Natural Heritage and Ancient Forests

 Mount Sunapee State Park is home to a unique exemplary natural community system, including rare ancient forest. According to the New Hampshire Natural Heritage Bureau (NHB) and its published reports, the state park contains a 484-acre exemplary northern hardwood-conifer forest system, the only such documented forest system in New Hampshire. This forest is an irreplaceable part of New Hampshire’s natural and cultural heritage, which deserves and requires permanent protection. See how you can help: What you can do

This image, produced by the New Hampshire Natural Heritage Bureau, shows the location of the  exemplary natural forest community system in Mount Sunapee State Park.

New Hampshire leased the stated-owned ski area at Mount Sunapee State Park to a private operator (Okemo Inc.) in 1998. The first state-sponsored natural heritage study at Mount Sunapee, conducted in 1998 by the Natural Heritage Bureau, produced a report in 1999 titled “Old Forest and Rare Plants at the Mount Sunapee Ski Lease Area” (PDF 5 MB).

In 1999, the NHB recommended: “The best conservation approach would be to protect in perpetuity the entire mosaic of forest types, including old growth to protect the assemblage of forest conditions …” See Old Forests and Rare Plants at the Mount Sunapee Ski Lease Area, 1999 (PDF 5 MB).

Responding to ski resort expansion proposals, the NHB confirmed that “any development activities within Polygon 23 would have a detrimental effect on Mt. Sunapee’s old forests.” See the NH Forest and Lands memorandum Findings and Conclusions Regarding Exemplary Old Forest in Polygon 23, 1999 (PDF 2 MB).

"Typic old growth hardwood stand at [Mount Sunapee] ski lease area. Note various hardwood canopy species, and a diverse canopy structure."Typical old-growth hardwood stand at Mount Sunapee State Park in the ski lease area.

Photo from the 1999 NHB report.

In 2003, the NHB recommended Natural Area designation of the East Bowl. See Natural Heritage Inventory of the East Bowl at Mount Sunapee State Park, 2003 (PDF 3 MB)


 In 2004, Okemo/Mount Sunapee Resort proposed master development plans for the expansion of the ski area. The development would cut through and fragment the forested western flank of Mount Sunapee State Park. The development plans led to natural heritage field evaluations of the proposed expansion area conducted in 2004 and 2014.



The state’s report in 2004 documented exemplary forest of statewide significance in the proposed expansion area on the west side of Mount Sunapee State Park. See Evaluation of Proposed Ski Lease Area Expansion on Mount Sunapee, 2004 (PDF 3.6 MB)

The 2015 NHB report then confirmed and mapped the 484-acre exemplary northern hardwood-conifer forest system at Mount Sunapee State Park. This system includes three natural communities. See Addendum to Evaluation of Proposed Ski Lease Area Expansion on Mount Sunapee, 2015 (PDF 1.1 MB)

The exemplary northern hardwood-conifer forest system at Mount Sunapee (entered into the NHB database in 2004) is the only one of its type in New Hampshire and includes:

  • high-elevation spruce-fir forest
  • sugar maple-beech-yellow birch forest
  • northern hardwood-spruce-fir forest

The 2015 report concludes:

“The sections of mature trees found in the exemplary natural community system add significant value to the larger forest mosaic of Mt. Sunapee. This mosaic in turn has a high ecological value because of its connection to the extensive Sunapee Highlands Corridor. Large, intact systems are more resistant to impacts from natural disturbance, insects and disease, and human disturbance.”


Rare Endangered Plants

Additionally, NHB has documented and continues to monitor two state-threatened plants in the leasehold area: the Loesel’s wide-lipped orchid (Liparis loeselii) and a population of the greater fringed-gentian (Gentianopsis crinita). See the NHB June 2020 letter regarding rare plant observations (pdf 2 MB)

The NHB reports from 1999 and 2003 included specific conservation recommendations to protect New Hampshire’s natural heritage at the State Park. And the bureau provides specific recommendations to the resort operator to protect the Loesel’s wide-lipped orchid and greater fringed gentian.



Greater fringed-Gentian

(Gentianopsis crinita)

NH Natural Heritage Bureau photo.

Cumulative Impacts

Although not yet implemented the cumulative impact of the approved projects for the ski lease area will permanently alter the Exemplary Natural Community System at Mount Sunapee. The ski lifts in the west bowl and north peak areas will likely eliminate these areas from the system significantly reducing its size.  The high elevation Spruce-Fir exemplary community will be eliminated. It’s the forested system’s size, overall condition, and landscape context, that gives the forest its unique status as  exemplary. 



Map of Cumulative Impact to the Exemplary Natural Community System


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