Last night, in a full auditorium at the Keene Public Library in Keene, N.H., the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) held the second public hearing on its proposed expansion of the Silvio Conte Wildlife Refuge. The Service heard concerns from the public about the economic and land use impacts the proposed 107,838-acre expansion of federal ownership will have on local tax bases, jobs in the forest products industry, and loss of traditional land uses. Worries were also raised that USFWS may use eminent domain to take land.

 

Similar concerns were expressed Monday evening at the first public hearing, held in St. Johnsbury, Vt. At this hearing, USFWS heard overwhelming opposition to the proposed expansion from an audience of 60 individuals and local businesses.

 

Established under the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge Act of 1991, the Refuge currently covers 7,571 acres in New Hampshire and 26,600 acres in Vermont (far exceeding the original plan’s proposed 1,200 acres). This week’s hearings are part of a legal process to gather input on a proposed Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

 

“I really hope the Service takes the public’s comments to heart and does a better job at getting local input from the communities, businesses, and local land use partners and organizations.” said Jasen Stock, executive director of the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association (NHTOA). “A message we all heard loud and clear at the Keene hearing was a concern for the economic impact this expansion of federal ownership will have on the local economies and what it will mean for traditional land use.”

 

A concern raised by area selectmen, land use partner organizations, and others attending Thursday’s meeting was that the USFWS has done a poor job soliciting public input from all stakeholders, and that many affected parties (e.g. select boards, land use partners, N.H. state agencies, and citizens) are still just learning about this comprehensive and complex proposal. Several selectmen testifying at the hearing in Keene said they had only very recently heard about the proposal and thus have not had the time to review the 300-page CCP/EIS. This is an important point, since this proposal could shift as much as 30 to 40 percent of the land in some communities to federal ownership. The USFWS needs to put the brakes on their expansion plans and get more public input.   

 

This comment came after photos of USFWS refuge signs were presented showing that the USFWS has already begun acquiring interests in land in Canaan and Dorchester, N.H., before the public comment period had even begun.

 

“The USFWS needs to do a much better job reaching out to all the stakeholders affected by this proposal, and to look at options other than federal ownership.” said Stock. “New Hampshire’s history of working with local land trusts and local communities through the use of working forest conservation easements is a cost-effective way to protect land and wildlife, keep the land on the tax rolls, allow traditional land uses, and enable the land to contribute to the local forest products economy. The federal government can’t manage what they already have, so why are we even talking about more federal ownership?” The NHTOA has noted that for the past decade, the federal U.S. Forest Service has failed to achieve its forest management and wildlife habitat management goals in New Hampshire’s White Mountains National Forest.

 

The USFWS, which manages the lands in the Silvio Conte Wildlife Refuge, is now updating its 15-year management plan, with four alternatives for expanding the Refuge. Click here to read a description of these alternatives on the NHTOA website and why NHTOA opposes the expansion.