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October 12. 2013 1:11AM

Forest Journal: There's comfort in conservation


Dave Roberts accepts the 2013 Forest Society Conservationist of the Year Award from Forest Society president Jane Difley on Sept. 28 in Meredith. (FOREST SOCIETY)

Sometimes an off-the-cuff remark really can resonate.

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Dave Roberts of Farmington, honored last month as the Forest Society's Conservationist of the Year. Roberts is a retired teacher who dedicated his golden years to exploring the mountains and valleys around the Lakes Region.

We sat at his kitchen table, which was strewn with an assortment of trail maps he had made over the past two decades. When I asked him why he chose the Belknap Mountains, located southwest of Lake Winnipesaukee, for most of his bushwacking adventures, he cited proximity to his house and the excitement of discovering rock caves, blueberry fields and hidden waterfalls.

Then he added, "And there's a comfort in knowing your landscape."

A comfort?

My thoughts went back to when my kids were little and they were afraid of going into the back yard at night. I encouraged them to imagine all the things they knew and loved out there - the giant granite rock we pretended was a pirate ship, the tire swing that blasted them through the cosmos to alien planets, the old granddaddy maple trees that watched over them in the sandbox, the garden they dug in while "helping" to plant.

"It's all the same as in the daytime," I told them. "You just can't see them as well."

It seemed to help. And it was indeed a comfort for them to know their landscape.

As adults, our landscapes broaden to forests, lakes and mountains. Knowing those landscapes well enough to find comfort in the knowing requires that we spend time in them. Once we do that - hiking, walking our dogs, fishing, whatever - we tend to love those environments, and when we love them, we want to protect them.

This is the pattern that has prompted many "ordinary" people to become extraordinary land heroes right here in New Hampshire. I've been privileged to meet quite a few of these people, for whom a comfort in the landscape has led them to keep their corner of New Hampshire unspoiled and beautiful.

A couple of examples come to mind.

-- Gretchen Abendschein of Acworth and her late husband, the artist Jerry Pfohl, lived together for three decades on prime agricultural and forestland in Acworth. With its restored historic home, studio, pond, forests and fields, it's one of the most beautiful properties I've seen anywhere in New Hampshire. Abendschein and Pfohl cut trails, picnicked, painted and watched wildlife on the land. After Pfohl's death three years ago, Abendschein continued to live there, but she's now selling the place and moving to a smaller home.

Before leaving the land she has grown to know so well, she safeguarded it from ever being turned into a big-money housing development (with views of Mount Monadnock) by donating a conservation easement on it to the Forest Society. Just as she was about to sign the easement, she got an offer for the place. It was contingent upon her not signing the easement. She refused the offer, preferring to wait for the right buyer.

"Jerry really wanted to keep the property intact, and I felt strongly about it, too," Abendschein said. "We wanted to make sure a place this gorgeous wasn't going to go to developers."

-- David Chase knows a landscape of another kind, the landscape of friendship, as well as that of his 12-acre woodlot in Clarksville. He lives in Lancaster but cuts firewood on his Clarksville lot and runs a portable sawmill there.

Over the course of a year or so, he told me, he had offers for that woodlot that started at double its worth and ended up at $1 million. He declined those offers from the utility company Northern Pass, he said, because the company wanted his land for a new high-voltage transmission line, which Chase thinks is wrong for New Hampshire and especially wrong for his neighborhood.

His property is right across the road from his good friend Charley Morgan's house, and Chase's gain would have been his friend's loss.

"Charley took me in when I got divorced. He gave me a place to live," Chase said. "If you were to put towers there (on his 12 acres), the line would go right next to his bedroom. There was no way I was going to be his friend if I sold out."

-- Roberts himself is another prime example of turning a comfort in knowing the landscape into an effort to protect it. After getting to know the nooks and crannies of the Belknap Range, he hit on a clever way to encourage others to spend time there and discover its worth. He put into their hands trail maps showing them how to find tumbling waterfalls, beautiful views, boulder fields and historical remnants such as cellar holes, a former quarry and the remains of an iron mine. He provided local libraries with his maps along with one rule: They couldn't charge people for them beyond the cost of making a copy.

"I found lots of views that you didn't know of before," Roberts said. "I knew a few people equally avid about the beauty of the natural world. I figured there must be others like us."

His advocacy inspired other conservation-minded people and groups to come together in 2006 to form the Belknap Range Conservation Coalition and work to conserve the unfragmented forested valleys and mountains that form the backdrop of Lake Winnipesaukee. Roberts is integral to the coalition's current "Everybody Hikes Mount Major" campaign to raise $1.8 million to purchase and protect four key properties in the Belknaps (including three on or adjacent to Mount Major) totaling 950 acres.

Three of these properties in Alton will be owned and stewarded by the Forest Society, and one, in the Moulton Brook Valley of Gilford, will be owned and stewarded by the Lakes Region Conservation Trust. All will be conserved as wildlife habitat and open lands for people to hike, hunt, fish, snowmobile, ski and simply get to know.

Once this land is protected and public access is assured for future generations, Roberts' comfort in knowing his landscape will have become a comfort to us all.

For more information about the Everybody Hikes Mount Major campaign, go to www.forestsociety.org.

"Forest Journal " is published every other week in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Brenda Charpentier is communications manager for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Email her at bcharpentier@forestsociety.org.


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