Protecting Potter Farm

A Cornerstone Project for River Restoration

View of Percy Peaks from the Potter Farm.

In 1754, when Colonial soldiers saw the confluence of the Connecticut and Upper Ammonoosuc rivers, they knew right away that it was a strategic place. They built a fort here, Fort Wentworth, to protect and exploit the many resources that this remarkable place offered: abundant fish, the convergence of two major rivers and timber galore.

Two and a half centuries later -- after a colorful history that includes Rogers’ Rangers, the rise and fall of railroads, the paper industry and one family’s legacy -- The Nature Conservancy is safeguarding this strategic place.

On September 17th, 2010 The Nature Conservancy purchased the Potter Farm in Northumberland and Groveton – a place that has emerged as one of the highest priority areas for floodplain forest restoration in the state.  The 252-acre property has river shore and floodplain on both rivers in an area known as Maidstone Bends and includes riparian wetlands, hayfields and over 250 acres of upland field and forest which extend to the Cape Horn ridgeline. The upland portion is adjacent to the 2,175-acre Cape Horn State Forest and is located within an 119,600-acre forest block identified as a top priority for forest conservation by the Conservancy. The forest land also abuts the Town of Northumberland’s 65-acre conservation easement.  With this acquisition 2,500 acres of conservation land will be connected.

The floodplain and river habitat protected by this project lie on the southern end of this unique section of the Upper Connecticut River. The Federal and State Endangered dwarf wedgemussel uses the sandy shifting river bottoms throughout the Maidstone Bends area of the river for habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited, New Hampshire Fish and Game and several other bird conservation organizations have identified Maidstone Bends as an important migratory corridor for ducks that overwinter in the Atlantic like American black duck, greater and lesser scaups, and ring-necked ducks. Other species of conservation concern such as bald eagles, northern harriers, American bitterns, and American woodcocks find food and breeding habitat in the oxbows and wetlands of Maidstone Bends. Numerous songbirds use the area as a stopover point. Osprey nest upstream and likely use floodplain and shoreline trees at the Potter Farm for perching habitat.

Additionally, several rare and unusual plant and natural communities have been identified in the uplands and along the ridgeline of the Potter Farm forest adjacent to Cape Horn State Forest including beaked panicle, green adder’s mouth, slender cliffbrake and smooth woodsia.

The natural resource goals of this project were a perfect match for our top funding source, the Aquatic Resource Mitigation (ARM) Program, managed through the NH Department of Environmental Services.  The ARM Program focuses on funding conservation projects that protect and restore the natural functions and values wetlands provide.  The term “mitigation” refers to the funding source—development projects that destroy wetlands nearby pay into the Program based on the lost values of the wetland, and these funds are subsequently used to protect wetlands elsewhere in the watershed.  Conservation groups and towns apply for grants that result in protection or restoration.  Because of the rare and sensitive wetlands, wildlife habitat, river shoreline, and our restoration goals, the Conservancy received a major grant from the ARM Program that got us on our way.

With the acquisition of Potter Farm, the chapter will initially focus on restoring and enhancing the property’s floodplain forests while preserving their ecological integrity. This will be accomplished by planting native floodplain trees like silver and red maple and eventually American elm, while allowing other floodplain understory species to recover. Haying will continue here.

“It is our hope that Potter Farm will be a model for floodplain reconnection and restoration up and down the Connecticut River, “ said Daryl Burtnett, State Director for The Nature Conservancy in New Hampshire.  “Potter Farm is a cornerstone project in the Connecticut River Valley that will allow us to determine how floodplain restoration can benefit the entire watershed for people and nature."

A Colorful History
Near the confluence of the two rivers stands a stone marker commemorating Fort Wentworth, erected to defend this Colonial outpost during the French and Indian War. In 1759, the abandoned fort provided a safe encampment for Rogers’ Rangers, the British Army’s light infantry company.

