The Northern Pass battle was fought before
Illustration by Gloria Diianni
Once upon a time, a quiet, largely rural region of New Hampshire was visited by a novel spectre — a proposal for a new, high-tension power line project, with a right of way to bisect the community, including farms and wild natural areas.
No, this is not the Northern Pass Project — though perhaps its prescient ancestor.
In the 1970s, The New Hampshire Times, a weekly newsmagazine, reported on, and even bore some influence upon, the public issues of the time. The Times was an eclectic, sometimes-quirky tabloid with stories on topics ranging from state politics and colorful country characters to features on coyotes, bats and bears. It also weighed in on controversies ranging from protests against the Seabrook nuclear power plant to a little-known controversy involving a new power line project in the town of Loudon.
As a young journalist, I wrote for, and later edited, The New Hampshire Times, so in recent years, as the news of the Northern Pass power line project began to divide Granite Staters into camps of pro and con, that story came back to me. I relate it here for the sake of history, but also because someone might learn a thing or two from what went before.
“Unless the efforts of several local residents are successful,” reported The Times in October of 1974, “the Town of Loudon will soon be split by a 150-foot swath cut through its forests and farmlands. The corridor will be a right of way cleared by the Public Service Company of New Hampshire, through which they intend to construct an electrical transmission line that will run from Deerfield to Laconia.”
Public Service originally planned to construct the line through the nearby town of Gilmanton, but the hearings about that project ignited so much resistance from local public figures and townspeople that the company changed plans and targeted the alternative route, over Loudon Ridge, and through the historic and pristine Bumfagon Swamp wildlife area. (The curious name derives from the term for the area coined by early French Quebec settlers: bon fagon or “good firewood.”)
As a farming and forestry community, with a picturesque, historic white church on the peak of Loudon Ridge, and with a wilderness wetlands area at stake, some Loudon residents were not feeling power line-friendly. Visions of 65-foot-tall structures marching across Loudon Ridge did not bring sweet dreams.
A small band of opponents who coalesced to fight the power line right-of-way faced a steep uphill battle. In 1974, Loudon was as Yankee and traditional as could be. It was “taken for given” that the splendid rural environment would always be unspoiled, and there was a Freeman attitude that a man should be able to do what he wants with his land.
At the time, Loudon was fiercely opposed to municipal zoning, and the property to be seized by eminent domain was to be compensated by payment at whatever value per acre was attached by a government assessor. There was not a great deal of excess cash circulating in Loudon. The expected easement price to be paid to landowners within the proposed powerline route was $200 per acre for woodland and up to $1,000 per acre on land that was deemed to have house lot potential.
Attorney Robert Upton II, then a resident of Loudon, said the company expected little opposition to its attempts, thinking Loudon’s citizenry “too unorganized to mount effective opposition to the plans.” And since power lines are taxed, it was assumed that dissidents would be swayed by the revenue that would accrue to the town.
Not so fast.
Enter what poetically would be termed a motley crew. Its inspirational leader, Bob Hibbard, was a farmer, woodsman and naturalist who knew his way around town. He was a bear of a man, hard-working and resourceful. He once levered a snowbound tractor back into service by cutting a tree to use as a giant crowbar. He served as chairman of Loudon’s nascent conservation commission and knew that to rally the people, they needed to hear him, so he called The Times.
Richard Wright, editor-in-chief at the time, handed me the assignment. I telephoned Hibbard for some background and directions, and told me his farm was on Loudon Ridge. I had never heard of the place. He roared: “You don’t know Loudon Ridge?”
My ignorance was soon corrected.
The Public Service right-of-way power line proposal was slated to cut through Bob Hibbard’s Loudon Ridge farm.
Loudon activists, mostly amateurs in public advocacy, coalesced around Hibbard, and, before long, research on the project’s potential impacts were published, home-made flyers were printed and delivered door-to-door, and Loudon’s wilderness areas, along with the fine farmlands and forests of Loudon Ridge achieved a new sort of affection and fame.
