CONWAY — May 1 is an important date for the Upper Saco Valley Land Trust.

According to Executive Director William Abbott, the local conservation group will celebrate its 20th anniversary at its annual meeting, which will be held today on Zoom starting at 8:30 a.m.

At that meeting, he will review the successes of the past year while also announcing the official launch of the “20 Years and Onward: Preserving Land for Life” capital campaign.

The land trust actually had its 20-year benchmark in September 2020, “and we had planned to launch our capital campaign at that point,” Abbott said this week.

Instead, he said, due to the pandemic, they paused work until the fall “and decided to hit the restart button,” said Abbott, who came on board as executive director nearly 10 years ago.

The purpose of the campaign is to raise funds for:

• The Land Action Fund for the completion of acquiring the Dundee Community Forest in Jackson and Bartlett and the Pine Hill Community Forest in Conway. The anticipated cost for the two projects is $4,265,000.

• A Capital Reserve for ongoing stewardship and obligation.

• An Agricultural Fund to conserve farmland and advocate for farmers and sustainability. The USVLT has already conserved Weston’s Rivercroft Farm, Hussey’s Cross Farm, the Amos Merrill Homestead Farm, the Earle Family Farm and other farms owned by the branches of the Lucy family.

The goal for those three funds totals $5.97 million. But thanks to anticipated government grants totaling $3,070,000, that leaves $2.9 million to be raised from the community.

The big news, Abbott said, is the organization has reached more than 80 percent of its nearly $6 million goal.

“Really, the work that we have to do is to engage donors and supporters who are going to be giving from the $25 level all the way up to the $100,000-plus level. That’s our big effort,” he said.

“We already have over $1.9 million in pledges — so we have less than $1 million left to go. That’s the big news we want to get across: let’s get over the finish line,” Abbott said.

According to Abbott, the 460-acre Pine Hill Forest parcel in Conway was purchased in partnership with Tin Mountain Conservation Center from the Kennett Co. in 2018. It includes more than a mile of Conway Recreation Path, 125 acres of wetlands, nearly a mile of frontage on the Saco River and 2,600 feet of scenic frontage along Route 16 and Route 302.

The USVLT wants to acquire another 134 acres to add to that.

“We’re also fundraising for parking areas, trailheads, kiosks and doing trail installation,” said Abbott. “That’s a big project — you know, it’s nearly $500,000 to get all of that done.”

Those additions will “significantly improve access and trail networks in the heart of town,” Abbott noted, increasing the size of the forest located west of Kennett High by 30 percent to a total of 593 acres.

The new acreage is located between Route 16 and Kennett High. It is contiguous to the existing Pine Hill Community Forest.

USVLT President Doug Burnell noted that the new parcel “will really add to the forest. It had been slated for a housing development with good views to the west, located opposite of what we call the old Elks Club Overlook, but we are fortunate that we are going to be able to acquire it and use it for these conservation and recreation uses.”

Burnell is a longtime community servant. Now in his 10th year with the group and active with Tin Mountain Conservation Center prior to that, he has retired from HEB Engineers and continues to serve as moderator for annual Conway School District meeting, a post he has held for 35 years.

“When I first wanted to place a chunk of land that I had inherited from my grandfather into conservation, there was not a local organization like the Upper Saco Valley Land Trust,” Burnell said this week.

“So I went with the Society for the Protection of N.H. Forests, which is also a great organization to work with, but I like the idea of working with a local organization,” he said.

Putting the “community” in “Community Forest,” Pine Hill is managed by a group of local stakeholders. The management committee includes Tin Mountain Conservation Center, Mountain Meadow Riders Snowmobile Club, Kennett High School and the Conway School District, The Mount Washington Valley Trails Association and Recreation Path Committee and the Town of Conway.

Bayard Kennett, general manager for the Kennett Co., this week lauded USVLT for its sound management as stewards of the land.

“We’re happy to be participating in this effort as we feel it is moving the use of the land that the Kennett Co. and family owned and protected all these years to those recreational and conservation uses while keeping it open to hunting as we did,” said Kennett.

