How has grassroots activism shaped the modern environmental movement in New Hampshire?
In the decades after World War II, New Hampshire experienced another period of growth that taxed the state’s natural resources and infringed on the environment. The population doubled between 1950 and 1985, and the number of vacation homes doubled between 1960 and 1990. As they had earlier in the century, Granite Staters joined together to protect New Hampshire’s environment.
Olympic Refineries on the Seacoast. In 1973, Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis announced that his company, Olympic Refineries, planned to build the nation’s largest oil refinery on the shore of Great Bay at Durham Point. Supertankers, each as large as two or three islands in the Isles of Shoals, would transport crude oil from Saudi Arabia to a deep-water terminal off the coast, where it would be funneled through underwater pipelines to the onshore refinery to be processed into products like gasoline, diesel fuel, and heating oil.
With the country in the midst of an economic recession, the project brought the prospect of new jobs, lower taxes, and cheap and plentiful oil and gasoline. It also had the strong support of Governor Meldrim Thomson and William Loeb, the influential publisher of the only statewide newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader. Despite these seeming advantages, opposition to the plan sprang up almost immediately, which coincided with an emerging national interest in environmental issues. The first Earth Day celebration, for example, was held in California in 1970 and quickly spread to other parts of the country. In New Hampshire, a grassroots organization called Save Our Shores produced research on the refinery project that challenged many of the claims of economic benefits made by Onassis’s company, publishing them in a local weekly newspaper called Publick Occurrences. In addition, Save Our Shores highlighted the disastrous environmental and economic consequences that a potential oil spill would wreak on the Atlantic coast from Portland to Cape Cod.
At the Durham town meeting in March 1974, residents effectively killed the project. They were backed by a new state law, passed the day after the town meeting, that required local communities to approve the construction of oil refineries within their borders.
Opposition to the refinery project was led by three women from Durham—Nancy Sandberg, who organized and led Save Our Shores; Dudley Dudley, a state representative from Durham who proposed the new state law; and Phyllis Bennett, the publisher of Publick Occurrences. Their efforts saved the last remaining undeveloped area on Great Bay, along with the scenic Isles of Shoals, from becoming industrial wastelands.
Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant. Grassroots activists who opposed the construction of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in the late 1970s and 1980s were less successful. The Public Service Company of New Hampshire (PSNH) began to plan for a nuclear power plant in the 1960s. In the early 1970s they settled on a site directly on the coast in Seabrook, about 10 miles south of Portsmouth.
Opposition came from many different quarters, including established conservation groups and national organizations opposed to nuclear power. Many local leaders and ordinary citizens grew alarmed about the risks of nuclear power after two high-profile nuclear accidents, Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 and the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
But even before these accidents, opposition to the nuclear power plant had become well organized in New Hampshire. On August 1, 1976, the Clamshell Alliance held the first of several protests and attempted occupations of the proposed site. The “Clams,” as they were called, practiced nonviolent civil disobedience and inspired the formation of other anti-nuclear power groups in the United States, such as the Abalone Alliance in California and the Crabshell Alliance in Washington state, even though their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful in New Hampshire.
Despite the best efforts of environmental groups and in defiance of public opinion poll data, which showed widespread opposition to the plant, Seabrook opened in 1990 and remains operational today.
Northern Pass. Nearly 100 years after the successful fight to save Franconia Notch, Granite Staters launched another grassroots effort to preserve the landscape of the White Mountains when they rallied against a project known as Northern Pass. In 2011, EverSource (the successor to PSNH) and Hydro-Quebec (a Canadian public utilities company) proposed a project to run 192 miles of new power lines from Canada through northern New Hampshire and Franconia Notch, south to Concord and then east to Deerfield. The power lines, supported by massive towers, would transport electricity from hydroelectric dams in Quebec to the New England power grid.
Opposition to the project quickly coalesced in the Great North Woods and then spread to the rest of the state, with a proliferation of orange buttons, bumper stickers, lawn signs, posters, and banners with the slogan “Stop Northern Pass.” Governor John Lynch received more mail about Northern Pass than any other issue during his eight-year tenure. Opponents argued that the project would irreparably mar the landscape and damage the tourist economy, property values, and small businesses. They also contended that New Hampshire would disproportionately bear the burden of the powerlines while Massachusetts and southern New England enjoyed the benefits. The SPNHF joined the fight, securing conservation easements to block a number of potential paths for the power lines.
In the face of this opposition, EverSource and Hydro-Quebec agreed to make some concessions such as downsizing the wattage of the power lines, pledging to bury portions of the lines, and shifting the route so that the lines would be built along state roadways through the White Mountain National Forest instead of untouched land. Nevertheless, in February 2018, the state denied the permit for Northern Pass, a decision that was later upheld by the New Hampshire Supreme Court. The project is, for all intents and purposes, dead.
Although grassroots activism has been an important feature of environmentalism in New Hampshire, the state government has also played an crucial role in conserving land. Recognizing that the state’s rural character is a draw for tourists and a vital facet of Granite State life, political leaders have often worked to balance growth with conservation of the landscape.
State Parks. Almost half a million acres, or 8% of New Hampshire’s total land, is managed by the state under the auspices of the Division of Parks and Recreation and the Division of Forest and Lands. The first state park in New England, Miller State Park, was created in 1891 when two landowners donated to the state of New Hampshire a three-acre tract of land on Pack Monadnock Mountain. The state park system expanded throughout the 20th century, especially during the 1930s, when federal and state work relief programs, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, prioritized the development of park facilities (for more on this topic, see Unit 15: Forging a Modern Identity). Today, the Division of Parks and Recreation manages 93 sites statewide, including campgrounds, beaches, natural areas, ski areas, historic sites, and recreational trails. Some sites, like ski areas, are managed for recreation and produce revenue, while others are managed for preservation.
Public-Private Partnerships. The state has also partnered with private nonprofit conservation organizations to preserve land.
In 1968, a state constitutional amendment decreased the tax burden on property owners who left their land undeveloped. In 1987, the state legislature created the Land Conservation Investment Program (LCIP). LCIP worked with a private nonprofit partner, the Trust for New Hampshire Lands, which was initiated by the SPNHF. Under this public-private partnership, LCIP used a combination of state and private funds to purchase over 100,000 acres of land to protect it from development and preserve its conservation and recreational value. At the local level, many towns began to embrace planning tools like zoning regulations, wetlands ordinances, and shoreline protection zones to encourage conservation.
In the 21st century, the public-private partnerships model has been the dominant feature of preservation in New Hampshire. The LCIP and Trust for New Hampshire Lands program ended in 1993, but the state legislature created its successor, the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program (LCHIP), in 2000 to preserve New Hampshire's most important natural, cultural, and historic resources. LCHIP funds come from fees on documents such as mortgages and deeds, as well as the conservation license plate (Moose Plate) program. Grant recipients must raise at least one additional dollar from other public and private sources for every dollar provided by LCHIP. Nearly 300,000 acres of land has been protected through LCHIP, such as the Surry Mountain Forest in Gilsum, Mount Pleasant in Tuftonboro, the Connecticut Lakes headwaters in Pittsburg, and the Oyster River Forest in Durham.
Thanks to LCHIP, other state programs, and several public-private partnerships since the 19th century, over 1.7 million acres of New Hampshire land has been permanently conserved as of 2013. This land provides recreational opportunities like hiking, fishing, and snowmobiling, manages the state’s timber and wildlife resources, and supports working farms. The state has long recognized the importance of conserving land to maintain these benefits and has worked together with private groups to achieve this goal.