Pisgah State Park: A splintered vision

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Pisgah State Park is a 13,668-acre woodland that stretches across Chesterfield, Winchester and Hinsdale, with most of the acreage, 8,320, in Winchester. It opened to the public in 1972 and was established with funding from the state and the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, which was established by Congress in 1964 "to safeguard our natural areas, water resources and cultural heritage, and to provide recreation opportunities to all Americans."

According to the application for funds filed in 1968, the acquisition of land for what was then termed "Southwestern State Park" was for the purpose of "establishing a new multi-purpose state park." At the time, the area was known as the Pisgah Wilderness.

While the application notes "the entire area is unused except for periodic, small-scale logging and summertime use of about two dozen cottages," facilities at the proposed state park are intended for both day-use and camping, "with emphasis on 'wilderness' experience to the user. Multiple purpose activities and facilities will include swimming, boating, picnicking, camping and nature study."

After the park was approved, and for 40 years, logging ceased in Pisgah. But in 2011, after a long process that included multiple public meetings and a 20-member steering committee, Bald approved the Pisgah State Park Management Plan. At the time, the Department of Natural & Cultural Resources was known as the Department of Resources and Economic Development, or DRED. The name changed in 2017.

"The plan still holds up today," Bald told the Reformer. "People worked hard on it knowing a lot of people were going to be looking at it."

Opposition to logging

But while the management plan was being written, and since it was approved, a handful of people have regularly expressed dismay that timber harvesting is being allowed in the park.

"Originally designated as a wilderness park, [Pisgah State Park] has been subjected to several timber 'harvests,' including large clear-cut areas, and is about to endure yet another large one," wrote John Koopmann, on behalf of Pisgah Defenders, in a letter to Catherine Corkery, the chapter director and field organizer for the New Hampshire Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Koopmann noted the next logging operation, which occurs every two years, would remove nearly 7,000 trees from the park.

"Pisgah Defenders is now challenging these actions in light of the violation of the Park's original mandate and how it ruins the intended recreational elements the Park is supposed to support, while solely benefiting the timber industry and the coffers of the N.H. Division of Forests and Lands," wrote Koopmann.

Corkery told the Reformer she had no comment at this time.

Kathy Thatcher, of Chesterfield, is a member of the steering committee and a former president of the Friends of Pisgah, an all-volunteer organization that, with the blessing of the state, maintains trails in the park and operates the park's visitor center.

"When they formed the park, they took land from at least 10 families using eminent domain for a park," said Thatcher. "You can't do that for commercial logging operations. It's unethical."

The management plan segmented Pisgah into three areas — one undeveloped (4,723 acres), another available for selective logging (3,677 acres) and a third (4,961 acres) eligible for clear-cutting. This means up to 64 percent of the park is accessible to commercial logging, with clear-cutting of stands of five to 30 acres, an average of 63 acres, per year.

"Pisgah Defenders strongly disagrees with the current management plan's scope of commercial timber harvesting and its impact on the park's primary outdoor recreation mission, ecological values, and historic resources," states the group's website. "Although logging is an important part of New Hampshire's economic and cultural heritage, we feel that the scale of logging happening in Pisgah State Park now, and planned for the future, is not in keeping with the park's original purpose."

"This is, first and foremost, a recreational area," said Thatcher, who is now a spokeswoman for Pisgah Defenders, which is not connected to the Friends of Pisgah except for the past membership of its members. "It was intended to be very undeveloped."

A violation of the LWCF Act?

In 1967, the state hired Per Nylen/Landscape Architect and Carl Carlozzi/Resource Planning and Conservation Consultant to do a feasibility study and report on a proposed park in Cheshire County in advance of an application of funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Between 1968 and 1976, the state of New Hampshire received three grants from the LWCF totaling a little more than $1 million.

According to the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, "No property acquired or developed with assistance under this section shall, without the approval of the Secretary, be converted to other than public outdoor recreation use. The Secretary shall approve a conversion only if the Secretary finds it to be in accordance with the then-existing comprehensive statewide outdoor recreation plan and only on such conditions as the Secretary considers necessary to ensure the substitution of other recreation properties of at least equal fair market value and of reasonably equivalent usefulness and location."

