Protecting Grafton Pond and Its Wildlife

IMG_0218(Photo by Robert Barossi)

by Robert Barossi

For today’s blog post, another chapter from my upcoming eBook. This chapter features the story of a volunteer from New Hampshire who worked to protect Grafton Pond, an area owned by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.

Teachable Moments: Linda Howes

On an autumn Sunday afternoon, Linda Howes, a land steward with the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, welcomed me into her home, where we ate locally grown apples and talked at length about Linda’s life spent in the outdoors, her land steward work at Grafton Pond and her love of loons. While many environmental volunteers are inspired by a particular place or environmental issue, some are inspired by another person, and Linda is one such volunteer. Growing up in Massachusetts, Linda came into contact with Marion Stoddart, a fellow resident of the town of Groton who had made a huge impact on the local environment. Stoddart is credited with leading the fight to clean up the Nashua River, once listed as one of the most polluted rivers in the United States. A suburban housewife at the time, Stoddart started a movement that engaged the local community and changed the face of their river forever. Her advocacy, lobbying, petitions and mobilizing efforts were proof that one person could make a difference and an inspiration for many other everyday citizens. Passion and drive equal to Stoddart is clear in Linda, who’s filled with youthful exuberance and endless enthusiasm for the causes she cares about.

Linda considers Stoddart “a beacon,” describing her by saying, “She’s an amazing woman…She lived nearby and she decided she was going to do something about the heavily polluted river running through their community. She was housewife and she ended up talking to the paper mills and started this whole movement on her own and got change. She was amazing. She was kind of mentor for me and how she was just out there, you know, she could do it. I’m sure I must have heard her speak somewhere, probably in Groton, and was just so enthralled with this woman taking on big industry and going to Boston, speaking out. She was an inspiration, absolutely. And she went on to found an organization called Outdoor Vacations for Women Over 40 and when I was under 40, I did some teaching for her and for her group. She had led trips all over the world, cross country skiing and bicycling and all kinds of stuff and I did some cross-country skiing vacations for her and got to know her a little bit then. I just look up to her.”

In addition to meeting Stoddart, growing up in Groton gave Linda the chance to explore the outdoors throughout her childhood. “We lived with woods and apple orchards all around us and we would go out in the morning and not come home till dark and we were out playing, you know. I knew those woods and the apple orchard. We had different trees that looked like different things. We played football and baseball and I was a scout, a girl scout, and my parents would take us hiking up Mount Monadnock on hikes and adventures.”

Linda took her love of the outdoors and nature to college, where she majored in environmental recreation at Greenfield Community College and then at Springfield College. Working in the recreation field, as a waterfront director at a camp, she put herself through college teaching and coaching swimming. Afterwards, she found her way to a career with the U.S. National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service. Her first job, at Ten Lakes Scenic Area in Montana, took her to real wilderness, just outside of Glacier National Park and near the Canadian border. That was followed by work for the Park Service in Wyoming and then another position back in Montana. After another job took her to Acadia National Park in Maine, she ended up back in Massachusetts, working at an environmental and recreational center.

While her career gave her lots of time in the outdoors, Linda also did a lot of outdoor volunteering, including ski patrol, skiing instruction, and search and rescue. She says volunteering has always been in her blood, ever since high school. “I was involved in so much and I think my parents were always involved in things. My dad was an amazing volunteer for the town, so it was always kind of a way of life and I’m very…I’m a very detail oriented person, so I’m really good at organizing, so I would organize all kinds of stuff. I was student council president in high school; I would organize all the dances and stuff that would go along with that.”

After moving to New Hampshire, she says that she and her husband would camp and canoe frequently and would visit Grafton Pond, close to their home. Linda describes it as a “beautiful little place” that is “out in the middle of nowhere and there wouldn’t be very many people there.” At the same time, she couldn’t help but notice something else.

“There was just so much trash, which astounded me, there was so much trash. Tires in the water and beer cans in the water, the islands were covered with trash here and there,” she says. When she saw an ad in the local paper for a land steward for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, she decided to apply, especially since Grafton Pond was one of the properties the society wanted to protect.

“I was interviewed by the land steward coordinator and I ended up being offed the job,” she says. “He told me that it was the job that was most popular, so many people wanted it, so I felt really fortunate to be offered the job and I think mainly it was because of my background, park ranger and all of that. Not only is this almost 1000 acres of land, it’s a public place that lots of people go to, so there’s kind of a policing, I use that word lightly. I went through the training and I also had…there’s two of us that had the position, cause it’s a big piece of property, so I have a land steward partner and he was wonderful. We did so much work out there. We took a refrigerator off one of the islands. A bed frame. All kinds of stuff.”

It was twelve years ago when she first started and Linda says she spends much more time at Grafton Pond now than she used to. She attributes that, in part, to the fact that it’s a much busier place these days. Because of the increasing number of people, she worked with the Forest Society and the state to get the parking lot enlarged and improved.

