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Londonderry councilors tread lightly on Town Forest cleanup, leery of liability

LONDONDERRY — As local conservation officials plan a massive cleanup in the Town Forest this fall, town councilors expressed concerns over the potential liability issues posed by having volunteers clear the paths.

During Monday night’s Town Council meeting, Art Rugg, chairman of the town’s Heritage Commission, shared an overview of the project.

The property stretches from the Town Common all the way to the town’s old cemetery overlooking Mack’s U Pick on Mammoth Road. As it stands now, the plan is to clear downed trees and fallen branches, as well as poison ivy, brambles and invasive bittersweet vines.

Rugg said the plan also calls for the removal of all sapling trees under three inches in diameter, with local Scouting groups, members of the Londonderry Trailways organization and other local volunteers doing the lion’s share of labor.

“We don’t have much of a budget for this,” Rugg told the councilors. “But once the area is cleared, we could create a trail and add some benches. Clearing the area would be the first step in getting more people to enjoy this spot.”

Questions remain, however, about how much work can be completed by volunteers in light of liability worries.

“I think it would depend a lot on what exactly we’re having these volunteers do,” said Town Manager Kevin Smith, noting that the use of brush cutters and chain saws would probably be out of the question.

“Poison ivy is also a concern,” Smith added. “We really need to take a long look at the activities we’re asking people to do.”

Councilor Jim Butler said volunteers are already tasked with caring for the town’s many miles of walking trails.

However, fellow Councilor John Farrell said that in most of those cases, the trail work was completed entirely by the Londonderry Trailways, a local nonprofit group that cares for the trails independently and without Town Council endorsement.

“This time, we have the Heritage Commission coming in and asking us to give them direction,” Farrell said. “So honestly, I don’t have an answer right now.”

Both the council and the commission agreed that the final decision should rest with Smith.

Smith said he participated in a recent Town Forest walk-through with forester Charlie Moreno, who offered him some advice on the matter.

“He said our decision should really depend on our plans for the Town Forest,” Smith said.

Conservation Commission member Mike Speltz agreed.

“One of the issues here is do we want this place to be a forest or to be a park,” he said.

Over the years, the Town Forest has been selectively harvested on several occasions, with the most recent one occurring in 2009. At that time, a section of the forest behind the Town Common wall was cleared to accommodate a small picnic area.

“We do go in there from time to time and take out some small trees to get more sunlight on the forest floor,” Speltz said.

And while Fire Marshal Brian Johnson expressed concerns over forest fires and the risks posed by excessive debris, Speltz said forest fires also occur frequently at the much larger Musquash Conservation area, off High Range Road.

“Are we going to clear that area too? I don’t think so,” he said. “But at the same time, adding some trails to the Town Forest is a good idea because it would increase access for fire equipment.”

Town officials agreed to investigate the matter further, with a final decision on the project to made during an upcoming meeting.aguilmet@newstote.com



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