Even energy conservation affects the environment

If you approach the Harris Center for Conservation Education on a winter day when the snow drifts along the winding mountain road are several feet high, it is very easy to appreciate what the energy and environmentally conscious organization is all about.

Here in the Monadnock region of southwestern New Hampshire nature has been extravagant with scenic beauty, wildlife, and the kind of weather that makes high fuel consumption a fact of life.

The 11-year-old Harris center is located in a sprawling brown-shingled house surrounded by acres of rolling woodlands and spectacular mountain views.

Its founder, Eleanor Briggs, summered on the estate as a child and came to love the unspoiled countryside around her. After she inherited the house and grounds, she decided to use them for a nonprofit organization dedicated to environmental and energy concerns.

Almost every weekend there are free workshops, lectures, outings, and other projects at the center, some of which address new ways in which people can meet their energy needs. But alternative types of energy production are only part of what such programs address.

How that energy production can affect the natural environment for better or worse is an aspect likely to be included as well.

''Any time you try to manage nature, even in the name of energy conservation, you run the risk of upsetting things,'' says center director Meade Cadot.

''If you are cutting firewood, for example, you have to realize that every time you go into the woods you are changing the habitat of other living things.''

In a state such as New Hampshire, where a typical household burns between three and five cords of wood a year, proper woodlot management is already an important concern. If wood consumption continues to grow, particularly through such innovations as wood chips, which have the potential of heating millions of additional homes, it could become a crucial matter for the nation at large.

Recognizing this, the Harris center has turned 60 acres of its heavily forested grounds into an experimental woodlot designed to show how both firewood and timber can best be harvested without a negative impact on the wildlife that rely on certain trees for both shelter and food.

''What we did is divide the woodlot into four 15-acre parcels and are managing each one as if it had a different owner,'' says Mr. Cadot. ''Each owner cuts at least five cords of firewood a year, but does it in a different way.''

Before any cutting was done the lots were inventoried for the number and types of trees they contain. Approximately 200 red maples, 350-400 white birch, and 36 red oaks were found in each one.

Because they produce acorns that feed a variety of birds and mammals, the oaks figure most prominently in the experiment.

''The biggest mistake that can happen in a situation like this is that the owner will go out and start cutting down young oaks without considering how important the acorn supply is,'' says Mr. Cadot.

''Often when red oaks are harvested they are only at the stage where their trunks are 16 inches in diameter. What many people don't realize is that the prime acorn-bearing stage of an oak doesn't begin until the tree is between 18 and 24 inches in diameter. No oak should be cut before it reaches that stage.''

Under the Harris center experiment no oaks were cut until they were fully mature, and then at least one-third of them were left untouched. ''We found that we could harvest two-thirds of the trees and still leave an adequate acorn supply, providing we didn't cut them while they were too young,'' says Mr. Cadot.

Another common mistake that occurs with cutting wood, asserts the director, is that too many dead trees are taken. The hollow trunks of such trees are often the dens of squirrels or other animals, much-needed shelters that should be allowed to remain.

The same kind of environmental concern was present at a recent workshop which the center sponsored on micro-hydro electricity, a type of energy production in which farmers and individual homeowners harness electrical power from small streams and brooks on their property. Along with bringing in experts to discuss such matters as measuring stream flow, diverting water flow, and constructing small dams, the center emphasized the need to determine what effect such measures would have on the environment.

''Although micro-hydro electricity is a good idea which can work well for someone with accesss to a small stream, the construction of a new dam brings flooding that can have a negative effect on wildlife and the stream itself,'' says Cadot.

''This was brought up during the session, and we presented other methods in which water power can be harnessed without the construction of new dams.''

Other programs have dealt with the problems created by acid rain, a topic that the staff sees as an energy issue as well as an environmental one. ''What makes it an energy issue is that factories in the Midwest are keeping their fuel costs low by not having to keep their smokestacks clean,'' says Cadot. ''The result is that soot is being dumped on Canada and the Northeastern states in the form of acid rain that has already made some of our ponds and lakes uninhabitable to fish and other aquatic life.''

In cooperation with an organization called the Citizens' Task Force on Acid Rain, the Harris center has instructed people in how to use specially designed kits that measure the pH, or acidic, content of rain or snow. The results are then sent to the Citizens' Task Force in Concord for use in increasing public awareness of the problem.

''One man who attended our workshop has used the kit to monitor the snow in the nearby area of the center,'' reports Cadot. ''What he found is that even though the snow appeared absolutely pure and white, it had a pH reading that was 10 times greater than that of unpolluted snow.''

Not all of the activities at the center focus on topics as serious as acid rain, however.

Many are designed simply to encourage the enjoyment of nature, such as a day-long expedition last fall to observe migrating hawks from a mountain vantage point. Workshops on wind energy and building solar greenhouses share calendar space with such things as whale watching and beekeeping.

While the primary concern of the Harris center is to promote the conservation and enjoyment of its own region, the workshops and other programs often draw participants from much farther afield.

Information is available from the Harris Center for Conservation Education, King's Highway, Hancock, N.H. 03449.

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