Northern Pass Attacks Land Conservation in New Hampshire, Loses in the First Round

Christophe Courchesne

courtesy Society for Protection of New Hampshire Forests

Last week brought a fitting capstone to the botched year-long rollout of the Northern Pass project.  In a disturbing turn of events, the project developers sought to scuttle a historic plan to preserve a storied wilderness in New Hampshire’s North Country. Their attempt failed, but what the episode says about their future tactics is anything but encouraging for New Hampshire and the region.

Northern Pass Transmission, LLC (NPT) – a partnership between Northeast Utilities and NSTAR – has spent 2011:

It has been clear for some time that the current proposal is really about two things – securing profits for Hydro-Québec and propping up NU subsidiary PSNH’s weakening bottom line. CLF is not alone in wondering: what’s in it for New Hampshire?

Last week was a vivid preview. And if you care about New Hampshire’s iconic wilderness landscapes or the organizations that protect them, it’s not a pretty picture.

Earlier this fall, we learned that NPT was bidding to purchase a strip of land through one of the North Country’s crown jewels – the magnificent Balsams estate in Dixville Notch – from its owner, the Neil Tillotson Trust.

Enter the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (SPNHF), a key collaborator with CLF on Northern Pass advocacy and one of the state’s leading land conservation organizations. Culminating a decade of effort to preserve the Balsams landscape, SPNHF secured from the Trust a conservation easement over 5,800 acres of spectacular wilderness surrounding the resort, provided that SPNHF raises $850,000 for the easement by mid-January. (You can follow the effort here. Word is that, as of today, SPNHF is nearly a third of the way there.) The easement would preclude any transmission corridor.

The land is an ecological and scenic marvel, and the deal marks a historic land preservation achievement for SPNHF, the Trust, and New Hampshire as a whole.

The Balsams Resort in winter (photo credit: j-fi/flickr)

NPT’s bizarre and audacious response: launch a legal attack on the conservation plan.

Last week, NPT asked the state Attorney General’s Office to disapprove the easement on the ground that NPT’s earlier bid was higher. Then on Friday of last week, NPT made a very public offer to buy both the transmission corridor and the conservation easement, which would secure a right to site the Northern Pass project on the Balsams property. The last move was particularly odd because most bidding wars don’t involve publicly bullying a seller – a respected charitable trust no less – into accepting an offer.

As noted in the Concord Monitor and on NHPR, news came late Friday afternoon that the state Attorney General’s Office had approved the sale of the conservation easement to SPNHF, despite NPT’s objections and richer offers. The approval letter noted that it was well within the Trust’s charitable purposes and discretion to sell the easement to SPNHF for less than NPT’s offer. In other words, the Trust should be free to decide that preserving the Balsams property for the benefit of the North Country is more important than the Trust’s financial return.

Why was NPT’s attack on the conservation plan so troubling?

  • NPT sought to undermine land preservation efforts throughout New Hampshire. Land preservation almost always requires generosity – the landowner’s decision to accept less than market value or to make an outright donation of an easement. If it had been successful, NPT’s legal attack would have left no room for such generosity, granting any private developer the power to block a landowning non-profit’s preservation of its land whenever the developer offered more money than the conservation organization or community that would hold the conservation easement.
  • NPT is on war footing.  NPT is pursuing the equivalent of scorched earth litigation, resorting to strong-arm tactics and legal appeals to the state, including a threat of litigation to block the SPNHF easement that, as of today, remains on the table. At this early stage of the project’s permitting, this is exactly the opposite of what we need – a well-informed regional and statewide dialogue about our energy future, the project’s potential role if any, and the alternatives to traditional overhead lines along NPT’s proposed route.
  • NPT has broken its promise to find a route “that has support of property owners.”  The Trust made a decision not to sell to NPT; within days, NPT was crying foul to a state official.  NPT’s appeal to the state reveals, for all to see, that NPT will respect the will of landowners only when that will is to sell NPT the land it wants. As others pointed out before the Attorney General Office’s decision, NPT’s carefully-worded disinterest in using eminent domain (except as a “very last resort,” in the words of PSNH President Gary Long) is no longer credible, if it ever was.
  • NPT is willing to spend huge sums, but only to get the project it wants. Without hesitation or public discussion, NPT offered what amounts to a $1 million donation (of Hydro-Québec’s money) to the Trust, including a $200,000 grant to Colebrook Hospital and the money for the Balsams conservation easement. Clearly, NPT is willing to spend millions above and beyond market costs to get the route it wants, even as it rejects as too costly alternatives that could be better for New Hampshire.

Above all, the Balsams episode shows that NPT is not pursuing the Northern Pass proposal as a public-minded enterprise for the “good of all of New Hampshire.” With so much at stake for the region and New Hampshire, CLF’s work of 2012 is to secure a searching and rigorous public review process that will scrutinize every element of the Northern Pass project and ensure that the public interest – and not the dollars in NPT’s coffers – determines the project’s fate.

For more information about Northern Pass, sign-up for our monthly newsletter Northern Pass Wire, visit CLF’s Northern Pass Information Center (https://www.clf.org/northernpass), and take a look at our prior Northern Pass posts on CLF Scoop.

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