By Jolyon Johnson
For Concord Monitor – February 7, 2015
A recent report by the New Hampshire Natural Heritage Bureau confirms the existence of “exemplary natural communities” on Mount Sunapee’s west flank.
The study, conducted in the autumn of 2014, not only confirmed the findings of the 2004 study, it also enlarged the area formally designated as exemplary at Mount Sunapee State Park. These forests are directly in the path of the proposed expansion of the ski area.
Exemplary natural communities are defined by their rarity, size, ecological condition and landscape context. In addition to being rare, these forests on Mount Sunapee are found at the northern edge of the 30,000-acre Pillsbury-Sunapee Highlands Corridor, increasing their ecological value. These forests contain large yellow birch, sugar maple and red spruce. Some of these trees exceed 200 years of age.
Even among trained ecologists, there is some argument over the exact definition of the term “old growth.” The resort operators along with their pro-expansion cadre have seized on this quibble, and while clearly shaken by the release of the NHB report, continue to cling to their mantra, “There is no old growth!” Call it what you will: old growth, primary, undisturbed, primeval forest or even “just some mature trees.” These folks are missing the point.
Yes, these forests on Mount Sunapee contain large, old, magnificent trees, but they are much more than that. These exemplary forests are ecological communities, a complex interplay of plants (both living and dead), animals (ranging from moose to microbes), fungi and soils that are not found in other, far more common forests that have been historically managed (i.e. logged) by humans. These unmanaged areas are the last remnants of the primeval forests that once covered much of this area prior to European settlement. These forests are living laboratories: valuable to forest scientists, for educational purposes, and for simple enjoyment by the public. And importantly, they occur in Mount Sunapee State Park, land conserved many years ago to protect these forests and held in the public trust.
The first priority of the state park system, according to state law (RSA 216-A:1), is: “To protect and preserve unusual scenic, scientific, historical, recreational and natural areas in the state.” Those who want to expand the ski area and degrade, fragment or destroy these exemplary forests can call them whatever they want. The point is, exemplary forests are protected under state law.
The NHB report quotes from the Native Plant Protection Act (RSA 217-A:7) stating that “actions funded or carried out by state agencies shall not jeopardize the continued existence of any protected plant species or exemplary natural community.” In layman’s terms, this is all very good news for our jewel of a state park and for maintaining the natural heritage and scenic beauty of the west side of Mount Sunapee.
The expansion as planned will jeopardize these exemplary communities. This will clearly be a violation of state law. No one can quibble about that. The Friends of Mount Sunapee asks Gov. Maggie Hassan and Commissioner Jeffrey Rose of the Department of Resources and Economic Development to end consideration of the proposed expansion and ask Okemo/Mount Sunapee Resort to bring forth to the public a master development plan that stays within the existing ski area, leaves all identified exemplary forest areas untouched and limits its future projects to areas of the park already disturbed.
(Jolyon Johnson is president of Friends of Mount Sunapee.)