One of New Hampshire’s Oldest Town Forests Remains at the Forefront of Innovative Conservation
When hardships from the Great Depression struck Gorham, New Hampshire in the 1930’s, the town found both its economy and water supply vulnerable. The largest employer and landowner in the Town, the Brown Paper Company, declared bankruptcy and were unable to pay property taxes on their Gorham land, which included 4,000 acres of forest that provided the water supply to the entire town. With forestland as a key economic driver of both tourism and the timber industry and a necessary underpinning of public health, Gorham wanted to invest in a new approach to managing its woodlands that balanced both in a sustainable way. In a bold move amidst economic turmoil, with broad public support, the town purchased over 3,380 acres of forestland in 1936, to ensure clean drinking water for over 90 percent of residents.
In the 1990s , when the ‘vertical integration’ model of forest ownership broke down, mills closed and loggers lost jobs in the woods, uncertainty around the timber industry started to arise. However, Gorham quickly adapted a strategy to utilize the Town Forest as an asset beyond clean drinking water by forming the Town Forest Committee. The Committee multiplied Gorham Town Forest’s goals in addition to protecting the water supply, managing timber, maintaining wildlife habitat, supporting public access and educational opportunities, and ultimately serving as a model for future forest ownership. Active timber management helped the town cope from the Ice Storm of 1998, which required salvage harvesting—a method of mitigating economic losses due to natural disasters and recreating conditions for successful restoration. It was also structured to set aside revenue primarily for management of the forest that can also act as a revenue source for other town projects, such as the construction of Town Hall and repairs to the Fire Station. The Town Forest continues to serve as an educational resource for local schools, contains hiking and biking trails for residents and visitors, and is open for hunting by foot.
To this day the Town of Gorham prioritizes the success of its forest as a high-valued community asset through its partnership with The Conservation Fund.
For 14 years, the town had tried unsuccessfully to acquire a 2,005-acre key missing piece in the Town of Gorham’s drinking watershed. Through our Working Forest Fund®, we were able to assist with fundraising efforts and help the town acquire this parcel, which will result in the permanent conservation of the now 6,000 acre Town Forest.
WHY THIS PROJECT MATTERS
This newly acquired land, which will be added to the Gorham Town Forest, protects the town’s water supply lands and primary forest access roads that double as recreational trails. Expanding this working forest will ensure additional timber revenue opportunities, wildlife habitat, and an educational and recreational resource for future generations. In an era of increasingly vulnerable clean water sources, completing the permanent protection of the surface watershed for drinking water for over 90% of the Town residents ensures a sustainable community resource for future generations.
Funders for this project include the USFS Community Forest and Open Space Program, NH Land and Community Heritage Investment Program, NH DES Drinking Water and Groundwater Trust Fund, NH State Conservation Commission, Open Space Institute Community Forest Fund, and the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund of the NH Charitable Foundation.
AT A GLANCE
What is a Town Forest?
America’s northeast region has many unique qualities, one being the origins of Town Forests. Founded in Vermont, Town Forests are the traditional community forests — a.k.a. towns holding land for the public good. There are over 30 Town Forests across New England, some acquired as far back as the 1600s. In recent years, ‘Community Forests’ are a group of these Town-or Community-owned forests that offer multiple benefits through permanent conservation.
Learn more about Community Forests:
What happened to Northern Forestlands in the ‘90s?
As the timber industry’s supply chain shifted, many people began to speculate its sustainability. What used to be direct ownership of land by companies to feed their own mills, evolved into investment companies that managed for a rate of return. Suddenly, land was no longer just a resource for forest management; it became an asset that could be sold, subdivided, or developed. To adapt to these new perspectives and the changing market, The Conservation Fund took a new approach to timber management with strategic land ownership and market-based conservation.
Learn more about the history of working forests:
Vermont and New Hampshire Representative