected under the 1995 plan calls for a refuge composed of private (including easements) and public ownerships totaling 78,395 acres across all four states. In New Hampshire and Vermont the current plan calls for the refuge to purchase 1,200 acres (formal refuges), obtain conservation easements on 760 acres, and establish cooperative management agreements on 11,000 acres.
The USFWS, which manages these lands, is now updating its 15-year management plan, with four alternatives for expanding the Refuge.
This link to the environmental impact statement (EIS) summary does a good job explaining the process and providing maps of the USFWS proposal.
The EIS evaluates four alternatives (A through D). Alternative A is maintaining the current condition and level of activity. Alternatives B, C, and D propose to increase the size of the Silvio Conte Refuge through USFWS ownership by adding two new areas of USFWS ownership in N.H. – specifically, the Mascoma and Ashuelot watersheds. Alternative C is the agency’s preferred alternative.
Current N.H. USFWS Silvio Conte ownership acreage – 7,571
Alternative A, USFWS Silvio Conte N.H. ownership acreage – 8,717
Alternative B, USFWS Silvio Conte N.H. ownership acreage – 25,206
Alternative C, USFWS Silvio Conte N.H. ownership acreage – 53,350 (USFWS’s preferred alternative)
Alternative D, USFWS Silvio Conte N.H. ownership acreage – 55,485
In all these alternatives, the level of allowed forest management is minimal to non-existent. Currently, under Alternative A, the USFWS manages just 225 acres for Woodcock across the agency’s total 35,989-acre four-state ownership over 15 years. In its more “aggressive” management alternatives the USFWS proposes:
- Alternative B: Manage 7,660 acres for forest structure diversity over the next 15 years (510.6 acres/year), and create 775 acres of shrub land across a 96,703-acre four-state ownership, or
- Alternative C: Manage 11,550 acres for forest structure diversity over the next 15 years (770 acres/year) across a 197,296-acre four-state ownership.
The fourth alternative “D” is a wilderness alternative with no habitat management. This would occur over a 235,782-acre four-state ownership.
Negative economic impacts to forest products community (expansion)
Using the 2014 Plymouth State University timber harvesting economic model and the USFWS’ current level of forest management activity, the NHTOA calculated the economic activity lost to the N.H. forest products community and local economy from the additional USFWS ownership of New Hampshire timberland and their failure to manage the timber resource.
Alternative A - $73,032
Alternative B - $1,124,193
Alternative C - $2,918,373
Alternative D - $3,054,492
Negative economic impacts to forest products community (current acreage)
It could be argued the USFWS makes payments in lieu of tax (pilot) payments to the local communities that will overcome any economic losses these communities realize with Federal ownership. To see if this is true, the NHTOA used the 2014 Plymouth State University timber harvesting economic model on the USFWS’ current New Hampshire acreage.
In 2013, three N.H. towns collectively received $24,364 in pilot payments for 7,571 acres. Because it could be argued that a portion of these lands are not productive timberland, the NHTOA assumed only half produced merchantable timber. Assuming 0.5 cords of timber growth per acre per year, with a per-cord weight of 2.5 tons, these lands produce 4,732 tons of timber per year. The Plymouth State University timber harvesting economic model shows the annual timber harvesting economic activity lost on these acres:
Local jobs – 1.89
Estimated direct wages - $194,012
Estimated indirect wages – $37,856
Estimated induced wages - $66,248
Total economic output (wages, taxes, and products) - $482,664
Impacts to wildlife
The NHTOA also argues that given the low-level of current and proposed forest management on refuge lands, wildlife species dependent on mixed timber age classes and early successional habitat (e.g. Woodcock, Moose, etc.) will experience population decreases, as we already see in the U.S. Forest Service’s White Mountain National Forest.
In addition to these economic and forest/wildlife health reasons, the NHTOA has concerns with the process USFWS is using for planning the Refuge expansion, specifically eminent domain and the federal government’s ability to manage the additional acreage.
Eminent Domain (acquisition authority)
While developing the 1995 management plan, the USFWS refused to fully eliminate their ability to use eminent domain to expand refuge ownership. It is unclear what the proposed acquisition authority the USFWS is proposing in options C and D.
The Federal Government does not manage what it already has
The Federal government does not manage the New Hampshire lands it already controls. The fact that USFWS exceeded their target land acquisition goal (over the objection of many local communities) by almost 300 percent is a problem.
Moreover, this trend is repeated with other Federal agencies. For the past decade, the U.S. Forest Service has failed to achieve its forest management and wildlife habitat management goals. Using tax-payer money to add to federal ownership makes no sense.
If the concern is protection of wildlife habitat, forests, and agricultural lands, the Federal government and taxpayers will be better served with an expansion of working forest conservation easement programs such as the Forest Legacy program. Such easements will protect land from development and require forest and wildlife habitat management. Protecting land this way will be far less expensive than federal acquisition and the land will remain on the local tax rolls.