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What Is Northern Pass? Northern Pass is a proposal to run 192 miles of new power lines from Canada, through northern New Hampshire, south to Concord, and then eastward to Deerfield. The project is a collaboration between Eversource (previously known as Public Service of New Hampshire) and Hydro-Quebec, which is owned by the provincial government of Quebec. The utilities say the $1.6 billion Northern Pass project would transport 1,090 megawatts of electricity from Quebec – which derives more than 90 percent of its power from hydroelectric dams – to the New England power grid.The ControversyNorthern Pass has proved an incredibly controversial issue in New Hampshire, especially in the North CountryThe project has generated considerable controversy from the beginning. Despite its statewide impacts, many of the projects most dedicated opponents come from the sparsely-populated and heavily forested North Country.Eversource says the new lines would bring jobs and tax revenue to this struggling part of the state. But opponents of the project say it would mean only temporary jobs for residents when it's under construction. They also say it will deface New Hampshire's forestland, hurting tourism and lowering property values. Depending on the location, developers say the project's towers will range from 85 to 135 feet tall.Polls have consistently found the public remains sharply divided on this issue.Some critics have pushed for the entire project to be buried. Politicians ranging from Sen. Maggie Hassan to former Sen. Kelly Ayotte to 2012 GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich have floated this move as having the potential to soften opposition. Eversource maintains this would be too expensive, and would effectively make the project impossible to pursue. The Route: Real Estate Chess Plays Out In The North Country Northern Pass and its opponents have been fighting over control of land along potential routesNorthern Pass has considered a number of routes for the project, but has publicly announced three. The first, unveiled in 2011, faced major backlash from North Country residents and environmental groups. Over the next couple of years, the project and its primary opponent the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests played a prolonged chess match over parcels of North Country land. Northern Pass ultimately spent more than $40 million purchasing acres of undeveloped land in the North Country. Meanwhile, the Forest Society undertook an aggressive fundraising campaign and sought a slew of conservation easements to block potential routes.This maneuvering narrowed the options for Northern Pass. One lingering possibility was exercising eminent domain. Northern Pass publicly stated it was not interested in pursuing eminent domain. But in 2012, in response to strong statewide opposition, the Legislature closed the option altogether, outlawing the practice except in cases where a new transmission line was needed to maintain the reliability of the electric system.By the spring of 2013, Northern Pass opponents believed the project was essentially "cornered" into trying to route the power line through a large conservation easement, called the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters. The governor at that time, Democrat Maggie Hassan, said she opposed such a move on the part of Northern Pass.Second Time Around: Northern Pass Announces Alternative RouteIn June of 2013, Northern Pass unveiled its second proposed route. Abandoning its previous strategy (and $40 million in land purchases) altogether, the project proposed building along existing state and local North Country roadways in Clarksville and Stewartstown. In a nod to project opponents, Northern Pass also said it will bury 7.5 miles of line in Stewartstown, Clarksville, and under the Connecticut River. That raised the price tag on the project from $1.2 billion as initially proposed to about $1.4 billion. While opponents said this move was progress, many – including the Forest Society – maintained that Northern Pass should be able to bury all 180 miles of power lines.Final Route: Burial through the White Mountains0000017a-15d9-d736-a57f-17ff8a620000 After years of continued opposition, Northern Pass made its final concession to critics. It downsized the powerline from an initial proposal of 1,200 megawatts to 1,090 to take advantage of a new technology, known as HVDC lite. This move made it more economical to bury portions of the line, and Eversource said it was now willing to bury 52 additional miles of the project. The new route would be alongside state roadways as the project passed through the White Mountain National Forest.While the governor called the change “an important improvement,” she also said “further improvements” to the project should be made. The partial burial did not placate the project’s fiercest opponents, but some speculated that it would help the project clear one significant hurdle: whether it would get approval to use public lands from the top official at the White Mountain National Forest. The move pushed the estimated price tag up again, to $1.6 billion, now for a project that would deliver less power.With its new route in hand, project officials filed to build the project in October of 2015.Before the Site Evaluation CommitteeThe application to state officials was likely the longest and most complicated in the state’s history, and 161 individuals, interest groups, and municipalities asked to be allowed to participate in the process to evaluate the merits of the project.Given the size and complexity of the project, many of the interveners pushed for a longer review than the standard one year that state law dictates. In May of 2016, those groups got their wish, and the decision was pushed back 9 months. The final deadline was set for September of 2017. However, once the proceeding got under way, it was clear that even this delay would not allow time to hear from all of the witnesses called by the various interveners. Early in September of 2017 it was delayed again, with a final decision set for February 2018.DeniedOn February 1st, 2018, the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee voted unanimously to deny the permit for Northern Pass, a decision that triggered an appeals process that was taken up by the New Hampshire Supreme Court in late 2018.In May of 2019, the court heard orgal arguments on the appeal.On July 19, 2019, the court issued its ruling. In a unanimous decision, the SEC's rejection of the project was upheld, likely marking the end of Northern Pass as it was proposed.