“The parking lot was horrible, it was maybe twice as big as this room and it was just all rocks and you just drive into the trees,” she says. “People would park on the road but it started being found and it got written up in the quiet waters canoe guide by the Appalachian Mountain Club. In the first printing, they listed Grafton Pond as the best kept secret. So, people started coming from all over and the parking lot just wasn’t gonna work and so I talked to the state and we had them improve the parking lot and they made it bigger. And then we put up a kiosk so there’s an information board and even though the state had big signs that said no camping and no fires, almost every island had a fire ring or two or three. One of them was actually as high as my waist, made of cement, really big. They actually had a latrine out there too, that we broke apart and took out of there. My partner, Jay, he and I just took sledge hammers and broke that whole fire ring apart and threw it in the water. We hit every island over a period of a couple of years.”

Over those years, they cleaned up roughly twenty-four islands, as well as shoreline sites that needed attention. They also worked to add signs in the hopes that people would take better care of the area and its natural resources. “We had signage made that we put up on all the islands, trying to not have it be in your face but once you get there you’ll see ‘no fires’ or ‘no camping’ or ‘pack it in, pack it out.’ So we did all that but I’m still cleaning up fires. It starting getting so busy this year…we also have loons there, now we have three nesting pairs of loons, and you know, I just witness people chasing the loons and harassing them. Not intentionally, but they want to get that picture of the little chicks. It was just hard to watch. And the thing I pick up the most is toilet paper, isn’t that disgusting?”

“Used, I assume?”

“Yeah,” she answers, “Kayaking has gotten so popular and available to the masses. There are so many people out there who have no outdoor etiquette. They don’t know, you know? They don’t know anything about being in the outdoors. I pick up beer cans and the leftover picnic stuff. I’m there a lot more and I’m there especially during nesting season for the loons.”

Linda’s efforts are assisted by the New Hampshire Lakes Association and their lake host program. She says, “They train people and they put them at boat ramps on key lakes, there’s usually a lake association that’s involved. These hosts, often its kids, college or high school kids, will be at the ramp on certain days, certain hours, and they inspect every boat that comes to put in, for invasive weeds. That’s what the program is about.” Working with residents around Grafton Pond, the Forest Society raised the money to hire lake hosts for the season. Every weekend and holiday, Linda says, the boat ramp was manned by someone from 8am to 4pm.

Having that extra help, she says, led to the collection of “incredible information on where people are coming from.” On one day, they conducted over two hundred surveys, one for each boat that wanted to get onto the pond. While the initial intention was to monitor for invasive weeds that might be brought in with some of these boats, the lake host duties were expanded so much more information could be provided to pond visitors. Linda says, “We expanded the job, it wasn’t just about weeds, which is important, but we also taught about the loons and we taught about leave no trace, about packing out your trash, including toilet paper.”

Another important change that Linda helped bring to Grafton Pond was the banning of gasoline motors. Although there had always been a six horsepower limit, Linda says it wasn’t strictly enforced. “No one ever checked and sometimes there were bigger motors there and it just seemed like there was a lot of riff raff that would hang out there too. When we got the ban through, there had to be hearings and petitions and so many signatures and we had to go through all this stuff with the state. It went through, so there’s no gasoline motors, only electric motors.”

The process, which Linda spearheaded, took two years and has led, she believes, to a change in the “flavor” of Grafton Pond. “I look at it like it’s a nature preserve…and the loons, New Hampshire is losing its loon population. It’s such a wonderful place for loons, it’s a perfect habitat. You can go most anywhere with your gasoline motor to fish, let’s not have it be Grafton Pond. There’s plenty of places people can go and many people agreed and fortunately it went through.”

Those kinds of tangible results are part of what keeps Linda motivated. “To have other people love the place as much as I do, it means a lot…to know that I make a difference there and to have people recognize that…the lake hosts, they always say to me, ‘thank you for being here, we’re so glad that somebody is looking out for this place.’ That makes me feel good, it really does.”

Grafton Pond is unique from other properties of the Forest Society in two ways. First, it’s a body of water, primarily, rather than a tract of land. Also, it’s a place that is used and frequented by the public much more than other isolated properties. Linda is hopeful that visitors to the pond will take away something that makes them more careful towards and appreciative of all natural areas.

“With the lake hosts there, they have to teach them, it’s a teachable moment,” she says. “And that is what I feel is the most important job, is to interface with someone, welcome them. We had so many new people this year coming to visit the pond and part of what I would always say and train the hosts to say is, ‘oh, you’re in for such a treat. Let me show you the map so you know where you are. This is a really special place. Don’t tell anyone else.’ We always say that, just to have a laugh about it. And, ‘we appreciate you taking out your trash, do you need a trash bag?’ and some would say they brought one with them. So, it’s just planting those seeds. Teaching them about the loons, saying, ‘the loons are nesting, if you happen to come across a nest, just move away.’ It’s just planting the seeds.”

