August 24, 2023

Leveraging the Law to Protect the Scenic Landscapes of New Hampshire

New Hampshire holds some of New England’s most scenic and rural landscapes, vistas, village centers, family farms, and historic places. In 2011, 192 miles of this countryside was threatened by a series of metal lattice towers and monopoles (up to 142 feet high) to bring power from Canada to Southern New England by Eversource Energy.

As originally proposed, this project—which would have cut through both public and private land—would have impacted the Appalachian National Scenic Trail; the Rocks Estate in Bethlehem (the summer home of John J. Glessner, cofounder of International Harvester); the Civilian Conservation Corps Camp within the Bear Brook State Park (the only surviving CCC work camp in the state; and the John Wingate Weeks Historic Site in Weeks State Park (U.S. congressman, Secretary of War, and leading conservationist), as well as passed through the White Mountain National Forest.

The Franconia Ridge Trail in the White Mountain National Forest.

photo by: The Big Outside/Michael Lanza

The Franconia Ridge Trail in the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire.

Thankfully, a decade of collective advocacy by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, conservation organizations, private citizens, and local partners successfully saved these Scenic Landscapes of New Hampshire from threatened development. In July 2023, Eversource Energy transferred the land for the Northern Pass Transmission LLC project back to the previous owners, which included private citizens, R&B Rentals LLC (Bear Rock Adventures) and Dead Water LLC (managed by Wagner Forest Management). Eversource abandoned the project after the New Hampshire Supreme Court upheld the state Site Evaluation Committee’s (“SEC”) unanimous decision to deny Eversource’s application in 2019. Eversource did not receive financial compensation for the transaction.

“It was a great collaboration and a very inspiring effort,” said Betsy Merritt, Deputy General Counsel for the National Trust who has been working on this campaign since its inception. “When you respond with effective advocacy, it can work even when you’re up against enormous corporations,” she added. Merritt stated that the Northern Pass campaign was overwhelming at times given the number of stakeholders and length of the proceedings. The land transfer is a final victory and closes this chapter of advocacy for the National Trust.

Coalition Building for Increased Awareness

The National Trust’s Law Division and former Boston Field Office began advocating to protect Northern Pass in 2011 after the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance notified the National Trust of the proposed development. At that time, the Department of Energy was soliciting comments for its scoping document as part of its review process for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The National Trust provided comments, emphasizing the need for careful consideration of historic and archaeological resources, landscapes, and scenic areas. In the intervening years, the National Trust signed on as consulting parties in the Section 106 review of the National Historic Preservation Act and continued to participate in the NEPA process.

To bring attention to the issue, the National Trust listed Scenic Landscapes of New Hampshire listed as a National Treasure in 2015. The advocacy campaign had three goals:

  1. Advocate for historic and scenic resources through the Section 106, NEPA, and statewide Site Evaluation Committee reviews;
  2. Strengthen and empower grassroots networks and supporters to effectively engage in the review processes, and to identify and protect places that are important to them; and
  3. Share lessons learned to help other communities facing large-scale energy development projects.
View from the tower at Weeks State Park.

View from the tower at Weeks State Park in New Hampshire.

After the National Treasure announcement, the National Trust teamed up with the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance to bring advocacy workshops to communities throughout the state that were in the path of the proposed power line. The grassroots movement against the proposal for the power line was extremely strong and led by passionate advocates. The workshops were organized to learn from the grassroots network and to add preservation-based tools to their advocacy tool kits.

Procedural Victories Protect the Scenic Landscapes of New Hampshire

In July 2015, the Department of Energy released its Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) and solicited input from the public. In August 2015, Northern Pass made public a revised plan, which included burying an additional 52.3 miles than originally proposed, primarily through the White Mountain National Forest. Then in early September 2015, Northern Pass held a series of public meetings to fulfill a requirement of its application to the state’s Site Evaluation Committee (SEC), the state agency that is charged with reviewing and permitting all proposed energy projects in New Hampshire.

As a result, the National Trust, the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance, environmental organizations, and advocates prepared comments on the DEIS, analyzed the new route, and prepared for the anticipated project application to the SEC. In August 2017, the Department of Energy released a Final Environmental Impact Statement, concluding that the project “would not result in a significant impact to the environment.” Even with this initial setback, the advocates did not give up.

The Franconia Ridge Trail in the White Mountain National Forest.

photo by: The Big Outside/Michael Lanza

The Franconia Ridge Trail in the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire.

On February 1, 2018, the SEC denied the Northern Pass proposal after the National Trust, New Hampshire Preservation Alliance and other advocates, expressed concerns about the project’s negative impacts to historic resources. Eversource claimed that the project would bring clean energy and economic development to the region, but advocates argued that the implications would be far too great. The state SEC agreed, stating in its decision that “[Eversource] failed to establish that the Project would not unduly interfere with the orderly development of the region” and Eversource’s economic analysis had “profound problems.” On July 19, 2019, the New Hampshire Supreme Court affirmed the SEC decision to deny the needed permit for the Northern Pass power line.

Carter Notch in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest

photo by: The Big Outside/Michael Lanza

Carter Notch in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest.

For the advocates, the biggest lesson learned from this campaign is the power of working together. “Our collaboration between the national groups, statewide groups and local experts who knew their heritage to coordinate our advocacy was a really important component of this successful outcome. We maximized the use of the local expertise and local relationships with our national influence. The combination was really effective,” Merritt said.

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Jade McClary is an associate general counsel in the Law Division at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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