Economic development and natural preservation -- the clash between competing visions for the region’s natural resources is not new. The debate has persisted through generations in many different configurations and locations throughout the North Country. In his book, This Grand and Magnificent Place, Christopher Johnson writes that while the early settlers were drawn to the region primarily by cheap land and dreams of economic self-sufficiency, the beauty of the region also attracted them. Johnson states that two differing visions evolved for the White Mountains: one stressing economic development and the other emphasizing the unique aesthetic, scientific, and recreational value of the mountains.
One of the earliest illustrations of these competing visions occurred in the 1930s with a proposal to build a scenic highway right through the heart of the Presidential Range. In the eighties, it was a hydro plant on one of the few remaining sets of rapids on the Androscoggin River. Today, a proposal to put thirty-three wind turbines along the remote ridgeline in the Phillips Brook watershed has renewed the historic dilemma.
For much of the North Country, the choice between economic development and preservation of the natural environment is made more difficult by an economy that historically lags behind the rest of the state. The decline of the pulp and paper industry over the last decade has hit Coos County particularly hard with the loss of an estimated 2,000 jobs. The promise of jobs, tax revenues, and purchases of goods and services has made some willing to accept “environmental trade-offs” so they and their children can continue to live and work here.
In the 1930s, the North Country, like the rest of the nation, was facing economic hard times. As the region suffered through the Great Depression, a grand scheme emerged to build a scenic road that would open the White Mountains to the masses and attract tourist dollars to the area.
The White Mountain National Forest had not been in existence long when the proposal for a Presidential Skyline Drive surfaced. It had taken a coalition of conservation groups, downstream mill owners, and the public to pass legislation to create the White Mountain National Forest in 1918, largely in reaction to the devastating fires caused by the slash left behind as the logging railroaders clearcut huge sections of the White Mountains.
The idea was to build a 25-mile scenic road that would weave around the Presidential Range, just below the summits of Mounts Pleasant, Franklin, Monroe, Washington, Clay, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison. With forty million people within a 500-mile drive of the White Mountains, its promoters saw it as an opportunity for “recreational exploitation.” (Remarks of William A. Barron at 9th New England Council Conference, Nov. 24, 1933)
But to its detractors, the drive would destroy the natural beauty and charm of the rugged peaks. Already Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Whites, had the Cog Railway and Carriage Road providing motorized access to its summit. Was it too much, the opponents asked, “that the remaining peaks in the range be left uninjured?” (Memorandum in opposition to project of Sky Line Highway on Mt. Washington Range submitted before the Planning Board of the State of New Hampshire in behalf of the Randolph Mountain Club and the Appalachian Mountain Club, Nov. 4, 1935, Pg. 7)
The man most associated with the proposal was Colonel William Barron of the Crawford House, who was described by F. Allen Burt in his book, Story of Mount Washington, as “one of the most popular and influential hotel proprietors in the White Mountains.” Barron was an enthusiastic advocate of what he saw as an “undeveloped opportunity of great magnitude.” The drive would start at Saco Lake at the top of Crawford Notch, ascend the western slope of Mount Clinton (or Mt. Pierce as it is also known), dart in and out around the peaks of the Presidential Range, avoiding the summits, and descend to its end near the Ravine House in Randolph.
A survey performed by the state Department of Transportation (DOT) found the route was feasible except for the descent via Mount Madison. The survey recommended the drive make its descent at Mount Jefferson. The DOT study estimated it would cost just under $26 million to construct the skyline drive and $25,000 a year to maintain it. The cost could be cut thirty percent if the road was reduced from two lanes to one.
Barron and other supporters, including the North Country Development Association, saw the proposal as part of a New England regional focus on recreation, especially motorized recreation, as a way to attract tourist dollars. The idea was not unique. The scenic road to the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park in Maine opened in 1931. Vermont was also in the middle of debating a 260-mile Green Mountain Parkway stretching from Massachusetts north almost to the Canadian border. Seeing the country from inside an automobile was on its way to becoming one of America’s favorite pastimes.
