Balsams Ski Expansion Plan Includes Clearing High-Elevation Forest

Apr 26, 2016

When it closed in 2011 the Balsams had about 135 acres for skiing. Developer Les Otten hopes to increase that to about 2,000 and make it the largest ski resort in New England. Photo by Chris Jensen for NHPR.

The Coos Planning Board meets Tuesday night in Lancaster to consider a plan to greatly expand the ski area at the Balsams, including a proposal to clear some high-elevation forest.

The multi-year plan would expand the skiing area from 135 to almost 1,100 acres, with possibly 800 more acres of glade skiing.

Developer Les Otten says the pace would depend on “market conditions," but he would like to begin some clearing this summer.

That first phase would increase the skiable area from the current 135 acres to 250 acres along with six new chair lifts. When the resort closed it had two chair lifts.

The plan also calls - at some point - for clearing up to 325 acres of high-elevation forest, a type of habitat state wildlife officials generally describe as “rare and unique”.

Only four percent of the state’s forests grow at the 2,700-foot  elevation and they are considered “rare, distinct and important ecosystems,” according to the University of New Hampshire. They are also home to two threatened species, the American Marten and Canada Lynx.

In 2009 New Hampshire Fish and Game fought the clearance of only 58 acres at the same altitude for the wind farm now located on peaks above the Balsams.

But Fish and Game says it has no objections in this case.

That surprises Ken Kimball, the director of research at the Appalachian Mountain Club, who says Fish and Game has a history of stressing the need to protect such habitats.

Chris Jensen for NHPR

“So, it is somewhat strange that the New Hampshire Fish and Game department in this particular case expresses no concern whatsoever,” he says.

Glenn Normandeau, the commissioner of Fish and Game, told NHPR that project has its benefits and problems and “in this case the benefits to the North Country and state, in the judgment of most, seem to far outweigh the negatives.”

The issue of high-elevation forests and habitat also came up earlier this month when Fish and Game filed comments with the U.S. Department of Energy on the Northern Pass Project. The department expressed concern about the loss of high-elevation forests due to Northern Pass, the existing wind farm and the possible expansion of the Balsams ski area.

The expanded ski area is an important part of Otten's plan to develop a world-class resort that would bring hundreds of jobs and boost the economy of the region.

State officials including Gov. Maggie Hassan have expressed strong support for the project.

However, Otten is still working on financing and several times officials have been overly optimistic in predicting "shovels in the ground."

The ski plan is the first site plan to be submitted to the planning board. The board will be considering whether the application has all the necessary information and is complete. If so it would schedule a public hearing, probably for next month.

The meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. at the North Country Resource Center (DRED Building) 629 Main Street, in Lancaster.