The marker itself was placed by the Potter family, who first acquired the historic spot and surrounding property in the 1860s. Four generations of Potters farmed the land by raising potatoes, beans, hay, cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, cutting lumber and producing maple syrup. During that time, the Potter Farm saw the rise of the railroad, which brought industry and prosperity to the community. Between the 1850’s and 1890’s, the area produced lumber and arm-related products which the railroads carried to Portland and Boston. In 1898 the first pulp mill and paper machines were built at Groveton, a village of Northumberland, thus beginning its long history as a paper making town. It is the fall of this industry that brings us to where we are today with a tale all too familiar to so many families.

The End of an Era
Sandy (Potter) Gagnon grew up on the farm and lived there with her husband Mike while both worked at Wausau Papers for 24 years. During that time, they raised a few cattle, pigs, turkeys, chickens and horses. “Our animals and garden kept our freezer full, enough for our own purposes,” remarks Sandy, the fourth generation Potter to own the farm. Their two children rode and showed the horses and enjoyed playing sports. Life was pleasant.

“My husband and I have come a long way since December of 2007,” says Sandy. “That was when Wausau Papers decided to close their Groveton, New Hampshire mill. I can remember the bottom of my stomach dropping out along with their announcement and at the time, seemingly my world.”

The mill closure brought an already ailing Coos County to its knees. Little opportunity remained. The Gagnons were fortunate enough to find new employment considered good for the area, but it did not provide the financial stability needed to keep up the property. Searching for something greater, their children had already moved away, leaving no successors to tend the farm. Sandy and Mike feared foreclosure and the land being sold and developed.

“We had visions of the timber being stripped from the mountain and the meadow growing up to weeds and bushes,” says Sandy. “It wasn’t a pretty picture. And then we met Jan McClure. And now we feel much better.”

Jan McClure, Protection Specialist for the New Hampshire Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, has spent the last few years concentrating on land protection along the Connecticut River in northern New Hampshire. She has been instrumental in the addition of lands to the Mohawk River Division of the Silvio Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge in Columbia. The Conservancy knew that the Maidstone Bends portion of the Upper Connecticut River was ideal for floodplain forest restoration work, so when Jan received the call that Sandy and Mike were looking for a viable solution to their situation, she set the wheels in motion.

The “Right” People
Selling the family farm was the last thing Sandy and Mike wanted to do. “Both my husband and I shared a tremendous sense of failure at first,” recalls Sandy. “But eventually that deep sense of sadness was replaced with what was really the best thing for all concerned. We were victims of changed times, a terrible economy and the need for a reasonable solution. That solution was presented to us through The Nature Conservancy. If you think about it, what a perfect ‘pair of hands’ for this beautiful and unique property to pass to... And now we feel much better. Better knowing that ‘the right people’ are now going to watch over our farm.”

The farmhouse on the property was built in 1828. Although historic and beautiful, owning a home – especially a centuries old farmhouse - is a lot of work and beyond the Conservancy’s capabilites. Fortunately a like-minded conservationist who was looking for a home closer to family in the area joined with the New Hampshire Chapter to purchase the property. Partnering with the Conservancy, this buyer purchased the farmhouse and 20 acres of the property with the New Hampshire Chapter purchasing the 252 acres of forest and field land.

“Partnering on this project allows us to keep the farm intact,” says Jan McClure. “We are able to put together a plan that accomplishes both the Gagnon’s goals and those of the Conservancy in a way that is wholly satisfying. Sandy and Mike are able to do something good for their land, their community and themselves and the Conservancy will be able to restore this incredible river and forest habitat.”

The chapter’s initial goal is to restore and enhance 14 acres of floodplain forest. Over the long term, we intend to increase restoration efforts by retiring portions of the hayfield along the river’s edge to provide a riparian buffer, and restoring floodplain forest species composition and structure. In time, the Conservancy hopes that one day the property will look much like it did when Robert Rogers and the Colonials arrived to build Fort Wentworth, with flooded fields and thick upland forest.

For now the Gagnons plan to remain in Northumberland and will be able to witness the restoration of their farm. “The land will be preserved and protected and used as it was intended,” notes Sandy. “Habitat and rare plants on the mountain will be protected. The meadow will flood in the spring, bloom in the summer and support wildlife as always. Mom always said to look at the positive things in your life. She was right. We are very positive about selling our farm to new friends. The ‘right people’ helped us get this far and the ‘right people’ will take care of it for me.”

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