These Birds Aren’t Singing ‘NIMBY’ To Power Line Clear-Cuts

Todd Bookman/NHPR

Picture unspoiled wild forest, the type of place only animals and Boy Scouts feel at home. Now erase that image from your mind, and picture a power line right of way: one of those ruler-straight strips of utility poles that brutishly slash through the woods. Would anything choose that for a home?

“From a distance, they may not look like much. But when you get inside them, they are really incredible habitats,” says Matt Tarr, a wildlife biologist with the University of New Hampshire.

Tarr is spending the next two years studying how these right of ways serve as habitats for songbirds, whose numbers have been declining due to a squeeze on their traditional habitats. It turns out these clear-cuts of forest can make for an ideal nesting ground.

“We have groups of species of that really require these young forest conditions, and so that young forest condition is naturally created through disturbances,” says Tarr.

By disturbances, Tarr means wildfires, storms and flooding. In the modern world, we don’t let fires burn and we don’t have as many old-growth forests, which are more susceptible to windstorms. The result is a shortage of naturally occurring young forests.

Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR
An Eversource managed right of way in Strafford, NH.

But under these utility poles, that’s exactly what you’ll find: shrubby bushes and immature trees. They provide cover, and attract the insects that many songbirds feed on.

These aren’t really new habitats for these birds,” says Tarr. “It’s just the type of habitat they need, just created in a slightly different manner.”

Tarr and his team from UNH are trying to determine which species set up shop here for the spring and summer, making nests and reproducing. To get an accurate count, they use what are called mist nets, each measuring about forty feet long and twelve feet high.

“And so as the birds fly through this habitat, when they hit the net, they basically just fall down and get tangled in the pocket.”

At one of the twelve nets set up in the town of Stafford, a female Canada warbler finds herself tangled. Tarr works quickly to free it.

“I know, I know, I’m sorry,” he coos to the bird.

Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR
Matt Tarr, a UNH professor, shows of how the mist nets capture songbirds for research.

In just a minute, he’s got her loose. Tarr is a big man with a thick neck and shaved head, but he handles these birds like they’re made of crystal.

After appreciating her subtle beauty, Tarr hustles the bird to a central banding station, where Erica Holm, a graduate student, has her tools and instruments laid out on a folding table underneath a buzzing power line. The birds are weighed and measured and tagged, and then quickly released.

“Just long enough to record the information about the bird...age and sex,” she says. “So maybe like five-six minutes. Not very long. I’m about ready to let her go.”

In just a few hours, the team has already documented eighteen birds from six species, including song sparrow, prairie warbler, field sparrow, chestnut sided, and common yellow throat.

Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR
Matt Tarr and a team from UNH, some pictured here, are spending the next two years counting songbirds.

The research project comes with a $250,000 price tag, which is being picked up by grants, including some federal money and a larger chunk from the non-profit National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. That group, it’s worth noting, receives some of its funding from Eversource, the power company that is seeking permission to build the controversial Northern Pass project. That project, of course, would blaze new utility right of ways in the state’s North Country.

While that may sound like a conflict of interest, Tarr says it’s not.

“I make it clear when I accept funding that I am not here to advocate for a project,” he says. “My goal as a wildlife biologist is to better understand how these rights of way and the habitat we study function as habitat for wildlife.”

And while it’s not perhaps the most beautiful habitat to us, to songbirds these right of ways may just be the next best thing to a natural young forest.  

Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.

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