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Conservationists ease impact of development with easements

The conservation of scenic land, an American theme since the days of Teddy Roosevelt, is crescendoing among the tree-carpeted hills and granite peaks of New Hampshire. Long known for the ruggedness of both its landscape and its inhabitants, this vest-pocket-size state has surprised many as one of the fastest-growing places in the nation.

Its population shot up nearly 20 percent in the last decade, to about a million; in 1983 alone, there was a 71.9 percent increase in housing starts; and a mere 3 percent of this once largely bucolic state is now used for agriculture.

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At the current rate of development, all sections of the Granite State not now protected by law would be suburbanized by the year 2050, according to one estimate.

These statistics stalk the people at the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (SPNHF), whose headquarters -- a marvel of solar architecture built from native pine -- nestles in a wooded section of Concord across the Merrimack River from the state's gold-domed State House.

The society exists to preserve New Hampshire's still abundant, but dwindling, natural environment -- its ``lifeblood,'' says Sarah Thorne, an SPNHF land-protection specialist. And the organization has had plenty of practice in this effort. Founded in 1901 to help save the state's majestic White Mountains, then threatened by clear-cutting loggers, it has had a hand in safeguarding such landmarks as Franconia Notch and Mt. Monadnock.

Despite a long and distinguished track record in conservation, however, the SPNHF is something of a maverick within environmentalist ranks. ``We're sometimes known as the compromising organization in the state,'' says Bruce Hovland, director of forestry and land protection, because ``we continually try to strike a balance between the utilitarian approach to land use, on the one hand, and the preservation of land on the other.''

It may not be the purist's approach to conservation, but it's ``what makes practical sense,'' Mr. Hovland asserts. And how does it work?

The ``best tool we have'' is the conservation easement, Hovland says. Any land rights -- water, mineral, timber, agricultural, residential, or recreational -- can be sold or ``donated,'' says Steve Blackmer, a policy analyst with the society.

The easement, a complex legal document that can run many pages, spells out which of those rights have been relinquished to the society by an owner. It puts a permanent restriction on what can be done with a piece of land, right down to such details as the trucking away of topsoil and the erection of billboards.

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At the same time, uses not restricted by the document, perhaps farming or harvesting trees for firewood, are acceptable.

Owners lose something, but they also gain, Blackmer says. Of immediate benefit, they can claim a charitable exemption on their income tax forms equal to the value of the lost development rights -- a figure that can amount to as much as 80 percent of the land's market value. But the greatest benefit may be intangible.

``A lot of people who donate would have done it even without the tax benefit. The primary motivation is conservation,'' explains Ms. Thorne. What's more, she adds, ``the easement is in perpetuity. It is carried forth from one owner to the next.''

She explains that the society works closely with interested landowners, doing thorough ``inventories'' of the natural resources on their land and making recommendations on what should be included in the easement.

How does the SPNHF ensure that the easements on the 17,000 acres it is directly involved with are adhered to? Through yearly flyovers, a task land-protection specialist Thorne knows well. She has often peered down on meadows and mountaintops, armed with summaries of what is allowed under a given easement and ``base photos'' taken when the easement was first given.

Violations are ``very uncommon,'' she says. Hovland points out that flyovers are done at the first of the year before leaves are out. Little escapes notice, he says. ``We can pick out timber trespass cases and tell owners, `There's trouble on your north boundary.' ''

Conservation easements, by the way, are an increasingly popular land-protection tool across the nation. Several hundred private, nonprofit conservation groups use them, says Thorne, to protect 680,000 acres nationwide.

Other tools employed by the SPNHF include an environmental loan fund of close to $400,000, which allows the society to buy land when necessary, and land stewardship agreements, under which owners agree to contact the society before land is sold or its use altered.

The organization also has educational programs, notably Project Preserve, which trains volunteer docents to set up nature study courses in local schools. The program reached about 1,000 schoolchildren last year, according to Thorne and Blackmer.

There's also a Tree Farm program designed to help landowners manage woodlands wisely.

Through all its efforts, the society is having an impact on the way people think, Thorne says.

People in local government are realizing that ``haphazard development'' costs them more than they'll ever get back in property taxes, she says. And developers realize that property values are highest where pleasant views and open land have been protected.

The dilemma is how to preserve the manifest scenic qualities of this fast-growing little state while welcoming new businesses and new residents.

The folks at the SPNHF have no easy answers to that dilemma. But they have some time-tested tools, and a commitment to keep using them.

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