volunteers standing in front of Londonderry Conservation Sign

Town-owned conservation lands are for people—places to come together and build community, learn about the stewardship of the natural world, and recreate alone or in groups. Town lands protect valuable natural resources—water and wildlife habitat. They can bring income to the town. UNH Cooperative Extension, the Northern Forest Center and the N.H. Association of Conservation Commissions (NHACC) conducted a multi-year study to inventory town-owned forests and quantify the economic, ecological and social contributions they make locally and to the state.

A goal of the Forest Action Plan (FAP) — a “sister” of the Wildlife Action Plan — is to inventory town forests. This project accomplished that goal, but we really engaged in the study because we knew town-owned conservation lands are an overlooked and underused resource. By highlighting their importance, our ultimate hope is to increase the number of community forests and the stewardship of them.

Surprisingly, there was a lot we didn’t know about New Hampshire town forests — the last statewide inventory of town lands was done in 1980 and that study only looked at a small portion of town-owned forests.

What We Did

Our study includes land that is 1) owned by a municipality or other local government entity such as a school district or a water district, 2) 10 acres and greater, 3) a combination of forest, field and wetland, and 4) not slated for future development.

Over nearly two years, UNH Cooperative Extension County Foresters interviewed someone "in the know" in 220 of the 254 New Hampshire cities and towns. Together, they located each tract of town-owned conservation land on a map data-layer housed on the UNH GRANIT system. For each tract, they asked many questions about the governance, protection status, and actual and intended use.

What We Learned

We learned that 4% of New Hampshire’s forest is in town ownership, scattered in about 1,700 parcels and encompassing 180,439 acres (see table 1 for county summaries). A high percentage of the land is permanently protected (69%), has a management plan (54%) and is under the care of a natural resource professional (71%).

Most of the land is managed with a multiple use focus (64%) integrating water, recreation, wildlife, and timber into management plans and actions.

Project collaborator and UNH professor John Gunn quantified the dollar value of the ecological and economic contributions town-owned lands make locally and to the state. Table 1 shows the results by county.

Using published data from the Economic Importance of New Hampshire’s Forest Based Economy, 2013 (from the Northeast State Foresters Association) he determined the annual monetary value from the timber and recreation aspects of town forests. To place a dollar value on the ecosystem services from forests — wildlife and pollinator habitat, improved water quality, groundwater recharge, storage and regulation of storm flows, decomposition of organic debris, soil creation and maintenance, erosion control, sediment retention, carbon storage, recreation, and aesthetics — he used the method from Valuing Maine’s Nature, a report published by the Manomet Center for Conservation Studies.

From his analysis, we’re able to talk about town forests in terms of millions of dollars of annual economic and ecological contributions (see table 1) — important information when seeking to persuade that town forests are worthy of owning, protecting and managing.

More To Come

We aren’t quite done. We are in the process of cleaning up our data and sending the tract locations to GRANIT for inclusion in the annual spring update of the conservation layer. Gunn is working on an online portal where users can summarize key findings by town, county and state. This website will be ready in March 2019.

Field-based town forest management workshops are planned for the spring, in what we hope is the beginning of many educational opportunities to help conservation commissioners and town forest committees better care for their land.

To learn more about managing town-owned lands, contact your county extension forester by calling 800-444-8978 for contact information. To learn more about the project, contact karen.bennett@unh.edu.

Partial funding for this project was provided by the Landscape Scale Restoration Grant, U.S. Forest Service.


Extension Professor, Emeritus
Office: Cooperative Extension, Nesmith Hall Rm 212, Durham, NH 03824