Memorable compromise in Franconia Notch
Franconia Notch, that “huge museum of curiousities” (according to a tourist brochure from a century ago) or “cornucopia of natural and scenic wonders” (as this newspaper described it earlier this year), includes the waterfalls and The Basin (a giant natural stone bowl), the gorge known as The Flume, Echo and Profile lakes, towering cliffs and the dramatic prospect of the great mountain pass that some called “little Yosemite.” The famous Old Man may have tumbled, but his family of natural wonders remains.
The Notch has been the target of two major campaigns to protect it. In the 1920s, after the grand Profile House burned, the 6,000-acre parcel was threatened by a potential short-sighted liquidation cut. The Forest Society, aided by many, including the New Hampshire Federation of Women's Clubs, led a campaign to conserve the land.
“What man or woman is there who would not gladly purchase (not) one, but many trees to save the Notch from the woodman's axe, the hawker's raucous call, the hot dog vendor's station and the curio vendor's stand,” asked the Bulletin, the magazine of the women's clubs. “We of New Hampshire will not sell our birthright for a mess of pottage.”
(If, like me, you aren't entirely familiar with the phrase “mess of pottage,” it's a biblical reference to Esau selling his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. It's used to describe when something immediately attractive, but ultimately of little value, is exchanged for something less tangible but infinitely more valuable.)
In short, the money was raised, thanks to a national campaign.
But three decades later, a four-lane divided superhighway was proposed through the heart of the Notch as part of the new interstate highway system. In order to maintain consistent highway speeds for motorists, the section would need to be as straight and level as possible — which would involve blasting, filling and grading in the state park, including some filling in of Echo and Profile lakes. Goodbye, birthright.
In 1960, Forest Notes magazine editor Leslie Clark suggested the then-proposed highway from Concord to White River Junction, Vt. (I-89, leading to I-91 and points north) was more than adequate, noting “two roads as access from Massachusetts to Montreal are grossly extravagant.” Citizens were rightfully upset the federal government was proposing the “widen, blast-and-level' option because it was the cheapest way to go since the state already owned the land.
The Forest Society and the Appalachian Mountain Club, among others, would go on to point out other options, such as a two-land parkway that followed the natural contours of the landscape.
Ultimately, the debate was settled through a compromise inked in 1983 by the state, the Forest Society and the Appalachian Mountain Club.
The “Peace Treaty,” as it was called, led to the only section of the nation's 47,000 miles of the Interstate Highway System that was modified due to an exceptional natural landscape. The birthright was saved from the cheap-and-easy proposal.
Current upgrades to the parkway through the Notch came after consultation with the AMC and the Forest Society. In preparing for the repairs and improvements, the New Hampshire Department of Transportation sought out the Forest Society and AMC to make sure the proposed changes adhere to the letter and spirit of the original agreement. A 2010 amendment to the Peace Treaty of 1983 acknowledged the changes and reaffirm the original goals of protecting the exceptional landscape that is Franconia Notch State Park.
Remember those who served. And beware the mess of pottage.
Jack Savage is the editor of Forest Notes magazine, the quarterly magazine of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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