Battle of the Marshes

by Ray Murphy

New Hampshire Profiles, March 1963

The battle of the Hampton Marsh is a capsule history of the conservation movement in the country.

The future of the 5,000-acre salt water marsh - the second largest in New England - is going on the block at the Hampton town meeting in March.

On one side are the "interests," local real estate and business men who want to build summer houses and marinas; on the other side, the conservationists concerned more with clam beds, flood control, and migrating sandpipers.

Both sides had their innings at last year's annual meeting of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. This conference proved to be a warm-up for the March meeting. The arguments were warm indeed.

The meeting was held in a Hampton Beach waterfront hotel, despite a fall storm outside which smashed at the beach and sent water over Ocean Boulevard.

The forest society is the oldest conservation group in the state. It is the second oldest state forest group in the country. Through its 61 years the society has won a series of battles; establishment of a state forestry division, acquisition of Franconia and Crawford Notches for the state, the establishment of the White Mountain National Forest. Its own major battles out of the way, the society now opens its meetings to conservationists still in the thick of struggle.

The marsh struggle has been thick for five years, ever since the Hampton Municipal Development Authority was formed. The Authority, made up of local business men, was set up by an act of the General Court to plan and execute an orderly physical and economic growth of the marsh land. The Authority looked, and came up with a plan to fill in the marsh and make lots for summer homes complete with waterways and lagoons.

The Authority's chairman and leading light is Carl M. Lougee of Hampton. Lougee stood off a battery of marsh lovers at the forest society meeting, all by himself. Lougee is a business man and board chairman of Hampton National Bank. He has a fast, confident delivery.

He stunned the forest society gathering right away, "I don't know much about conservation," he said, "and I don't want to go into it. I'm not against conservation. But much of this acreage will not be used for conservation."

Lougee views the flat acreage of the marsh as a challenge. Within the coastal town of Hampton the marsh covers 1,600 acres. The rest of the 5,000 acres is in Seabrook and Hampton Falls. The marsh may be damp but to Lougee it is still real estate. With modern excavation equipment Lougee sees it full of dry, crisp tax dollars.

To the conservationists Lougee is a challenge. The conservationists are picking up steam and friends, but have had a late start. Their local leader is Ruth Stimson, a Rockingham County home extension agent, and she likes swamps. The Hampton Marsh Conservation Committee, in which Miss Stimson is active, has collected more than 100 acres of marsh for conservation purposes. The committee has a goal of 300 acres.

The Audubon Society of New Hampshire is also trying to collect parts of the marsh for conservation, as is the Hampton Historical Society. Each group has taken a different part of the marsh. One of the troubles with their efforts is that the boundaries within the marsh are vague. Many of the landowners in the marsh have only an obscure idea of their lines.

The marsh conservers have a variety of arguments going for them; prevention of erosion, stabilization of the runoff of excessive waters from inland streams, forage fish habitat, shell and fin fish habitat, and a buffer for coastal storms.

On the latter point the conservation side was cheered last year by the highest seas in more than a decade. Two separate storms sent the waters high over the marsh. The conservationist feel that not only would any planned housing project on built-up marsh land be badly damaged but that the present summer housing, on non-marsh land, would also have suffered. The filled-in marsh would not have acted as a sponge, the way the natural marsh does, to take the brunt of the waves.

Some of the groups seek to have the marsh preserved as an increasingly rare habitat for the unique marsh plant and animal life. Some of them even see beauty in the marsh landscape, but they'll only talk about that if pressed. Beauty is seldom negotiable.

Lougee's side is not bothered with such a multiplicity of arguments. His argument, as outlined for the forest society, is simple, direct, and is aimed right for the pocketbook. It boils down to the fact that there's more money in a marsh full of summer cottages and marinas than a marsh full of herons and fish.

At the meeting Lougee deftly stood off the conservationists. He is unpopular with the marsh people, but if they are unpopular with him, Lougee is too seasoned a campaigner to show it.

Very sure of himself, Lougee rattled off figures without notes. He explained that the project has been checked by the town's most prominent lawyer, by a Boston bond counsel, by the American Institute of Business Research in Boston, and the Anderson Nichols Company, architects, in Boston.

With his maps and charts and figures and his hard direct sell Lougee stood in contrast to the marsh people. On the whole, conservationists are not accustomed to the hard sell. The study of the great sweep of life cycles has a tendency to turn them to mysticism.

Lougee is not much of a mystic.

To Lougee the marsh is "industry." There is little real industry in Hampton in the way of factories. Most of the citizens (pop.5500) work out of town. But the tax base is considerably broader than it is in most bedroom towns.

Hampton has less than 6,000 population in the winter but it has ten times 6,000 in the summer beach season. And, on the holidays, Fourth of July or Labor Day, Hampton is the largest municipality in the state. Police estimate that more than 125,000 jam in.

"Hampton Beach is our industry," Lougee said. "The summer visitors are not here to send children to school. They don't require year-round garbage and refuse collection."

Taxes from summer residents give the town the cushion for what Lougee calls the town's "lust advantages."

