Robb on the Radar, Part I

A Hornpout Hangout

A river otter. (photo © Zachary Spears via unsplash)

River otter: umbrella species and hornpout aficionado.
(photo © Zachary Spears via unsplash)

This story starts for me in 1974, when renowned outdoorsman John Kulish asked, “Want to go hornpout fishing?”(Hornpout is another name for the brown bullhead catfish.) “Sure!” I said, and the next evening we canoed out into his favorite hornpout fishing hole — Robb Reservoir in Stoddard — he with his fishing gear and I with a tape recorder.

We caught quite a few fish, and I got quite an earful on tape, including how he and his fishing buddy had approached the 40-fish limit back in the days when hornpout protein had been an important staple for blue-collar family tables. But what really struck me was John’s declaration that Robb Reservoir and the headwaters of the North Branch of the Contoocook, below the Robb dam, provided the best habitat around for his favorite critter and fellow hornpout fan: the river otter. Back then and still today, the otter is the best example of an umbrella species for our region’s aquatic and wetland ecosystems — meaning that if otters thrive there, so can many other wetland-dependent species.

A Scenic Lake with Great Development Potential

An aerial view of Robb Reservoir and surrounding lands in spring.

An aerial view of Robb Reservoir and surrounding lands.

Some time later, I discovered that in the eyes of the landowner, Robb Reservoir was a scenic recreational lake with great development potential! In 1952, the NH Fish and Game Department (NHFG) used federal Pittman-Robinson funds to construct a dam enlarging the reservoir to approximately 115 acres, ostensibly for waterfowl habitat enhancement. But rather than purchase the land, NHFG secured only a 30-year lease. Fast forward 30 years, and the landowner let NHFG know that he had no intention of extending the lease. Instead, he offered to sell the property to NHFG for slightly below its appraised value.

The oldest letter in my Robb Reservoir files is one dated February 23, 1982, to the director of NHFG from Judd Gregg, our U.S. Representative at the time, encouraging the department to use available federal Pittman-Robertson funds for the purchase. Unfortunately, the decision makers in the department felt that the price was too high and countered with an offer of less than half the appraised value, so ending that first chance for protection. This was not to be the last time the landowner’s asking price would be above what the conservation community was able to pay.

“Concepts for Limited Development”

The Forest Society (a.k.a. Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, or SPNHF) was the next organization with whom the landowner tried to work a deal. I was in the loop for this round of discussions because the landowner had heard of my interest in seeing land protected near the newly conceived SuperSanctuary. In fact, when the very first SuperSanctuary map was printed (in 1985, by the Keene Sentinel), he was the first person outside Harris Center circles to ask for a copy.

I soon learned that he planned to use the map to help market the development of the property! His approach this time was to engage a well-known design firm in Concord to come up with some “concepts for limited development,” with a few very high-priced lots fronting on the Reservoir. This would largely spare the riparian section of the property, which stretched for approximately four miles along both sides of the Contoocook’s North Branch. Long-time acquaintance Paul Doscher, then Vice President for Land Conservation for SPNHF, and I both believed that given the landowner’s notion that Robb Reservoir was his gold mine, our best scenario was to let the Reservoir go to limited development while protecting that scenic and wild four miles of the development-free North Branch.

Alas (well, not in retrospect), the high asking prices for the high-end lots on the Reservoir did not entice any buyers (certainly not the Forest Society or the Harris Center), and so ended that round. More to come in Part II!

–Meade Cadot