By Jennifer Goodman and Sharee Williamson
For several years the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance and the National Trust for Historic Preservation have worked together to protect New Hampshire’s cultural landscapes from the proposed construction of an approximately 200-mile transmission line project called Northern Pass. This transmission line would stretch from Quebec, Canada, through the state of New Hampshire and include approximately 1,500 transmission towers. Many other conservation organizations and local advocacy groups in the preservation and environmental communities also expressed strong concerns about the negative impacts that the project would have on the state’s agricultural landscapes, village settings, and scenic views.
On February 2 the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee (SEC) acted to reject the required state certificate for the Northern Pass project. In New Hampshire, the SEC is responsible for reviewing and approving the siting, planning, and construction of energy facilities. In making permit decisions, the SEC considers economic issues as well as impacts to scenic, natural, and historic resources. This role is distinct from that of the state public utility commission, which focuses more on technical concerns related to rate setting, electrical safety, and engineering. No energy project can be constructed in New Hampshire without satisfying the SEC’s review standard, which requires that the applicant prove, among other things, that the project will not have an unreasonable adverse effect on aesthetics, historic sites, and environmental resources and will not unduly interfere with the orderly development of the region.
After two years of investigation; 70 days of intensive, trial-type evidentiary hearings; and two more days of deliberation, the SEC determined that the project would unduly interfere with the region’s orderly development and denied the Northern Pass application in a decisive action that surprised many.
Advocacy efforts began early in the project’s development, and focused on ensuring that potential impacts on historic and cultural resources were a part of the public dialogue at each step of the federal and state permitting process. When submitting comments under the Section 106 consultation process of the National Historic Preservation Act or filing a legal brief during the SEC review, the Preservation Alliance and the National Trust made a strong case for preservation.
Recognizing that many voices were needed to raise concerns about the negative impacts that the Northern Pass project would have on historic landscapes across New Hampshire, the Preservation Alliance built a coalition to engage both long-time and new advocates. The coalition hosted community meetings up and down the proposed project route, maintained regular communications with their base of about 10,000 preservation supporters, and aligned activities with other interested groups. The Preservation Alliance worked to ensure that key messages about historic resources were part of public input and the public record at every major juncture. The National Trust naming the Scenic Landscapes of New Hampshire a National Treasure also provided a much-needed bump in awareness of the project.
The advocates have shown incredible sophistication and commitment throughout the process. New Hampshire’s strong history and culture of civic responsibility and environmental stewardship helped immensely. The National Trust and the Preservation Alliance believe that the work of citizens who maintained their energy and persistence against what often seemed to be overwhelming odds was an essential factor in the SEC’s decision.
Identifying Cultural Landscapes through the Section 106 Review Process
Cultural landscapes are collections of natural and historic resources that together tell the story of an area’s development and historical importance. Though cultural landscapes are still a relatively new framework, historians, preservationists, and conservationists increasingly embrace them because they allow for more nuanced connections and a greater understanding of the interactions between people and their environment—as well as an environment’s influence on people. New Hampshire’s identified cultural landscapes include areas shaped by agriculture, logging, mining, tourism, and other industry—as well as the transportation networks and village development these industries spawned along the banks of the state’s rivers and in the shadows of its mountains. Cultural landscapes help tell that story in its entirety.
Challenging the Northern Pass project’s impacts created an opportunity to use the Section 106 review process to ask communities not just what they didn’t want, but how they identified and wanted to preserve their historic assets. It spawned a unique opportunity to identify and document large cultural landscapes for a regulatory project in the state. Ultimately, thanks to a strong commitment from the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources—the state historic preservation office—almost a dozen cultural landscapes were identified as eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. When future infrastructure projects are proposed, government agencies and others will know in advance that these landscapes are historically significant and that projects should avoid causing them harm.
The Section 106 process for the Northern Pass project is still ongoing, and it is not clear exactly how it will move forward given the SEC’s denial of the project certificate. However, advocates, including the National Trust and the Preservation Alliance, hope to see boundary refinements and documentation completed so that these cultural landscapes can be formally listed on the National Register. Either way, the process of identifying and documenting cultural landscapes has provided communities an important foundation for planning, protecting, and promoting their historic assets.
The SEC’s decision is subject to requests for rehearing and appeal, and the project proponent is expected to vigorously pursue all avenues of contesting it. The decision has attracted much political attention in the state, and the coalition-building efforts of the last several years will be an important bulwark.. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, the preservation community’s response to Northern Pass showcases powerful advocacy for historic sites and important, precedent-setting consideration of landscape-scale resources and impacts.
To be added to the advocacy network for updates on this project, which is probably not over yet, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jennifer Goodman is the director of the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance. Sharee Williamson is associate general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.