He said the planned Continuum senior care facility near the forest, expected to come before the Conway Planning Board by a Maine developer this spring, will also add positively to the area.

The Pine Hill Community Forest Project was USVLT’s largest and most complex land protection project three years ago.

The 2018 transaction involved two separate, exceptional tracts owned by the Kennett family for 100 years — the 450-acre Pine Hill parcel in Conway and the 91-acre Bald Hill Road parcel in Albany.

Upper Saco Valley owns the Pine Hill parcel, and Tin Mountain owns the Bald Hill Road parcel, subject to a conservation easement held by USVLT.

The Bald Hill parcel was renamed the “Dr. Michael Cline Memorial Forest” in memory of Tin Mountain’s late longtime executive director.

Abbott notes that the new project to add to the Pine Hill forest is significant for an area under high development pressure, noting that the expansion will create a “conservation block” that will be managed as a working forest for wildlife habitat and public recreation values.

In addition, he said USVLT’s purchase will protect:

• 134 acres of undeveloped hemlock-hardwood-pine forest.

• 192 acres of important forest soils.

• 130 acres of soils of important agricultural soils.

• 0.3 miles of scenic, undeveloped road frontage to be added to the nearly mile-long protected “green corridor” along Route 16.

Meanwhile, the Dundee Community Forest is an even larger and more complex project, costing nearly $4 million for land acquisition, survey expenses, parking lots, kiosks and trails.

The Dundee project consists of 16 different parcels being sold by the estate of William “Mack” Beal Jr.

Asked how the communities of Jackson and Bartlett have responded, Abbott said the USVLT met with selectmen and conservation commissions from both towns at separate meetings.

Further meetings were sidetracked by the pandemic, but Abbott says the land trust plans to get public input at meetings in the months to come.

“There will be an opportunity for stakeholders in both Bartlett and Jackson to talk to us about what kind of community forest they want,” said Abbott.

He said conservation boards of both towns last year wrote letters of support for the effort and that USVLT has been working with the Trust for Public Lands and the state for the past two years.

The Trust for Public Land wrote the application for the $2.29 million U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy grant, the biggest government grant received for the Dundee project. It was announced in February that the grant would be awarded for the project after the funds in the capital campaign are raised for the purchase.

“When we presented the project to the select boards for Jackson and Bartlett and to the conservation commissions, we were joined by J.T. Horn, senior project manager for the Trust for Public Lands for Vermont and New Hampshire,” Abbott said.

Horn, he said, “did the yeoman’s work on obtaining the Forest Legacy Grant, by working closely with the State of N.H. and the U.S. Forest Service, both of whom have roles in administering the grant.”

A state LCHIP (Land and Community Heritage Investment Program) grant totaling $500,000 was also received last December to aid in the purchase of the Dundee parcels.

Abbott said the property comprises 1,172 acres in 16 parcels in Jackson and Bartlett on both sides of Dundee Road, a state-designated Scenic Road that extends from Intervale north into Jackson near Black Mountain.

The Thorn Mountain tract also abuts the eastern edge of Thorn Hill Road in Intervale on a portion of the road located in Bartlett before it crosses over to Jackson.

The tracts are contiguous to the White Mountain National Forest and are being sold by the family of the late Mack Beal, who amassed the property over four decades.

Beal, 90, of Jackson, died Aug. 26, 2014. He was one of the original founders of Wildcat Ski Area in 1957 and a lifetime trustee of the Mount Washington Observatory.

The property, according to Abbott, consists of woodlots, “but there has been very little active forestry on the property so it really has been frozen in time in ways that other tracts of land are not.”

He said the Dundee Community Forest will host new trail systems, protect numerous rare plant sites, safeguard old growth areas and buffer the headwaters of Wildcat Brook, a federally designated Wild and Scenic River.

Abbott explained that USVLT plans to manage the Dundee Forest as a community forest in partnership with the towns of Bartlett and Jackson. The property will be further protected by a conservation easement to be held by the N.H. Division of Forests and Lands.

The Dundee Forest will be open for public access and as a working forest, and will supply logs to local mills, creating jobs in the forest products sector and providing revenues for the towns.

