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Wednesday, November 22 News

Wildlife refuge in New England set for major expansion

JEFFERSON, N.H. (AP) — Driving along the edges the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, Dave Govatski slows to marvel at the flock of blue jays flying past and spots a woodpecker-like flicker darting through the pine trees.

That stretch of forest, wetlands and pasture in northern New Hampshire is part of a refuge that covers more than 37,000 acres of mostly former timberland that encompasses parts of Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut. It is home to coyotes, bears as well as rare plants and fish species. But it is best known for migratory birds, with 275 species calling the refuge home.

The birds are a big reason that Govatski, a forester and naturalist, supports plans endorsed earlier this year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to significantly expand the reserve over the next 15 years.

"These things are refueling stops for birds traveling long distances from South America up into northern parts of North America where they can rest and continue their journey," Govatski said. "It's like you are on a highway where you have a chain of rest stops where you can get gas and get food and not be harassed."

But the scope of the expansion plan is now sparking opposition from the timber industry that fears the loss of lucrative logging sites. And officials in Vermont and New Hampshire have raised concerns that lands that could contribute to the tax rolls would be lost.

"The plan as I see it is a slow motion body blow to the working forest of Vermont and all those who earn their living harvesting forest products and processing them into lumber and into wood products that are part of their lives," said Bill Sayre, co-owner of a lumber mill in Vermont and plan opponent.

The debate appeared to be settled earlier this year in favor of protecting the land when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signed off on the plan. But in recent months, the governors of New Hampshire and Vermont — Republicans Chris Sununu and Phil Scott — have challenged the plans. Both were elected in November.

Echoing concerns about federal control of land out west, the two governors sent letters to the U.S. Department of Interior laying out their issues with the land expansion.

"I guess one of my concerns is we already have very high property taxes in this state. It's one of our problems with affordability. By taking this land out of private concerns means less taxes," Scott told reporters last week.

Though there are several property owners interested in adding their land to the refuge, the concerns have prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to hold off on purchases for now. Still, supporters argue their expansion should go ahead, citing the fact that New England is losing 65 acres of forest land each day to development.

Federal authorities, though, appear sensitive to fears the expansion will amount to a land grab and are making the case that purchasing the land outright is only one option to keeping it from becoming a housing subdivision or strip mall.

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"We are not trying to purchase all this land. We are just trying to have a seat at the table to be part of the protection of this land," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Andy French, the project leader for Conte, as he led a visitor past a spruce and cedar forest on the way to a bog known as Mud Pond. "We just want to see it conserved."

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