Believing the state had violated the conversion prohibition when it authorized the management plan, the Friends of Pisgah submitted an appeal to the National Park Service in 2012.

"In the Plan, forestry has taken priority over the outdoor recreational purposes for which the park was formed, violating the letter of the Land Act and its core purpose of public outdoor recreation," wrote Amy Manzelli, of BCM Environmental Land Law, a law firm in Concord. "The project proposal for the acquisition of Pisgah State Park does not list commercial timber harvesting as an acceptable land use practice and does not 'clearly describe' any commercial timber harvesting activities that would occur at Pisgah State Park."

The implementation of the management plan, she wrote, constitutes a conversion under the LWCF Act and any conversion has to be approved by the National Forest Service.

"So far as we have been able to determine, New Hampshire did not consult with [the National Park Service] ... and therefore the ongoing conversion is unauthorized," wrote Manzelli.

In response to Manzelli's letter, Dennis R. Reidenbach, northeast regional director for the U.S. National Park Service, wrote that timber harvesting is well within the scope of the LWCF Act. He noted that a review of the Pisgah project file "has confirmed that from the earliest acquisition project the State recognized the need for 'forestry improvement work' and for forest management programs at Pisgah State Park. ... This further supports our conclusion that timber harvesting has always been envisioned for Pisgah State Park as a secondary and compatible use to public outdoor recreation uses, and as such, no ... conversion has been triggered by this acceptable forest management method."

Into the thicket of documents

While the only mention of timber cutting in the 1968 application for funds is "forestry improvement," the 2011 management plan states "DRED documents from the 1960s concerning the purchase of Pisgah specify that forest management activities including timber harvesting will take place on the tract."

According to the 1967 feasibility study prepared by Nylen and Carlozzi, "On the major portions of the subject tracts there is evidence of heavy timber cutting approximately 20 years ago. ... The principal use of the property is woodland and there is no expected change in use, although the woodlands will benefit from a sustained yield forest management program. ... Forestry improvement work will be done in those areas that were heavily logged in earlier days."

In 1968, R.J. Crowley, who was the the commissioner of DRED, submitted a memo to then Gov. John King and the New Hampshire Executive Council, requesting an approval of the acquisition of land for what was to become Pisgah State Park.

"Under our policy for the multiple land management of our major parks for forestry and wildlife purposes ... the Division of Resources Development and ... the Fish and Game Department will be enabled to improve the forest stands and wildlife aspect of the park," wrote Crowley.

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Prior to 1968, most of Pisgah was in the hands of three owners — Dickinson Lumber Company in the south, Cersosimo Lumber Company in the north and Wakefield Dort to the west. Before the state bought the land, 1 million board feet of timber per year was harvested from Pisgah land holdings.

"Current suggested cutting levels in the [2011] management plan are approximately a quarter of the historic cutting levels," according to "A Tour of the Pisgah Documents," a report prepared in 2013 by former Forest Management Bureau Administrator Ken Desmarais for the Division of Forest and Lands and since updated by William Guinn, the current Administrator of the Forest Management Bureau.

"The forest management projects at Pisgah truly are compatible and secondary to outdoor recreational uses," wrote Gail A. Wolek in 2013, deputy director of DRED and what is now known as the Department of Natural & Cultural Resources. "Lands identified for forest management in the Pisgah management plan only sum up to 22 percent of the total acreage, of which only 2 percent of the total acreage will be operated on at any one time and always with recreational goals in mind."

"The areas they are going to be cutting, they could probably triple the cuts and still not affect the health of the park," said Bald. "They are being very reasonable about what they are doing. It doesn't hurt the forest; it helps."

In her letter, Manzelli also expressed concern that the park was reclassified as a reservation and its management was transferred from the Division of Parks to the Division of Forests and Lands in 2008.

According to New Hampshire statutes, all public land under the authority of what is now known as the Department of Natural & Cultural Resources, whether it's a state forest, park or natural historic area is considered a reservation, wrote Wolek in response to the Manzelli letter.

