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March 05. 2013 11:18PM

Northern Pass told in White Mountains: Get off our land

Property owners near the White Mountain National Forest have been tracking a unique form of prey. Using snowshoes, walkie-talkies and an informal neighborhood alert system, they've been keeping an eye out for biologists using PSNH rights of way to conduct wildlife studies for the Northern Pass environmental impact statement.

The prey has been spotted in Lancaster, Easton, Sugar Hill and Dalton. On Tuesday, they were spotted on Route 302 in Bethlehem at the Rocks Estate, near property owned by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.

When confronted by land owners, wildlife biologists from Ecology and Environment, headquartered in Lancaster, N.Y., display an authorization letter from the U.S. Department of Energy. The land owners, all of whom oppose Northern Pass, politely tell the DOE contractors to get off their land and the contractors politely comply.

It's a scenario that has been repeated on at least three occasions since the first spotting on Feb. 23, with landowners challenging the right of Public Service of New Hampshire to use existing rights of way for Northern Pass environmental studies. Property owners say PSNH rights of way on their land cannot be transferred to Northern Pass without some kind of regulatory action or litigation.

The utility company disagrees.

"PSNH ownership of the easements across the land on which this work is occurring establishes a property right owned by PSNH and protected by law," wrote PSNH spokesman Mike Skelton in an email. "These property rights allow PSNH to grant access or assign rights to these easements to other parties."

Public Service has told the Department of Energy that contractors are free to use PSNH rights of way across the private land.

The Department of Energy and its environmental contractors appear to be caught in the middle of the latest crossfire over the controversial plan to bring hydroelectric power from Quebec into the New England grid via New Hampshire.

In a letter dated March 1 to law enforcement officers and property owners along PSNH rights of way, the company's senior legal counsel states that the access granted by PSNH is temporary, and "does not include or allow construction activities of any kind," but is limited to gathering environmental information abut the project's possible impact."

That doesn't placate property owners who oppose Northern Pass. They intend to continue to monitor the DOE consultants and shoo them away when they can.

People feeling threatened

"We are working very hard to make all landowners understand they need to be civil, and everyone has been," said Susan Schibanoff, who owns 200 acres of land in Easton. "When a landowner has told a contractor to leave, they have always left and there hasn't been a problem."

What irks some of the landowners is that they keep coming back. "I think people are feeling somewhat threatened by all this," Schibanoff said. "The contractors themselves are amicable enough. That's not the issue. But the whole notion of something moving onto our land is a bit scary."

She said six of the property owners in the area with PSNH easements on their land had an attorney notify Northern Pass in writing last year that it would need written permission from the landowners to use the PSNH rights of way. Forest Society spokesman Jack Savage said his organization sent a similar warning - warnings that have apparently been ignored.

"We have several letters from PSNH saying we have every right to be there, but apparently it's a dispute that's going to have to be resolved," said DOE Project Manager Brian Mills, who is listed as the contact on the DOE letter that wildlife biologists have been showing to landowners. "We've told our crews that if anyone says they don't want them on their property, they should leave. We'll have something worked out with our PR folks so we can send information out (to the landowners) as soon as possible."

Local police have become involved as well.

"We've made efforts to contact the chief of police in Bethlehem to make sure local police are aware of our preference as a landowner," said Savage.

He said the issue of whether PSNH can transfer its rights of way to Northern Pass is complicated by the fact that language in every easement is different.

"They (Northern Pass) presume that they will have the use of third-party rights of way, but there are those who are likely to litigate that presumption," he said.

Made legitimate by fiat

Northern Pass opponents are worried that the DOE actions will legitimize the right-of-way transfers without any third-party process. "The concern we have is that somehow this is getting made legitimate by fiat," said Schibanoff, "because the DOE is now coming on the land, Northern Pass is being verified as having rights that they don't have."

Jim Dannis, who owns property in Dalton and is an active Northern Pass opponent, said the easements were never intended by the granting landowners to be expanded for use by for-profit transmission lines. "We believe that landowners with existing PSNH easements may reject any proposed use of their land by Northern Pass," he said.

The letter from the DOE has been particularly worrisome to the landowners, according to Dannis.

"Imagine a contractor waving a U.S. government letter around that says 'authorization,'" he wrote in an email. "The landowner will likely believe the federal government is saying the contractors have a right to be on the land ... We are at a loss to understand why the DOE would issue such a letter."

Savage suggested the DOE is putting the cart before the horse. "The Presidential Permit application that triggers the environmental impact statement is on hold, and there hasn't even been a final route presented. There have been no public hearings on the scope of the EIS (environmental impact study), or a determination by the DOE of what the scope of the EIS should be," he said. "So actual groundwork would seem to be very premature."

Skelton said there is good reason the work has to be done now.

"Currently, there is snow on the ground, making it possible to do winter wildlife tracking," he wrote. "The DOE has determined now is the right time to complete that work."

dsolomon@unionleader.com

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