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Race To Conserve Belknap, Major Properties Heads Towards Finish

Sam Evans-Brown

In the Southern Lakes Region of New Hampshire, a bid is underway to conserve about a thousand acres of forested valleys and peaks in the Belknap range.  The fundraising campaign to buy this land has focused on a popular and convenient hike, Mount Major, on the shores of Alton Bay. As the project heads toward the finish line, it illustrates the tension between preserving access while still protecting ecosystems.

Everyday, “Two or Three Times”

“Generally, way back, once up and down Mt. Major or Mt. Belknap would be about my daily average,” says Art Richardson, who you can find on Mount Major pretty much every day of the year, doing laps. “More recently it’s gotten to two or three times a day, most days.”

At 71-years-old, Richardson has been at this for decades. “I like to say this mountain has been my health insurance,” he explained while hiking through the snow on a recent morning with home-made crampons, “You know [hiking Major every day] keeps the weight off, keeps the cholesterol and blood pressure in the normal range.”

He’s the enthusiastic ambassador for a nameless group of folks who hike about a mile up the steep eastern face of this mountain every day.

He has hooked everyone in the same way: by talking to everybody on the trail. If he catches you at the bottom, it goes like this.

Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR
The crew descends via the Boulder Loop trail. Each hiker has their limit for what they consider bad weather. Richardson won't hike in "heavy, or even moderate rain", while Gayle Gosselin will only head out up if it's above -5 degrees Fahrenheit at her house.

“Art was heading back up, so Art says, hey you want to hike with me?” explains Joan Hilton, a nurse who lives in Gilmanton, “and I’m like, okay, I don’t know who this dude is. I don’t know if this is such a good idea!”

But Richardson has a winning, guileless charm. He has put together a zero pressure hiking group. You show up whenever is convenient, and you meet out on the trail. Because Richardson goes up more than once, he’s the glue that holds the group together.

“He will have done it, like twice, and if he’ll be coming up the third time, and if we’re coming down he’ll immediately turn around,” says Gary Gosselin, a realtor from Alton, “Not saying a word, not saying oh I’ll hike down with you, he just engages in conversation and does this pirouette and down he goes.”

A Flagship Hike

And this group is not the only one that really digs climbing Major. On practically any summer day, the trailhead parking lot will be packed with dozens, if not hundreds of cars, sometimes spilling out onto the road.

So it’s no surprise the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests chose to highlight the Mountain in its fundraising pitch to preserve 950 acres in the Belknap range, even though only 175 of them are on Mt. Major.

Brenda Charpentier, Communications Manager for the project, says the other properties in the campaign are actually more diverse ecologically. But who’s ever heard of the Moulton River Valley?

Now, Mt. Major on the other hand.

In less than a year the fundraising campaign has nearly pulled in the $1.8 million it needs to preserve the land. People have pooled their money in the parking lot to give to the cause, and children have pitched in pocket change.

“They come up hiking all the time and enjoy it and love it, and don’t really realize that they’re crossing private land to get the top. And that private land could be sold or closed at any time,” warns Charpentier.

Even after if this project is completed, the mountain is a patchwork of mostly privately owned plots, though the summit is a state park, and the parking lot is owned by the state Department of Transportation.

Is Major “Overused”?

But Major’s popularity troubles some conservationists.

Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR
Heavy erosion on the Main trail has meant alternative routes to the top have proliferated. But as the main trail gets washed out, novice hikers who want surer footing move off the edges of the trail, which in turn makes the erosion spread even wider.

“Well, Mount Major is already over-used,” says Dave Roberts, a retired school teacher who has spent twenty years producing incredibly detailed maps of the Belknap range. Though poor health has put an end to his hiking days; he says thanks to a neurological disease he has ankles as strong as a wet-dish-rag.

Roberts not opposed to the project. In fact he’s one of its biggest supporters. He put up his own money to buy a 75 acre parcel which he is holding until the Forest Society can raise enough money to sock it away in conservation.

But even though he’s a believer in access, Roberts, like many environmentalists, worries about what happens when there’s too much access.

“Get the same number of people, or even an approximation of the number of people that are on this mountain out [in the heart of the Belknap Range], where’s the wild-life supposed to survive?” he asks.

On Major’s main trail, many hiking boots over the years and inadequate drainage have led to massive erosion. This led Roberts to construct alternate routes up the mountain, and there are now five ways up just on the eastern face of Major.

Many of the trails Roberts marks on his maps, he hoped to keep private, calling them stealth trails. He frets about what happens if too many people get on these them. One, the Boulder Loop on Major, Roberts gave away himself, walking after a slight snowfall years ago.

“Even though I was leaving a track for somebody to follow I didn’t think it would stay there, but it did. And somebody discovered it, they spoke to their friends and their friends spoke to their friends. And it didn’t take too long before that began to be a very popular trail,” he says, “I don’t know what the Boulder loop trail looks like now, but I’m suspicious that there are a lot of deep gullies in places.”

Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR
Dave Roberts has spent his entire retirement mapping the Belknap Range. His maps which are sold for a pittance at area libraries, map many peculiarities and historical oddities. Like a plane crash on Mount Belknap, and a tree that over the years has grown around a cross-cut saw that was left leaning against it.

In fact, it was the Boulder Loop Trail that we took down the day I met with Art Richardson and his crew, though deep snow obscured any gullies that may or may not be cut into the trail by hundreds of hikers.

“Who Knows What Condition I’d Be In”

The other individual who embodies the foundation of the Mt. Major group is Allan Collier. He says his record is six times up in one day, and likes to point out – chuckling – that four times up Major is the same elevation gain as climbing Mount Washington.

He calls his hikes with his friend Richardson 'mountain therapy'. Nearly a year ago his son, Sean Collier, was the MIT patrolman killed by the Tsarnaev brothers after the Boston Marathon bombing.

“With Arthur [Richardson], he and I in the beginning – last April, May, June, right when the loss was fresh – Art and I had a little signal. I’d tap the top of my head and if we were with a group of people and we’d start touching on a subject I didn’t want to talk about,” Collier explains, “I think if I didn’t have this mountain and I didn’t have my friends I probably just would have been sitting at home, and who knows what kind of condition I’d be in right now.”

The tension between the desire to keep lands open for recreation and to protect them from ravaging hordes of inexperienced hikers that tromp on the rare flowers, is a tough one to sort. Who knows how much that one mile of eroded trail has done to help people figure out their troubles, or how many are more likely to think about their place in the natural world because of it.

And really, the trend in the Belknaps is towards less access, not more.

Not long ago a popular trailhead in Gilford that you could use to hike to a spot called Round Pond was closed, after a new landowner posted the property. Not-to-mention, it’s Major’s show-stopping views that draw the crowds, and the biodiversity of the Belknaps is unlikely to attract throngs from Massachusetts.

The Forest Society hopes to finish the fundraising for this project in early March. Thanks to grants from the towns, from various conservation groups, and from the state’s newly reinvigorated Land and Community Heritage Investment Program, or LCHIP, they’re 80 percent of the way there.

Credit SPNHF
While the "Gage property" has been highlighted for its impressive biodiversity and variety of habitats, the two properties on Mt. Major are the ones that have been headlined all of the fundraising materials.