Federal land study underway, scope has changed

 BERLIN – The economic impact study of federal land ownership in Coos County is under way. But the scope of the study has changed from the original proposal submitted by HDR Engineering.
The Boston office of HDR Engineering has been awarded the contract to do the study. HDR economist Jonathan Lee will serve as project manager with the assistance of two other company economists. HDR was selected out of six firms that submitted proposals to do the study.
County Treasurer Fred King, who has overseen the project for the county commissioners along with North Country Council, introduced Lee to the commission at its monthly meeting last week.
Lee told the commissioners the project is not a federal land study but rather an economic study of public land ownership in Coos County.
He said the project is broken into five key tasks:
1) First is a review of existing economic, demographic, fiscal, and conservation trends in the county including the unincorporated places. It will include a history of federal lands acquisition and an evaluation of current conditions of key industries including forestry, biomass, and tourism. Lee said that work is underway and should be completed soon.
2) A literature review, which includes reading previous studies on economic development and local conservation efforts as well as looking at other U.S. and federal conservation programs. Lee said this task, which is also underway, will look at lessons learned.
3) Public outreach with interviews of key stakeholders. Lee said the firm hopes to do as many interviews as possible in-person. The scoping document requires 15 in-person interviews and allows the rest to be will be conducted by phone. Once a draft report is developed, a public hearing will be held.
4) Identify issues and opportunities related to conservation alternatives being considered for the county. Those alternatives include acquisition, less-than-fee acquisition such as conservation easements, or management of acquisition
5) Estimate fiscal and economic impacts of different conservation alternatives including job trends. The report will look at different expansion options for the Umbagog refuge, county, and other public lands.

King said Lee had already interviewed NCC Executive Director Jeffrey Hayes and was interviewing Wagner Forest Management CEO Tom Colgan that day. King said he tried to set up an interview session with Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge Manager Paul Casey but Casey has been furloughed because of the federal government shutdown. He said the interviews will target forest managers, industry owners, and business leaders.
Commissioners were advised that County Administrator Jennifer Fish is the contact person if they want to submit names of people to be interviewed.
HDR has five months to do the study at a cost of $44,650. King said he is still hopeful federal funds will be available to pay for the study. The county delegation has authorized up to $50,000 for the project.
HDR's original proposal, submitted last November, placed a larger focus on the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge and its 15-year Comprehensive Conservation Plan to expand the refuge by almost 48,000 acres.
The proposal said the expansion has the potential to negatively impact forest jobs, biomass, tourism, and other supporting industries. In addition, the proposal said the impacts could also lead to a reduction in local tax revenues.
"Given the importance of these industries to Coos County's economy, it is critical to better understand these potential impacts," the proposal stated.
But last week, Lee said the scope of the project had changed since the firm's original proposal. He referred questions to Fish who released the scoping document.
In its proposal, HDR noted the federal government owns 259,460 acres in Coos County or 22 percent of the total land in the county. The bulk of that land is within the White Mountain National Forest. The Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge contains over 27,000 acres. Commissioner Paul Grenier said he wants to see a clean and objective study.
"We may all have some eye-opening reactions," he said.
King, who admitted he has strong views on federal land ownership, said his involvement is over with the selection of HDR. He said the firm has no axe to grind and expressed confidence it will do a good job.
"This really is about the economic future of the county," he said.