This year, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests celebrates its 100th anniversary. As New Hampshire Public Radio's Doug MacPherson reports, the Society manages to work effectively with both land use groups and forest conservation organizations.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. One evening, one hundred years ago, a handful of New Hampshire citizens met to see what they could do to halt the destruction of the state's forests. At that time, 80 percent of the state had been clear-cut. That night, the group founded an organization with two objectives: improve forestry practices, and conserve forest land. Today, that balanced approach is credited with much of the success of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Doug MacPherson of New Hampshire Public Radio has our story.
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MacPHERSON: Jane Difley says one of her favorite jobs as head of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests is welcoming visitors to the new addition to the Society's Concord headquarters, where the organization rents space to other conservation groups.
DIFLEY: All of which work together. We don't always agree on every little thing, but we talk over the coffee pot, we talk in the lunch room, and we share our views and we try to come to some resolution of issues before we go to the state legislature, before we go to the press. Or, at least, understand each other if we can't come to some agreement, so that we're all understanding each other's viewpoints and where we're coming from.
MacPHERSON: Difley's official title is "President-Forester." She is only the fourth person in the society's 100 years to hold the job. In a way, her dual title reflects the organization's dual mission. That mission hasn't changed much since it was first written down, in 1904, "to perpetuate the forest of New Hampshire, through their wise use and their complete reservation in places of special scenic beauty." Today, the Society advocates complete reservation for a host of reasons beyond scenery, and wise use has developed into the science of sustainable forestry. But what's remarkable, Difley says, is that although it wasn't unusual a century ago for an organization to advocate for both forestry and conservation, today it is.
DIFLEY: Over the years, the two notions have evolved and have sort of separated, and we're one of the very few organizations that has held onto both of those notions.
MacPHERSON: New Hampshire's need for a forest society at the turn of the last century seems obvious today. Clear cutting left behind debris that fueled fires across thousands of acres. With no trees to take up water, rivers overflowed and flooded communities. The Society's first accomplishment was to push for legislation resulting in the White Mountain National Forest. Over the decades, it helped conserve thousands of acres and push for tax policies that promoted better forestry. Around the country, a handful of other groups with similar missions did the same. But for most groups, things changed soon after the first Earth Day, in 1970. Al Sample is head of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, a Washington-based forestry think-tank. Sample cites the experience of the American Forestry Association.
SAMPLE: Members that tended to have a strong environmental tilt to their views, tended to gravitate, during the 1970s, toward national conservation groups like the Sierra Club or the National Wildlife Federation. Foresters tended to concentrate more on the professionally oriented organizations like the Society of American Foresters, and that left the American Forestry Association sort of high and dry, and their membership declined fairly precipitously during that period.
MacPHERSON: In contrast, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests not only survived the 70s, it grew. Sample believes that's because the Society functioned as a kind of bridge.
SAMPLE: They really had a foot in both camps--that is, the forestry camp and the environmentalist camp. They served almost as shuttle diplomats between the two. They helped educate the forestry community on legitimate concerns that citizens had about other values and forests. They also went the other way, hoping to educate people with environmental concerns over the ways that forestry could, in fact, be practiced in ways that were sustainable.
MacPHERSON: Today, while the forest products industry contributes billions of dollars to New Hampshire's economy, 84 percent of the state is covered with trees. Across the nation, only Maine is more forested. And, while New Hampshire has many conservation groups, the society is easily the most powerful. As both a landowner that practices forestry and as a conservator of land, the Society enjoys more access than any other environmental group to New Hampshire's governor, regardless of his or her party. And no other organization enjoys as great a reputation as a consensus builder, among just about everyone with a vested interest in New Hampshire's environment. New Hampshire U.S. Senator Judd Gregg says when it comes to getting competing interests to sit down at the table, it's the society that usually supplies the table.
GREGG: They have this unique capacity to take parties which in maybe other states would have been at each other's throats and trying to destroy each other, and bring those parties together and work a consensus towards agreement on what are, significantly, extremely difficult policy issues involving environment.
MacPHERSON: New Hampshire's Forest Society has its critics, although one measure of the group's power may be that none of them agreed to be interviewed for this story. Still, Jane Difley knows the criticism.
DIFLEY: There are those who think that we are a preservationist organization, that we only want to lock up the woods, that we don't believe in forestry, that we don't allow people to use land. That's one misconception that we battle. And, on the other side, there are people who think all we care about is cutting trees and that we aren't interested enough in protecting New Hampshire's forests.
MacPHERSON: In September, the Society used the occasion of its 100th annual meeting to launch a new goal: to permanently protect, by the year 2025, one million additional acres from future development. That would bring the total amount of conserved land in the state to 40 percent. The society's research director, Sarah Thorn, says that's what it will take to safeguard New Hampshire's working forests and farms, its drinking water, and its wildlife habitat.
THORNE: As each year goes by, our opportunities will be slimmer, and the cost will be more expensive. That's why it's all the more important that we initiate this effort now, and not wait until it's too late, as New Jersey has done for example, where they're having to pay very extreme values for conserving the open space that they're suddenly waking up to realize is going to be gone.
MacPHERSON: Through a referendum two years ago, New Jersey voters dedicated 100 million dollars, for each of the next ten years, to protect one million acres in the Garden State. By contrast, New Hampshire's state conservation program will spend four million dollars this year. Its long-term funding is uncertain. Forest Society officials say there's no way they can accomplish their goal alone, and they say it will take all of the state's environmental groups, its timber industry, state lawmakers, and individual citizens, working together to find consensus. For Living on Earth, I'm Doug MacPherson in Concord, New Hampshire.
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