A Case Study and the Case for Clustered Open Space
Thirty years ago, New Hampshire’s development boom was reaching a fever pitch. The last farm in Nashua was sprouting pavement. Bobcats had disappeared from Amherst and Bedford, and migratory songbirds were sending messages of double trouble — forest destruction in the tropics and forest fragmentation in the Northeast.
What should a conservation education center do? The Harris Center chose to become a local land trust to demonstrate how neighborhoods and organizations could work together to protect clusters of undeveloped parcels and thus maximize the attributes and resources provided by open space. Clustered open space has multiple advantages over dispersed protected areas: it ensures contiguous blocks of habitat for far-ranging species like bobcat, moose, and black bear; it provides forest interior needed by some neotropical migrant songbirds like ovenbirds and black-throated blue warblers; it maintains forests on a scale large enough to manage for both timber and wildlife; it preserves the potential for backcountry recreation such as “wilderness” canoe camping, as well as hunting plus on- and off-trail trekking; and it can also preserve scenic drives down country roads with viewsheds that all ages can enjoy. Last but not least, clustered open space can protect not only shorelands but whole watersheds for current and future wellheads, reservoirs, and other vital water supply resources.
All of these attributes are illustrated by an area centered on the Harris Center known as the Supersanctuary, an aggregate of protected parcels in a 120 square mile portion of the Monadnock Region central highlands and including parts of Antrim, Greenfield, Hancock, Harrisville, Nelson, Peterborough, and Stoddard. When the Harris Center coined the name in 1985, the Supersanctuary contained several nodes of protected land totaling about 3,000 acres. By protecting land abutting these nodes and making connections among them, the Supersanctuary has now grown to some 33,000 acres, including four 2,000+ foot mountains and surrounding forest land, five lakes over 100 acres, ten smaller ponds, a thousand acres along the Contoocook River and major tributary junctions, 1,600 acres along the Contoocook’s North Branch, several scenic roads, and wetlands including floodplain, swamp, marsh, fen, and wet meadow.
To create the Supersanctuary, we have conducted dozens of real estate transactions using numerous techniques, including outright purchase, borrow and pay back to a revolving loan fund, funding through limited development, outright gift, and bargain sale, whereby the seller makes a deductible donation by accepting less than the appraised value for the land. But by far the most important tool has been the conservation easement, in which the landowner retains the fee and most management rights and responsibilities, but donates or sells all or most development rights to a land trust. In addition to scores of individuals or families, Supersanctuary contributors have included New Hampshire Audubon, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, the Silver Lake Land Trust, the Monadnock Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land, the Nature Conservancy, the NH Fish and Game Department, the Quabbin to Cardigan Partnership, and the towns of Hancock, Nelson, Peterborough, and Stoddard. The philosophy for the Supersanctuary is that bigger is better, and the key is not who protects what but what gets protected. And while there are multiple goals, one major need, bear in mind, is room to roam.