"Pisgah is and always has been since state purchase and by state law, a state reservation," she wrote. In addition, "Pisgah does not and has never had any zoning that would have given primary jurisdiction to the Division of Parks and Recreation. To the contrary, nearly all of Pisgah is and always has been zoned Forestry Land Use."

The world has changed since 2011

The management plan maintains clear-cutting will encourage "a balance of hardwood and softwood composition and a diversity of species throughout the area," but another member of the steering committee, Tom Wessels, said he has concerns about how the state is conducting its management of the park.

"One of the striking things about Pisgah is that a large chunk of the western side of the park — over 6,000 contiguous acres — was never cleared for agricultural land," said Wessels, a terrestrial ecologist and a professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at Antioch University New England in Keene. "Because of this, it is a forest that is older than our other regional forest with at least three old-growth stands with trees over 300 years of age.

Wessels noted that this portion of Pisgah is free of invasive plants.

"Where the state is clear-cutting, invasive plants are establishing, which very much degrades the forest ecosystem," he said.

Wessels, the author of "The Myth of Progress" and four other books, also said he is concerned about what clear-cutting means for the environment.

"This kind of logging hastens climate change by releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide from soil decomposition following the clear-cuts," he said. "Then if the chipped wood from the whole tree harvests goes to fuel electric plants it puts up twice as much carbon dioxide as burning coal."

"The sentiment among foresters, loggers and some members of the public is the forest is unhealthy unless we log it every seven years," said Kathy Thatcher's husband, Jon Thatcher, a physician at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. "Were the forests unhealthy before white men started cutting them down 200 years ago?"

"There is no credible evidence that the forests that have been harvested or are slated for harvest at Pisgah need management to stay healthy," wrote David Foster, director of the Harvard Forest, a 20-acre tract in the heart of Pisgah, in an email to the Reformer.

The tract was purchased by Harvard University in the early 1920s to protect old-growth forests from logging, wrote Foster. "Due to the near complete absence of old-growth and 'virgin' — never directly managed or impacted by humans — in New England, this tract has been a unique and invaluable resource for studies of natural processes."

Foster wrote this remained true after the old-growth forest was blown down in the 1938 hurricane.

"The resulting studies help to interpret nature but they also provide critical insights for management," he wrote. "The Harvard Forest approach to management has always been based on trying to work with nature and based on an understanding of how forests develop and change in the absence of human impacts."

Foster takes issue with forest managers who contend timber harvesting is necessary for the health of a forest and its wildlife.

"How can it be said that health is advanced by killing trees? The argument of 'forest health' is most often advanced by proponents of harvesting who bring hubris to their interpretations and believe that the forests require humans to function well. There is no evidence to support that view. Pisgah forests would remain healthier without humans intervening to kill large numbers of trees."

Foster, the author of "Thoreau's Country — Journey through a Transformed Landscape" and "New England Forests in Time — The Environmental Consequences of 1000 years of Change in New England," believes the state of New New Hampshire is "extremely short-sighted" in its extensive management of Pisgah State Forest.

"Beyond the Harvard Forest tract there are extensive areas of the state park where smaller pockets of old-growth forest exist, many sites where pockets of old growth were blown down and not salvaged following the 1938 hurricane, and other areas where old growth was logged in the 1920s or later and the stumps remain," he wrote. "The value of these areas will be compromised by logging.

Foster believes Pisgah represents an opportunity for the state to dedicate the forests of Pisgah to a study of wildland management, rather than forest management.

"Pisgah could be an expansive area of wildland forest where natural processes alone control the fate and dynamics of the forests," he wrote.

For the Thatchers, there is an aesthetic impact to clear-cutting that also should be considered. After a tract is clear-cut, he said, what grows back is usually one variety, rather than the mixed forest that was there before, making the area more prone to disease and invasive plants. "Where once were big, beautiful oaks and maples is now a wasteland."

Thatcher said he, his wife and Pisgah Defenders said they aren't going to give up the fight, and might pursue legal action to restrict logging in the park.

"It's the public's park," he insisted.

"We would like them to come back to the table and create a larger area that is forested wilderness," said Kathy Thatcher.

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or raudette@reformer.com.


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