BERLIN — Many North Country residents and their neighbors in Oxford County, Maine, remain convinced the U.S. government has gone far enough in buying up private land for the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge.
Maybe too far, some said.
In case U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials didn't know that already, the point was driven home again Thursday when about 80 people — most of them residents of communities that have been affected by the federal preservation effort — turned out at White Mountains Community College to meet with government representatives.
While the overall footprint of the refuge area is expected to change little from this point, federal wildlife officials hope the amount of property the government owns within it will increase quite a bit.
The refuge comprises about 76,900 acres, and the government owns only about 27,000 of those acres. It controls the rest through land easements and other means. In 2008, Fish & Wildlife went public with its plans to eventually own about 74,000 acres of the refuge outright.
The continued land buying, according to opponents of that plan, threatens to kill small communities by taking once-taxable property off the tax rolls while the cash-strapped federal government makes up an increasingly smaller portion of that lost tax revenue each year.
Some residents on the Maine side of the refuge said they worry their small communities will end up like Errol in the North Country, where the government owns one-third of the town's land.
Furthermore, Fish & Wildlife has a policy of, for the most part, not allowing trees to be harvested on land it owns. That, critics say, restricts timber industry jobs that have long been a main component of the North Country's economic lifeblood.
“Seventy-five percent of Errol is upland forest, suitable for timber harvest,” longtime North Country resident Bing Judd said.
Coos County Treasurer Fred King of Colebrook said at last week's meeting, “The federal government, while it is broke, is buying land that it doesn't need, can't use and can't pay for.”
Among the several Wildlife Service Northeast officials on hand were Scott Kahan, a regional chief, and Joseph McCauley, who heads the realty division.
They reviewed some history of the refuge, which was established in 1992 and expanded in 1999. They assured the audience that the Interior Department did not intend to keep on acquiring property indefinitely. In fact, McCauley doubted there would be any money in the federal budget to purchase more land in 2013-14 and possibly none in the fiscal year after that.
Kahan, who works from an office in South Hadley, Mass., acknowledged — both during the meeting and in an interview afterward — that it wasn't clear exactly how the federal government would proceed at Umbagog.
“But I hope all the parties involved, including the towns — all of us — will be able to work together; that's what we want to do,” he said.
The heart of the 2 1/2-hour meeting, however, was devoted to residents' comments, and there was no shortage of them. For the most part, the officials listened quietly.
If the federal government wanted to show good faith toward refuge-area residents in New Hampshire and Maine, Dan Bouchard of Milan said, that task would be easy:
“Errol is asking for a moratorium. We want (the process) to slow down. Stop right now,” at least temporarily, said Bouchard, a former Errol resident. “We were never told it was going to be this monster that just kept growing.”
None of the federal representatives directly addressed the moratorium proposal.
“Our taxes have quadrupled since the refuge came in,” said Barry Kelley of Berlin. “Do you need to own every camp on Umbagog?”
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Bob Hookway may be reached at email@example.com.