In ensuing public event questioning, some facts emerged. Installation of the proposed and potential future planned transmission lines would require clear cutting of a utility right-of-way for the towers and required spacing, through Loudon, 300 feet wide — or as wide as a football field is long.
John Heywood, manager of Public Service Company’s real estate department, noted, “A big reason why we want to go through this route is that in the future we envision the need for a corridor straight through to the North Country. This isn’t in the ‘Ten Year Plan’ yet, but we anticipate the need.”
“Viewed from this perspective,” I reported in The Times, “Public Service’s present plans for installation of a 115KV power line appear to be primarily an inroad, which will allow them to construct larger facilities through Loudon in the future. Should the company obtain the right-of-way it now seeks, it would be virtually impossible to prevent the widening of the corridor to accommodate additional lines in the future.”
Historical records of the time ominously revealed that few such utility construction projects were ever rejected by regulatory officials. Those applications that were withdrawn from government consideration were done so as a result of popular protest and resistance.
Hibbard and associates set out to lionize Loudon’s natural resources by focusing on what soon was christened the Bumfagon Wilderness Area and on the Bumfagon’s most celebrated resident: the great blue heron.
Now, most town residents didn’t know that blue herons even lived in Loudon, but that was about to change.
The Times noted that the Bumfagon Wilderness Area was the last wild space in the surrounding area and described it as “mostly virgin forest and marsh, as unaffected by man or the world outside as any spot in twentieth century New Hampshire can be, isolated and virtually impassible in many places, it provides a natural refuge for all manner of animals, large and small. Chief among them must be the rare and magnificent blue heron, whose reptilian profile is rarely seen in the US.”
Hibbard, himself a naturalist, noted that the Bumfagon contained two blue heron rookeries, both close to the proposed power line right-of-way.
The company held the state-required public hearings on the project in Loudon prior to final submission to state officials.
At one such hearing, a suit-and-tied company executive benignly asked Hibbard, “What can we do to gain your support for this project?” Hibbard replied, “Get it the hell off Loudon Ridge, and bury it along Route 106 where it belongs.”
Despite strong local public opposition, many in Loudon suspected what was to come was a routine “rubber stamp” by state regulatory officials.
Hibbard, who wore many hats in Loudon, was also a moving force of the town’s nascent conservation commission. By petition, Loudon scheduled and then held a special town meeting in 1974, with the power line project as the sole concern. Although state law prohibited “local control” over siting of utility projects, no legal mention was made as to conditions that might be placed upon construction of those projects. So while Loudon officials and voters could not veto the project, they could set conditions for its construction.
In that special town meeting, by overwhelming voice vote, citizens adopted a new town ordinance requiring all new utility construction projects to be built underground.
Then, as now, construction of underground power line routes is extremely expensive, so, in 1975, the utility company withdrew from official consideration its Deerfield-to-Laconia-through-Loudon power line proposal. In the end, no such power line project was ever built in the corridor.
Lights still go on. Loudon Ridge is still a scenic rural area of farms and forest. The Bumfagon lives.
No above-ground public utility installation has been constructed in Loudon since, though at this time an underground utility is under construction along Route 106.
Many Loudon veterans of the 1974 campaign have moved on: Bob Hibbard, to that Great Forest and Farmland Beyond, others to various locations and careers. The movement’s legacy continues, however. Today, Loudon has an active, energetic and effective conservation commission, a sensitive local government, and one of the most progressive zoning ordinances in the region, including a special protection provision for the agricultural and forestry district of Loudon Ridge.
In the years since the power line crusade, Hibbard and I became friends, sharing many a campaign and adventure together. Eventually, he offered me a part of his vast farm for my homestead. With rope and measuring tape, we laid out the land together. During the 1970s, I hand-built my house and barn, and still enjoy life on Loudon Ridge today.
I was later elected to and served on the Loudon Planning Board, and continue to rouse rabble whenever necessary.