An overflow crowd of 150 people packed the Community Room at the Kilton Library in West Lebanon, N.H., last night to listen to representatives of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) describe expansion plans for the Silvio O. Conte Wildlife Refuge and to voice concerns with those plans.

After listening to USFWS officials Andy French, project leader for the Refuge, and Nancy McGarigal, natural resource planner, detail approaches USFWS is taking to expand the Refuge, many members of the audience expressed strong opposition to greater federal ownership of lands in the Upper Valley region. A common theme in many of the comments was that private ownership has protected land better than USFWS can. Another worry is that lands under the control of USFWS will be removed from active timberland management.

“Let us do our job,” said sawmill operator and NHTOA member Ben Crowell.

The Conte Refuge, established in 1991, covers the Connecticut River watershed in four states, from the Canadian border to the Atlantic Ocean, including nearly 8,400 acres in New Hampshire. It currently operates under a management plan adopted in October 1995. That plan is now being updated, with four proposals for expansion.

Andy French confirmed that over the course of 20 years of managing more than 37,000 acres in the Refuge, USFWS had harvested just 2,000 tons of wood chips – an average of three truckloads a year. The total acreage harvested in the Refuge to date is less than 1% of the total acreage.

That worries foresters, loggers, and sawmill operators, who are concerned that, in effect, any additional timberlands either bought by USFWS for the Refuge or covered by a USFWS easement will be removed from active management and thus from timber production.

Another concern for local towns is USFWS’s record of making what are called “Refuge Revenue Payments” in lieu of property taxes for lands brought into the Refuge. According to a study made by Innovative Natural Resource Solutions that was commissioned by USFWS, the agency typically pays just 25% to 46% of what it is supposed to. For many of the small, cash-strapped rural towns in the Upper Valley, more loss of tax income due to expansion of the Refuge would be devastating. Mr. French commented, however, that the Refuge does attract tourists, who often patronize local businesses.

Addressing another worry, Mr. French said USFWS will not use eminent domain to take control of lands “unless the landowner requests it.” He noted that the last time his agency used eminent domain was in the 1970s in Texas, and then only because Congress had told it to do so.  

By the meeting’s end, many in the audience were still not convinced the USFWS officials gave a good reason for federal ownership of timberlands within the Connecticut River watershed as opposed to private ownership. Over and over, commenters gave examples of timberland management that specifically included wildlife protection at the top of the priority list. “When I go out into the woods in the winter, I see lots and lots of animal tracks on private land,” said logger Rocky Bunnell, another NHTOA member who attended. “But when I come to federal land, there are far fewer tracks. That’s the difference for me right there.”