The idea, two decades ago, for the Mount Washington Valley Land Trust, which Upper Saco Valley Land Trust was formerly called, began as a collaborative effort between Tin Mountain Conservation Center and Mount Washington Valley Community Supported Agriculture.

These organizations wanted to promote conservation and sustainable community growth through environmental education, community farming and land protection.

Although there were 40 local and regional land trusts in New Hampshire, none was active in the Mount Washington Valley, the second-fastest-growing region in the state.

The land trust was founded as a grassroots initiative to preserve land for community benefit in the watershed of the upper Saco River in New Hampshire and Maine.

Led by Linda Comeau, Carl Demrow and David Thurlow of Jackson, Tom Earle of South Conway, Dennis Sullivan of Eaton and the backing of others such as Michael Cline, Peter Benson and the late Chet Lucy, the group held its first public information session in October 2000, out of which was formed a steering committee to guide the organization’s development.

After receiving its 501(c)(3) non-profit status n May 2001, the group elected a 15-member board of directors, changed its name to the Upper Saco Valley Land Trust to better reflect the area it served and began soliciting membership contributions.

They completed their first land conservation project, a conservation easement, in December 2001.

Over the course of the following decade, they completed 38 land projects, and as of this year have completed over 75 transactions, helping conserve over 12,000 acres in the 11-town service area, which includes Conway, Eaton, Madison, Albany, Bartlett, Hart’s Location, Jackson, and Chatham as well as, in Maine, Fryeburg, Brownfield and Denmark.

They adopted the Land Trust Alliance’s standards and practices in June 2005, and received accreditation from the Land Trust Alliance in April 2015.

Significant milestone projects for USVLT in addition to the Pine Hill Community Forest and Bald Hill for Tin Mountain Conservation include the purchase of land adjacent to Foss Mountain in Eaton in 2011, helping with the creation of the Albany Town Forest in 2012 and conservation of Weston’s Farm in 2012. The land trust also has active programming to advocate for local agriculture and water quality issues.

Besides Burnell, other board members are Mark Dindorf of Hart’s Location, vice president; Rebecca McReynolds of Conway, treasurer; Sue Nichols of Center Conway, secretary; Ann W. Bennett, Peter Benson and Anne Pillion, all of Jackson; Alex Drummond of East Conway; Lindsay Kafka of South Conway; Meghan Moody of North Conway; and Dan Stepanauskas of Silver Lake.

USLVT has approximately 1,400 members, according to Abbott.

“Although this is a significant increase from where our membership numbers were 10 years ago, we expect that the Dundee and Pine Hill projects will boost our membership numbers even more, allowing us to get more conservation work done in the future,” he said.

Membership contributions account for nearly 50 percent of the organization’s operating funds, while the other 50 percent comes from business contributions and grants from foundations and government programs.

Abbott has been with the organization for 10 years. He leads a staff of four, which includes Abby King of Fryeburg (conservation lands manager); Aimee St. Germain of Intervale (outreach and office manager); and Jeff Sires of Jackson (land steward).

“From the board to easement monitors and committee members, it’s a dedicated group of volunteers,” said Bennett, who lives near the Dundee Community Forest and joined the board nine years ago. She serves as head of the development committee and also is the Sun’s “More Thoughts While Weeding” gardening columnist.

Bennett said: “It’s many different people who make the organization what it is, working together to preserve the region’s open spaces and environment while promoting recreation, conservation and sustainable agriculture.”

On the eve of today’s 20th annual meeting, Linda Comeau recounted the group’s beginnings and accomplishments. “Twenty years ago, a small group of folks thought that starting a local land trust was a good idea,” Comeau said. “Never could we have imagined just how successful USVLT would become.

“It is especially gratifying to me to walk or drive by our conservation lands and know that they will remain much as they are now for the benefit of future generations … With projects like the Dundee Community Forest and Pine Hill Community Forest expansion, I am excited about the possibilities for USVLT’s next 20 years.”

For more about the land trust and/or the capital campaign, call (603) 356-9683 or go to usvlt.org.

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