A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Celebrating a 50-Year Milestone for Conservation

Nubanusit Lake’s “island” was a nest egg for future success

By Eric Aldrich

Fifty years ago, a group of far-sighted Hancock and Nelson folks got together and did something truly remarkable for the times: They protected an important piece of land.
Nowadays, stories about protecting a tract here or there are pretty common. The region’s land trusts successfully raise money and protect a few tracts every year in a variety of ways.

But in 1961 it was rare. And thanks to the hard work of residents, the then-nascent Nature Conservancy and many others, they not only protected an amazing place, they started a land ethic for the region that continues today.

The place they protected is well-known and much-loved to many in the Monadnock Region: the so-called “island” in Nubanusit Lake.

Nubanusit State Park?

Louis Cabot Preserve, between Nubanusit Lake and
Spoonwood Pond.
This 400-acre tract jutting into the heart of Nuby’s crystal-clear waters isn’t technically an island. It connects to Nelson’s “mainland” by two thin strands of land, between which lies Spoonwood Pond, the undeveloped pond at the foot of Osgood Hill. Sweet, beautiful places, for sure.

And that’s what Richard Bennink thought more than 50 years ago when the future of this place was uncertain. While some stories can fade from memory, the 94-year-old Bennink remembers it like it was yesterday. At the time, Bennink was a banker working in Boston, enjoying summer weekends on Nubanusit Lake just like he did in his youth on his aunt’s farm.

In 1957, the island’s owner, Dr. L. Cabot Briggs, had grown tired of paying the taxes and wanted to sell. At the time, the N.H. Legislature was considering purchasing the island as a new state park. The notion of snack bars and a campground on the island divided lake residents. But by 1959, the Legislature spiked the idea, turning its attention instead to what would become Greenfield State Park.

The day after the Legislature’s decision, Bennink and his friend and fellow lakefront camp-owner George Ripley convinced Briggs to hold off on selling the land to developers while they tried another way to protect the land. They called top officials at The Nature Conservancy, which at the time was a tiny 9-year-old land trust.

After a visit by the Conservancy’s unpaid president, Dr. Richard Goodwin, the organization approved the project and the fundraising effort kicked into high gear. They produced a pamphlet, describing the unique opportunity to protect this land. Bennink bought a 9 hp motor for his boat and took potential supporters on tours of the place.

The Nature Conservancy in New Hampshire

Word about the campaign to save the Nubanusit island even reached the Boston Sunday Herald: “Nature Conservancy will keep the island in its unspoiled state. There will never be an automobile road on the 400 acres, never a gasoline station, never a `gift shoppe’ or a messy yard cluttered with alleged antiques. It will be maintained as a woodland sanctuary – inviolate, peaceful.”

As checks came in, Bennink, Ripley and their committee filed paperwork to found “The Nature Conservancy of New Hampshire” and by the spring of 1961 raised enough money to purchase the northern half of the island.
Enjoying the view of Louis Cabot Preserve
from Spoonwood Pond.

After convincing Briggs for another reprieve, the local fundraisers continued their push, appealing to summer residents, year-rounders and many others who enjoyed Nubanusit Lake’s active social scene. In consultation with Briggs, they decided that the island would be called the Louis Cabot Preserve, in honor of Briggs’ grandfather, a Civil War veteran who had originally bought the land from various past-owners. They cleared trails, posted welcome signs and appointed deputy fire wardens in Nelson and Hancock.

In July 1963, The Nature Conservancy conducted a detailed biological survey, documenting plant and wildlife species that occurred on the island. Students from Keene State College also began studying the island’s flora and fauna.

Celebrating a Double Milestone

By March 1964, they secured a Conservancy loan and raised enough money to purchase the island’s southern half. Finally, the entire island was protected and owned by The Nature Conservancy. In 1967, the Conservancy gave the land to Keene State College with deed restrictions protecting its natural assets. Keene State is still the owner.

Briggs’ daughter, Eleanor Briggs, founded the Harris Center for Conservation Education in 1970, just down the road from Nubanusit Lake. Within years, there, the Harris Center and Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests started a land-protection effort in Hancock, Nelson and surrounding areas that continues today. Their work would soon be joined by the Monadnock Conservancy, town conservation commissions and others. Mount Skatutakee, Thumb Mountain, Robb Reservoir and the Faulkner family’s Andorra Forest in Stoddard are now among the 29,600 acres protected throughout the Monadnock highlands.

It’s been 50 years since the double milestone in 1961: establishment of The Nature Conservancy in New Hampshire and protection of the first Nubanusit tract. Since then, The Nature Conservancy has helped protect more than 270,000 acres across the state and is working to restore critical habitats like the Ossipee Pine Barrens and Great Bay.

And next month the Nubanusit milestone is the subject of a celebration at the Harris Center. The event on August 27 is The Nature Conservancy’s 50th anniversary and annual meeting.

In addition to the meeting, the Conservancy plans a paddle-and-hike field trip to the island, among other field trips.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.