Friday, October 15, 2010

Many voice concerns about possible loss of park manager

PROTECTING PISGAH

By Casey Farrar
Sentinel Staff
Published:
Thursday, October 14, 2010 12:20 PM EDT
HINSDALE — Keeping someone to watch over Pisgah State Park is one of the main priorities of those who packed into Hinsdale Town Hall Wednesday to learn more about the park’s fate.

The meeting was a chance for state parks and forestry officials to explain changes they’ve made to a draft park management plan to members of a steering committee that has spent the last three years working on the plan.

The 13,300-plus-acre park is in Chesterfield, Hinsdale and Winchester.

The changes — which would clarify the process for forestry decisions and allow mountain bikers and horse riders to use more existing trails — were based on public comments received this summer, state officials said.

People made more than 243 comments on the plan, said Kenneth M. Desmarais, administrator of the N.H. Forest Management Bureau.

But while the management plan is nearing completion, it remains unclear whether the park will continue to have a full-time manager.

In previous steering committee meetings, state officials have raised the possibility of eliminating the manager position and instead using a federally funded forest official to oversee the park and several state-owned properties nearby.

Concern about the loss of the park manager was raised by many local residents during an hour-long public comment period during Wednesday’s meeting, which was attended by more than 50 people.

The message from most who spoke was clear: The loss of a park manager, who oversees day-to-day issues at the park, would lead to more illegal activity and more difficulty in coordinating trail maintenance with volunteer groups.

Norma Reppucci has been park manager since 2004, when former manager James R. Bearce resigned in response to organizational changes that shifted oversight of the park from the state Division of Parks to the Trails Bureau.

The number of staff members at the park has decreased through the years from three to one, leaving weekends unstaffed.

For the last few years, the Friends of Pisgah, a volunteer group, has stepped in to man the park’s visitor center on weekends, when most visitors arrive.

When asked if state officials could guarantee the park would always have a manager, George Bald, commissioner of the N.H. Department of Resources and Economic Development, wasn’t making any promises.

“I can’t say what will happen right now,” he said.

Bald estimates the manager position costs the state about $80,000 a year.

He said economic pressures on the state parks — the nation’s only self-funded system — over the past several years have made it difficult to maintain staffing at all the state’s 75 parks.

“When the main source of revenue is parking meters and campgrounds, if you get a lot of rain, it affects things,” he said.

A season filled with many sunny, pleasant weekends this year should be a financial boost to the department, along with a law passed this year that will create license plates that help fund the parks — similar to the state’s “moose plates” that help pay for conservation — Bald said.

But there are no guarantees, he said.

Matt Donachie of Winchester, who is a member of Friends of Pisgah, said during the meeting the management plan should include a note that the park will never be without a manager.

“If you pull a ranger and don’t have anyone there, you’re leaving a way for, as I see it, wholesale destruction,” Donachie said.

Regular oversight and enforcement of rules is important with growing use of the trails, Donachie said.

Soon mountain bikes and horses will be permitted, in addition to the hikers, off-road vehicles and snowmobiles that already take to the trails.

Several local residents said state officials should work to find ways to increase revenue at Pisgah, including parking or user fees.

Amanda Barnard, lead instructor for Richmond’s Camp Takodah Outdoor Education Program, said she brings about 100 children to the park each year for hikes and believes her organization and others would be willing to pay user fees.

“For us to see the potential of this park melting into something that is not managed is really upsetting to me,” she said.

While funding issues won’t likely be solved in the near future, the management plan could be adopted by the end of the year.

Members of the steering committee have 30 days to mull the proposed changes to the draft management plan and submit comments to state officials.

Once those comments are received, state officials will consider them before moving forward with adopting the plan, Bald said.

The revised draft plan will be posted on the agency’s website, likely by the end of the month, Desmarais said.

Casey Farrar can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or cfarrar@keenesentinel.com.

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