The Presidential Skyline Drive, the proponents predicted, would draw millions of customers who would pay a toll for the privilege of driving what would be hailed as one of the world’s outstanding scenic drives. Barron argued the recreational publicity alone would be worth the entire cost of the project. But the real economic boost, proponents argued, would come from the tourists who would travel to the Whites from out-of-state, spending money along the way for the benefit and prosperity of the local communities.
Furthermore, Barron predicted a majority of those who would take the drive would not be physically able to hike the mountains. He argued it was just a matter of time before they demanded their right to access the higher elevations.
If proponents of the Skyline Drive were enthusiastic, the opponents were equally determined. Their ranks included the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) and most of the state’s conservation groups. They argued nearly every section of the Skyline Drive above tree line would be visible for a considerable distance and would be a scar that would destroy the natural beauty of the peaks.
Wilderness areas, they argued, were disappearing in northern New Hampshire, and if roads penetrated the entire White Mountain National Forest, there would be no wilderness for future generations to enjoy. The son of the famous landscape architect and a prominent landscape architect in his own right, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., weighed in on the controversy. Olmsted devoted much of the latter half of his career to conservation and preservation of the country's state and national parks and remaining wilderness areas. (Frederick Law Olmsted, JR., Susan L. Kraus, taken from Birnbaum, Charles A., FASLA, and Robin Karson, editors. Pioneers of American Landscape Design. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2000.) In an October 17, 1933, letter to the New Hampshire Development Commission, Olmsted predicted, “the total losses in the scenic attractiveness of the White Mountain region resulting from such a road would be practically certain to outweigh the gains.”(Memorandum in opposition to project submitted March 4, 1935 to Planning Board of State of New Hampshire in behalf of Randolph Mountain Club and Appalachian Mountain Club). Furthermore, opponents pointed out, those unable or unwilling to hike the mountains already had access to the summit of Mount Washington via the auto road or the Cog Railway.
One key opponent of the proposal was Thomas Corcoran, a member of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal brain trust. Corcoran was a former AMC hutman and he vowed as long as he was alive “there would be no gas pumps at Lake of the Clouds.” Among his duties in the nation’s capital, the Boston Evening Transcript reported Corcoran “keeps an eye cocked and a club handy” in case supporters of the Skyline Drive try to “wrangle” any federal funds.
The U. S. Forest Service ultimately agreed with opponents of the scenic drive. In 1944, Acting Forest Supervisor A. H. Anderson said thousands of people enjoyed what he called the only rugged area in New England. “The bisecting of this area by a highway would detract from its present status and destroy the feeling which now exists as to the natural wildness,” he wrote. (Letter from Anderson to U.S. Park Ranger Clyde Smith, dated Oct. 2, 1944, U. S. Forest Service files).
The region’s mountains are not the only battleground in the debate over competing visions for its natural resources. The Androscoggin River is one of the Northeast’s major rivers, stretching over 170 miles from its headwaters at Lake Umbagog in Coos County to Merrymeeting Bay in Maine, where it joins the Kennebec River on its way to the Gulf of Maine. Until 1964, the Androscoggin River from its headwaters to Berlin was a major transportation route for the wood that was the raw material for the region’s paper mills. A series of dams provide a regulated water flow in the river year round, insuring water for mill operations.
In the 1960s, both the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers and Public Service of New Hampshire (PSNH) looked at rebuilding an old dam on the river at the section in Dummer called Pontook and putting in a peaking hydroelectric power plant. But damming the river to run the plant, which would only have run in times of heavy power demand, would have flooded over 7,000 acres of land and caused a re-routing of a section of Route 16. In the face of widespread opposition the idea was dropped, and in 1967 PSNH gave the state 1,500 acres of land around Pontook.
With the log drives at an end, use of the upper Androscoggin River for fishing and canoeing increased markedly. A planning committee established by the state to look at the future of the river called it one of the best canoeing rivers in the state and the section of Route 16 along the river from Errol to Milan “one of the most scenic highways in the Northeast.”(Testimony before the Water Resources Board relative to the Pontook Hydroelectric Project submitted by Paul O. Bofinger, June 2, 1982, Pg.8.)