Linda feels the seed planting is paying off, as awareness of environmental impacts is increasing among the public. “I think that as I said, the flavor has kind of changed at Grafton Pond, where before it was kind of a hangout for people, sitting around and drinking, yelling, partying, going out on the island and partying and camping. Because we have such a presence, I don’t think that happens…I should say that it doesn’t happen as much. I don’t think it happened at all this summer. So I do think because the flavor of who is there has changed too, it has made a difference. I think we are having an impact…We had a few guys who would use it as their bathtub. There was this one place you can hike into, there’s always a bar of soap there. I would take it, there’d be another one. And then I talked to one guy who was taking a bath right at the boat ramp. I said, ‘you know, this is not ok.’ He said, ‘oh I just thought I’d rinse off before I went home,’ and I said, ‘please, don’t do that here.’”

“Was he naked?”

“No, no, but we’ve had all kinds of stories,” she replies with a smile.

While a number of volunteers I met are actively involved in water quality monitoring, there is currently no such program at Grafton Pond. Linda hopes to change that soon. “There’s a local college, I want to see if maybe we can find someone. Also, I want to have someone from the state come and do a weed check throughout the pond. I’m not all that savvy, I pretty much know my plants, but Milfoil is very difficult to discern the invasive from the native. You basically have to send the sample to the state lab and they can tell you. So I have a couple of those things on the agenda for next year and maybe, also, a lead collection program. We’re trying in the state to ban lead fishing tackle and that was something that we worked on this year. There was an amendment that got voted on in the house and the senate, so I went to that hearing and testified. Lead is toxic in any amount. They still have led fishing tackle and a lot of kids and people will take a sinker, squish it between their teeth. And it kills loons. If a loon ingests a lead hook, a lead sinker, a lead jig, it will be dead in two weeks, and it’s a really sad, sad death.”

Linda’s work aimed at protecting the loon population includes a number of volunteer activities with the Loon Preservation Committee. For that group, she keeps track of the loons at Grafton Pond, letting them know nesting dates, hatching dates and how many chicks have hatched. She also got to be involved in the recent effort to band the loons.

“It was fascinating. We only got one pair. We were out there till two or two-thirty in the morning. They weren’t done yet and I decided it was time to go home,” she says, laughing.

Linda’s wide variety of volunteer experiences has also included some of the political and advocacy sides of environmental efforts. “Somebody has to speak up,” she says. “I don’t want to pass it off to the next person and I do what I can. There’s so many platforms to stand on, positions to fight about and argue about. A lot of scary things going on in the world. You have to find your balance and pick what makes the most sense. I could stand up and shout about a lot of things but I don’t want to be that angry person, you know? I just kind of want to do things that I know can have a real impact in my neighborhood”

Linda hopes that there will always be somebody with her dedication around to protect Grafton Pond. Somebody to meet and greet visitors on weekends or every day during the busy season. Someone to look out for the place.

“I am, yeah. I really am,” she responds to my question about whether or not she’s optimistic. “Doing the lake host program was so much work, so much work. We’re looking at how to do it differently next year, cause there was so much paperwork to it. Something has to give and this summer it was my business, I wasn’t able to take it to places I wanted to because I was doing this work. It was ok, you know, it was my choice, but next year I hope to have someone that handles the paperwork and I kind of do more training…I put in 174 hours from May to Labor Day.”

“That’s a lot of hours,” I state the obvious.

“Yeah, it’s like a full time job. Our total number of boat surveys was over 2900. You know, the little lake here in town that you came by, they have a lake host. They’re lucky if they do like sixteen boat surveys all summer long,” she says.

Checking boats that come to put in at Grafton Pond has been one of the most important opportunities for Linda and the lake hosts to teach and show people how they can better respect the natural environment she loves.

“We’re teaching them how to check their boat, so it’s that teachable moment,” she says. “We ask permission, if it’s ok to check the boat for invasive weeds. We look inside. We look on the bottom. We look at their paddles. If it’s a motor we look at where the motor goes in because sometimes there’ll be weeds wrapped around that. If it’s a boat trailer, we look at the trailer and on the license plate cause the trailer can be holding weeds. We teach them how to do that and give them the rest of the spiel. They get a sticker to put on their boat that shows they have been educated. So the next time they come, we know they’ve had the spiel but we still give it to them, just less. We do boat inspection, we find out what was the last body of water they were on. We ask them if they know about invasive species and we kind of tell them about that and what it does to the environment. We tell them what to do if they find any plant material themselves; you throw it well away from the body of water, somewhere where it’s not going to wash back in. And that it is illegal to transport invasive species. We tell them about the loon being threatened, staying two to three hundred feet away, the lead fishing tackle, carry out all your trash, thank you for helping keep this place a treasure and invite them to make a donation towards protection and upkeep.”

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