Path for preserve blazed

MERRIMACK – Selectmen, conservation officials and volunteers who have worked arduously to put together a master plan for the Horse Hill Nature Preserve can now see the forest for the trees.

One of the key provisions in the master plan adopted last fall was that a forestry study be conducted on the 563-acre preserve. Residents agreed to buy the preserve at the 2002 Town Meeting for $4.2 million to protect part of the land from development.

The master plan set forth recommends uses on the property, comprising fields, swamp and a prominent hill in the northwest part of town. Hiking and hunting – with restrictions – were in, use by all-terrain vehicles was out. Four-wheel-drive pickup trucks were definitely out, due to damage they cause to sensitive wetlands.

Improvements to the preserve, such as the creation of trails, parking areas and access roads, were on hold until the forestry study was done.

On Thursday, the results of the study was presented to selectmen.

The report, conducted by forester Dan Cyr of Bay State Forestry, “determines the nature of the resources under the town’s custodial care,” said Walter Warren, the town’s economic development director.

A public hearing is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Nov. 1 in the 80-plus page, $15,000 report, which took three months to complete, said Andy Power, chairman of the town Conservation Commission.

Following the hearing, a walk will be held on the preserve to point out areas of interest noted in the report, Powell said. The report will then be combined with the master plan to form a final plan for the property, which Warren estimated will be ready next spring.

Cyr and a colleague gave a two-hour synopsis of the report recently to the Conservation Commission. On Thursday, he presented an abridged version to selectmen. The shorter version talked as much about the damage to sensitive wetlands as it did manageable forests.

Selectmen, town staff and volunteers who have worked to protect the site heaped praise on Cyr, a former Merrimack resident who for years has worked with the Conservation Commission on other town-owned parcels.

Much of the forests had been heavily harvested 20 or 30 years ago when the property was privately owned, Cyr said.

He said about 475 of the 563 acres are wooded, 70 are open water and 18 are open-space power-line right-of-ways owned by Public Service of New Hampshire.

The forested areas hold 1.4 million board feet of timber, Cyr said; that’s enough to build roughly 70 homes.

Because much of the land had been so heavily harvested, half of the 1.4 million board feet is on only 45 acres deep on the preserve and not easily accessible, Cyr said.

“Access is horrible,” he added.

The rest of the property holds about 10 big trees per acre, he said, with the rest being saplings or small trees.

No rare or endangered species were found, Cyr said

“We did find a lot of habitats where they could live,” he said.

His study also found heavy vehicle damage, even fresh water-filled ruts in areas posted as restricted wetlands.

“I don’t hate the people who are doing it. I hate the activity,” Cyr said.

The top recommendation in his report, which will be available to the public next week at Town Hall, was the creation of a body responsible for making the recommendation of the master plan happen. That body could be a version of the Horse Hill Nature Preserve Ad Hoc Committee, the Conservation Commission or another body, he said.

The Board of Selectmen and town staff now are responsible for managing the preserve. Any other group named for the task would likely be a more hands-on body charged with carrying out policies adopted by the board and established in the master plan.

When the master plan was created last year, hunting was one of the most controversial uses allowed. Cyr said he does not favor hunting on the land because it’s surrounded by homes.

Selectmen said, however, Cyr’s recommendations were not accepted and revisiting the hunting question isn’t likely to happen in the short term.