As a result of the work of the committee, in 1972 the state purchased the 13-Mile Woods Scenic Easement protecting the west side of the river from any future development and keeping it forever in a wild state. The passage of the federal Clean Water Act played a major role in cleaning up water quality all along the Androscoggin, and the river saw a rebirth of use that continues to this day.
In the late 1970s, as oil prices rose to an all time high in the aftermath of the fall of the Shah of Iran, the United States began a drive to reduce its dependence on foreign oil by pushing alternative forms of energy production. This push did not escape the attention of North Country entrepreneur Robert Shaw of Colebrook, who stepped forward with a plan to build a hydroelectric plant at Pontook. To do so, he proposed rebuilding the Pontook dam. But instead of a run-of-the-river facility, he proposed diverting the water through a channel, or penstock, 6,000 feet from the Pontook reservoir to a power station on the east side of the river. After passing through the power station, the water would be returned to the river.
The battle that ensued over Shaw’s proposal centered on the 2.5 miles of river between the dam and powerhouse, which contained some of the best whitewater rapids and fisheries in the Northeast. Shaw’s proposal would remove as much as 80 percent of the water flow in that section. In order to implement his plan, Shaw needed a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and a long-term lease for the site from the state.
Nine organizations representing conservation, whitewater paddling, and fishing concerns, banded together to form the Committee to Save the Upper Androscoggin. One of the groups was the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Paul Bofinger, then head of SPNHF, was a key opponent. He noted that since the end of the log drives, the focus had been to preserve the natural character and recreational value of the river.
Supporting Shaw were most of the local and state political leaders including then Governor Hugh Gallen, Executive Councilor Raymond Burton, the Dummer Board of Selectmen, and the Berlin City Council. Local officials argued it would provide needed revenues for the state and North Country as well as reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil. Rebuilding the dam, the officials pointed out, would also restore the Pontook reservoir upstream that had lost about 100 acres because less water was being impounded.
Gerald Coogan, executive director of North Country Council, testified that the Pontook hydro would create many new jobs in the Dummer-Berlin area and increase the tax base of Dummer and Coos County. “The Council also realizes that from time to time some acceptable environmental trade-offs are needed in order to allow a project like Pontook to move ahead and eventually be constructed,” Coogan said. (North Country Council statement on the Pontook Hydroelectric Facility before the Water Resources Board, June 2, 1981)
To satisfy paddlers, Shaw negotiated a deal agreeing to a schedule of water releases that would increase flow in the river below the dam to allow whitewater kayaking and canoeing. But the proposal ran into opposition from fishing interests who argued the releases would have a ‘scouring effect’ on the river bottom, killing the organisms that fish feed on.
For the next four years, the proposal wound its way through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and various courts of appeals. Finally in 1984, Governor John Sununu brokered a settlement between the state, Shaw, and the Society for the Protection of N. H. Forests. The Society agreed to drop its court appeal of Pontook’s FERC license. In exchange, a Pontook Coordinating Committee was formed to monitor the project’s impact on recreational and natural resources of the rapids with the power to recommend increased water releases. Shaw agreed to create a $250,000 fund that would be used for studies of the river, including a stream-flow study. Construction of the project got underway in 1985 and it began generating power in December 1986.
The settlement attempted to balance the state’s desire for alternative energy facilities with its responsibility to protect the scenic and recreational values of the river. While neither side was completely pleased with the outcome, the compromise has remained in effect for over twenty years. The hydroelectric facility has since been sold to Great Lakes Hydro America, LLC, which also owns seven of the former Brown Company hydro plants in Berlin and Gorham.
Under terms of the settlement, the town of Dummer receives an annual payment in lieu of taxes and the state receives a rent payment for lease of the dam site to Great Lakes. Both payments are based on a percentage of the money received from the sale of power generated at the site. The state lease payment goes into the New Hampshire Dam Maintenance Fund to operate and maintain the 273 dams owned by the state.
The rapids, meanwhile, remain a popular whitewater-paddling destination with scheduled water releases from Memorial Day through Columbus Day weekend. At least two outfitters run white water rafting trips through the rapids when the releases allow. New Hampshire Fish and Game lists the rapids as a white-water trout and salmon fishery.
