Pack Monadnock power lines could alter hiking experience

  • The view from alongside the he Pack Monadnock access road. It's the high-elevation spruce community often shrouded in clouds. It's also the roadside where the state plans to run a powerline. Photo by Francie Von Mertens

Thursday, October 19, 2017 9:37AM

I planned to write about a miracle unfolding outside the window, documented by photos, as monarch caterpillar transformed into bejeweled chrysalis and then a glorious monarch adult that took flight three weeks later.

As often happens, unsettling news pushed nature’s miracles aside.

The news: The state’s Public Utility Commission, with Eversource, intends to construct a powerline along the upper half of the Pack Monadnock-Miller State Park access road.

When plans were presented last week at a Public Information Session, it was clear the state thinks the road is just a road, and that’s where you put powerlines. Cheaper to install and maintain. Other options a lot more costly.

Outreach was modest. A few signs posted at the park. The major landowner along the impacted road section, The Nature Conservancy, didn’t know about the project. TNC’s Joanne Bass Bross Preserve surrounds a good part of the Park.

The summit and impacted road are in Peterborough. No outreach there, either.

People who know and love the park had no voice in the powerline decision.

High-impact state projects usually take great pains to identify and include all “stakeholders.”

About a dozen people who walk the road heard about it and attended.

Many walk it daily, before work, even in the early-morning dark of winter, starting the work day the best way they know.

They spoke compellingly. “It’s not a road,” said one. “It’s so much more.”

More people hike the road than the three other trail options combined. Raymond Trail, Wapack Trail, and Marion Davis Trail. I feel confident saying that.

Schoolchildren skip down the road; faces redder on the way up.

David Baum, one of the 6:30 a.m. roadies, counted 16 fellow walkers Monday.

Yes, it's a road, but one with few cars other than fall foliage weekends. When the park closes in late October for over half the year, the gate is locked, leaves and spruce needles cover pavement and snow further transforms road to a scenic meander.

I've written here about Pack Monadnock so many times, nature close and intimate. Footing secure, we're free to give all our attention to that world and its many transformations: seasonal, time of day, low elevation to high, varying weather.

It's that magical high-elevation world of dense spruce that will be impacted, rock outcroppings cleared along with the trees, roadside slopes flattened for a wide swath of poles strung with cables. Five road crossings, cables overhead, said the Public Utilities spokesperson presenting the plans.

Anyone walking the road knows the top section is steep. First gear in a shift car. How do you protect against erosion when trees and roots are cleared?

So many questions, but the focus isn't engineering. It's the park experience.

I wrote here about a time Carl and I went to the mountain to celebrate the first snow of the year. We paused as you often have to on that hike, struck by its profound beauty. Carl broke the silence of the snow-muffled world.

"I've been to church today."

It was a Sunday.

I know many people have said, or thought, the same.

At the Public Information Session, it was clear the state didn't realize the road is key to visitors' experience of the Park. Greg Connelly, another daily walker, said just that. He said it's not about grand vistas out. It's far more personal.

He said many people who walk the road don't walk the woods trails, narrow and closed-in, rocky and rooted. Look at your surroundings and you risk a stumble.

The roadway, wide and inviting, encourages full appreciation of your surroundings.

Costs were mentioned as reasons why continuing a powerline through the woods, like the lower-half transmission means, was not an option. Underground was dismissed for the same reason. An above-ground conduit was dismissed as unsafe, and just not done by the Public Utility Commission, in charge of utility safety in the state.

Jim Martens pointed out that it's done on Mt. Washington.

Greg asked the State to consider other costs, far out in the future. Not budgets, but costs to the very experience parks are created for. For people who know that walk, the project violates "a sacred trust." David Baum's words.

Greg's point is that the wrong decision made today robs future generations of an experience of great value. An Eversource staffer suggested to Greg that he would get used to the powerline. Well intentioned, I suspect, but so disturbing. As the natural world keeps disappearing, more and more people forget its powers to uplift.

To give you a sense of its scope, the project will take a year.

David Baum wrote a letter inviting the key people who made the decision to walk the road. He urged them to slow the process so that people who know the Park can help arrive at a creative solution.

A unique site demands a unique solution. Not the usual.

All agree that the existing patchwork of above-ground conduits, cables draped on spruce branches and six rickety poles needs an upgrade for safety and transmission reasons. That's not the issue.

Please send comments about what the access road experience means to you to: millerproject@nh.gov and Randy Knepper, PUC, at randy.knepper@puc.nh.gov, with a CC to brad.simpkins@nh.gov and philip.bryce@dred.nh.gov. The latter two are involved with state parks.

We are a community—hikers intimately connected with the roadway and state agencies charged either with safety or protecting park experiences. That's David's point. We aren't adversaries. We're all in this together.

In the meantime, please help the state understand what's at risk here. Expand the community. Soon. Plans are progressing.

Backyard Birder by Francie Von Mertens runs every other week in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.