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September 27. 2012 10:03PM

Government buys 4,532 acres for Umbagog

CAMBRIDGE — The federal government has completed its $3.6 million purchase of more than 4,500 acres that will be added to the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge that spans northern counties in New Hampshire and Maine.

“We’re pleased, this is a good outcome. It’s good for wildlife,” Trust for Public Lands project manager J.T. Horn said Thursday. He also pointed out the new recreational opportunities area residents and visitors will have on the Androscoggin Headwaters in the southwest corner of the refuge that includes 11 miles of trout streams.

TPL officials acted as facilitators for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s purchase of the property from Seattle-based Plum Creek Timber.

The announcement comes, however, at a time when administrators for Fish & Wildlife have been taking heavy criticism from residents in the two states for what’s seen by some as their relentless acquisition of property for the refuge.

The project has grown to many times the size of the government’s original goal of 1,600 acres when it founded the preserve in 1992 to protect such wildlife as bald eagles, mink, black bear and great blue heron, as well as to set aside a pristine environment for the pleasure of those who enjoy having that varied wildlife nearby.

The footprint, nearly 77,000 acres that the government hopes to one day own outright or oversee through such measures as land easements is pretty evenly divided between Coos County, N.H., and Oxford County, Maine.

“We’re certainly aware of the controversy,” Horn said. “As far as the timing, this all just came together. We announced the project over three years ago. It just got to be ready this month.”

The new 4,532-acre purchase completes phase two of the current five-phase plan that calls for approximately 24,000 acres to come under protection, in addition to what was just bought from Plum Creek.

“Prior to this conservation agreement, Plum Creek’s 31,000-acre property had been the largest unprotected property remaining in New Hampshire, and The Trust for Public Land, a national conservation organization, continues to work with Plum Creek to conserve the land in phases,” Trust for Public Land officials said in a news release Thursday.

The news may not do much to salve the feelings of those who say the government is acquiring too much property to the tax roll detriment of small towns in northern New England, and possibly detrimental to the health of the North Country’s timber industry

Fred King, Coos County treasurer and vice chairman of the county planning board, acknowledged Thursday that the deal wasn’t a surprise. The proposal, he said had been before the planning board which found no grounds to block the purchase.

The county planning board oversees land use proposals for unincorporated places. Twenty-one of the 23 such places in the state are in Coos County, he said, with one in Grafton County and the other in Carroll County.

“They had told us there was no federal money available for the Trust for Public Lands,” he said of U.S. officials. “But then said the feds had come up with the money. This was not a surprise. There’s nothing wrong with the transaction except it’s a bad idea,” said King.

The former New Hampshire state senator has been vocal in his opposition at public meetings to the federal government’s purchase of so much land nationwide for preservation purposes, especially in tough economic times.

Two million dollars of the purchase price came from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund which, according to TPL officials, uses revenues generated from offshore oil and gas drilling leases, “rather than taxpayer dollars,” for such acquisitions.

The remaining $1.625 million was provided by the federal Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, which strives for wetlands protection and generates purchase income from the sale of duck stamps to hunters.

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Bob Hookway may be reached at bhookway@newstote.com.


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