In more recent years, as the high cost of oil has again stimulated interest in alternative renewable energy, proposed development plans in New Hampshire’s North Country have been back in the headlines, only this time the battle centers on the remote Phillips Brook watershed, stretching from Stark to Dixville Notch. A proposal to string thirty-three wind turbines along 6.5 miles of ridgeline has stirred debate over the environmental and scenic impact of a project that would provide economic benefits as well as help reduce this country’s dependence on foreign oil.
The wind farm would be sited on over 80,000 acres of commercial timberland that until just a few years ago was owned by paper companies. The largest landowner is Bayroot, LLC, an anonymous investor and one of the largest private timberland owners in New England. The other major landowner is GMO Renewable Resources, a Boston timber investment firm. Looking for new ways to generate money from timberland, both landowners have agreed to allow Granite Reliable Power to develop a 99-megawatt wind farm on their properties. Commercial timber harvesting will also continue. Granite Reliable Power is a subsidiary of Noble Environmental Power, a Connecticut-based company formed in 2004 to design and build wind farms. Noble currently has approximately 3,850 megawatts of wind power under development in eight states.
Supporters say construction of the $275 million wind farm will create needed economic activity in an area reeling from the decline of the paper industry. About 200 people would be directly involved in the construction of the project over a two-year period. While the wind farm would create only seven full-time permanent positions, a consultant hired by Granite Reliable Power said the wind farm would contribute $4.3 million annually to the local economy and create a total of 70 direct and indirect jobs. Included in the $4.3 million is a $495,000 annual payment in lieu of taxes to Coos County. The town of Dummer would also receive property tax payments. The Coos County delegation, Coos County Commission, and Coos Planning Board all support the project.
Granite Reliable Power officials also argue that the wind farm would help the state meet its goal of generating 25 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources by the year 2025. Furthermore, the power generated by the wind farm would help offset 332 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions annually.
Opponents, on the other, note the wind farm would be the first high elevation one in New England, with 410-foot high turbines located at elevations as high as 3,450 feet. Installing the turbines would require upgrading 19 miles of existing private logging roads and building twelve miles of new roads. In order to accommodate the cranes and heavy equipment needed to install the turbines, access roads along the ridgeline would have to be 34-feet wide.
Wildlife biologists argue that the project would disturb some of the region’s last remote high elevation spruce-fir forest that provide habitat for some rare and threatened wildlife species such as the pine marten, three toed wood pecker, and Bicknell’s thrush.
The turbines would be installed in four groups, or strings, centered around four peaks. New Hampshire Fish and Game and the AMC initially objected to two of the four strings of wind turbines, but the two organizations reached an agreement with Granite Reliable Power for additional mitigation to meet their concerns. The total mitigation package calls for the developers to purchase 1,735 acres of high-elevation forest and donate it to the state, plus give Fish and Game $750,000 to purchase additional high elevation land, and $200,000 to study rare and threatened species.
Opponents note Coos County already generates significantly more energy than it consumes from hydroelectric plants on the Connecticut and Androscoggin Rivers. The wind farm, they point out, would use up the available capacity on the Coos transmission line and could prevent the development of biomass plants that have been proposed. Not only would the biomass plants employ more people but they would help the region’s ailing forest industry by purchasing some of the low-grade wood that once fueled the Berlin and Groveton paper mills. Upgrading the transmission line to add capacity for the biomass plants could cost as much as $200 million.
Some opponents, such as newspaper columnist John Harrigan, echo the sentiments expressed over sixty years ago by the U.S. Forest Service in rejecting the Presidential Skyline Drive, that we need to retain “natural wildness.” In a letter opposing the wind farm, Harrigan wrote, “We live in a place of few cash crops, One is the scenery that drives our tourism. The other thing we have is a few wild places where you can plant a foot, pivot like a hoop-star, and gaze at a landscape uncluttered by anything but the Milky Way. The value on that? Incalculable. Again, tourism, and the stuff of the soul.” (John Harrigan letter to the N.H. Site Evaluation Committee, March 17, 2009)
The project has been approved by the state Energy Facilities Site Evaluation Committee that has jurisdiction over energy projects that generate 30 megawatts of power or more. The project still has to get approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before construction can get underway.
The history of the North Country is full of ideas and proposals like the Presidential Skyline Drive that were large in scale and significant in their potential impact, but never made it off the drawing board. Other projects, like the Pontook hydro facility, did get approved and constructed. And as Granite Reliable Power’s current proposal to construct a 99-megawatt wind farm demonstrates, there will always be developers looking at the region’s natural resources as a way to make money. The historic debate between economic development and preserving the special scenic, recreational, and wildlife values of the North Country will go on.
Agreement between Androscoggin Electric Corporation and Society
for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. July 27, 1984.
Anderson, A.H., Acting Forest Supervisor, White Mountain National Forest,
Oct. 2, 1944 letter to U.S. Park Ranger Clyde Smith.
U.S. Forest Service files
Barron, William. Remarks at 9th New England Council Conference, Nov. 4, 1933.
Belcher, Francis. September 18, 1948 letter detailing his recollections and review of
Appalachian Mountain Club’s files on Presidential Skyline Drive Proposal.
Provided copy of map of scenic route from AMC files.
Berlin Daily Sun, July 2007 – August 2009, coverage of Granite Reliable Power’s
Berlin Reporter, March 4, 1981.
Burt, F. Allen. The Story of Mount Washington. Dartmouth Publications, 1960
Concord Monitor, December 18, 1934, May 28, 2009, March 20, 2009, Feb. 5, 2009,
Jan. 21, 2009.
Coos CountyDemocrat, Dec. 26, 1934
Dedication Program, Pontook Hydroelectric Facility, August 27, 28, 1987.
Felmly, Bruce, Statement of Counsel to Committee to Save the Upper Androscoggin.
Granite Reliable Power LLC application to construct windpark in Coos County
submitted to the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee, July 15, 2008.
Harrigan, John. Letter to the N.H. Site Evaluation Committee, March 17, 2009
Johnson, Christopher. This Grand and Magnificent Place. University of
New Hampshire Press, 2006.
Susan L. Kraus. Frederick Law Olmsted, JR., taken from Birnbaum, Charles A.,
FASLA, and Robin Karson, editors. Pioneers of American Landscape Design.
New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2000
Littleton Courier, Dec. 14, 1933, Dec. 28, 1933, and March 15, 1934, September 13, 1934
May, John, President of Appalachian Mountain Club, Letter to New Hampshire Governor
StylesBridges, February 25, 1935. U.S. Forest Service files.
Memorandum in Opposition to Project of Skyline Highway on Mt. Washington Range,
New Hampshire, submitted in behalf of the RandolphMountain Club and the
Appalachian Mountain Club.
March 4, 1935. U. S. Forest Service files.
New Hampshire Water Resources Board. Order No. 69.01-H-2
Reconstruction of an existing dam for the purpose of working a mill. August 4, 1982.
New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee, Granite Reliable Power,LLC.,
Docket No. 2008-04. All motions, orders, notions, affidavits, testimony, letters, evidence,
submitted to the committee.
New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee, Granite Reliable Power, Decision
granting Certification of site and Facility with Conditions. July 15, 2009.
New Hampshire Times, February 18, 1981.
Report on Proposed Scenic Highway along the Presidential Range in New Hampshire,
U.S. Forest Service files.
Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forest, press release on Pontook settlement.
August 2, 1984.
Testimony before the Water Resources Board Relative to Pontook
Hydroelectric Project. June 2, 1982 in Berlin, New Hampshire.
Coogan, Gerald, executive director, North Country Council;
Paul Bofinger, executive director, Society for the Protection of
New Hampshire Forests; Ned McSherry, owner of Saco Bound
Northern Waters; T. Walley Williams; Oliver Wallace; Committee to Save the Upper Androscoggin.
The Hutmen Resuscitator, April 1982, article on Thomas G.
Union Leader, Dec. 19, 19334, June 1982