We have a fine police department, a fine fire department, good schools. We have twice a week garbage and refuse collections. If we are going to continue these lush advantages we are going to have to raise our assessments.

"Some people might not care about raising the assessments (the conservationists). But most people do care!

"The 1,600 acres of marsh and all of its land and buildings are assessed for a total of approximately $250,000. At a rate of $60 - we've been averaging $60 though this year we had to go up to $65 - that means $15,000 a year in tax revenue.

But, for Project One alone, (there are four separate projects planned to fill up the marsh) we would turn just 318 acres of the marsh into three million dollars worth of taxable property." Lougee drew out the phrase "three million dollars."

The 318 acres are to be dredged and drained and filled. Lougee's plan calls for 167 waterfront lots and 282 lots with indirect access to the water.

"That's 192 acres of developed land and 126 acres of waterways and lagoons. There would be four acres for a fishing pier. Six acres for commercial use. Four acres for a marina. Twenty-six acres for public use." Lougee spattered figures and breakdowns of figures.

Any stumbling block to Lougee's project will come from the town meeting. To get money for more planning Lougee needs the assent and backing of the town. So far, the town has given the Authority $30,000 for preliminary plans. He's probably going for $70,000 at this year's meeting, for final plans.

Project One will cost $2.1 million. Lougee thinks the Authority will get the money back by the sale of lots. The $2.1 million bond will not affect the town's debt limit nor its tax rate, Lougee claims. He is sure they can sell the lots and get the money back.

Lougee and the other members of the Authority get no money for being members. (The other members are Douglass E. Hunter , Paul Leary, Walter Vanderpool and Albert Wright.)

Once the machines are turned loose on the marsh it will take little time for 318 acres to be dug up and filled and lot lines to be laid. Then the lots will be grabbed up by the hungry army of landlocked recreation seekers in our cities and for prices up to $5,000. But once the machines are turned loose, the marine biologists fear the worst.

Allen H. Morgan, executive vice president of the Massachusetts Audubon Society stood and noted the delicate balance of the marsh. Marsh land is wildly fertile, producing more than ten tons of vegetation per acre a year. With the movement of the over the marsh - a salt water marsh is covered twice a day by tides - nutrients are released into Hampton harbor to support the wildlife there, from the microscopic forms to the bigger fish and clams and eventually to humans.

It is all incredibly complex. There is a delicate integration of salinity, temperature, currents, turbidity and other factors to provide proper conditions for spawning grounds or for nurseries for the striped bass, flounders, pollock, hard and soft-shell clams, oysters and bait fish.

Clamming is a popular pastime. On a typical day up to 200 persons can be seen stooped over digging clams in the hot summer sun. There is no commercial clamming in New Hampshire but it is a great amateur sport. Last year 4,595 clam licenses and 1,576 oyster licenses were issued by the state to persons from all parts of the state. You can take up to a peck of clams a day or a bushel of oysters, but you cannot sell them.

Morgan was the only speaker of the Forest society meeting who might have been able to match Lougee's pitch. He used to be an insurance salesman.

"For two and a half months of the year, to serve hot dog stands and boaters, we change and modify our natural resources.

"We are not against 'progress', but we are against destruction of more natural resources than we create when we try to manipulate nature. Destruction of marshes is the greatest conservation problem in the nation today."

Morgan warned that to destroy the marsh, and the housing projects would eventually destroy the value of the land as a flood buffer. Marshes are highly regarded as flood absorbers. They soak up and store rapid runoff from upstream and release it slowly.

Marshes are also unrivaled for dissipating the battering force of storm waves. The resilient marsh vegetation emerges undamaged after storms that scatter stone breakwaters. The marsh lover saw the violent seas this year, unseasonably high, as a lesson to be overlooked only by the foolhardy.

The wildlife authorities who spoke for the marsh lacked the polish of Lougee and Morgan, but they gave their testimonials with unaffected fervor.

Sumner Dole, game supervisor of the N.H. Fish and Game Dept. Noted that from a fish and game standpoint the marsh was important for clams and for fish. Project One, located in the western section of what is called the Low Marsh, adjacent to present summer buildings, would likely cause siltation which would ruin clam beds. He was also concerned with the loss of stripped bass and forage fish.

"Such destruction can never be retrieved," he warned.

Dole's position has the active endorsement of the N.H. Marine Fisheries Association. The association is a small local one with about 80 members, mostly fishing party boat owners, clam diggers, and pleasure boaters. Most of its members have a deep working knowledge of the marsh.

Irving Jones of Hampton, president of the association, recently told N.H. Profiles that he valued the clam beds crop at a million dollars annually. He bases that on clams selling for $4.50 or so a peck.

"There are 25 to 50 acres of clam flats now and they've only scratched the surface on the clam potential. There could be ten times as many if the state wanted to make an effort down there.

"Housing projects would help kill off bait fish in the marsh and game fish which use the marsh to spawn and grow. It would mean the end of the fishing party boats. During a busy day in the summer we might haul 500 to 600 people out in fishing parties.

"Our association believes in preserving what we have left of mother nature. But the main thing here is that we are going to lose too much and gain too little to do our-selves any good."

The marsh was called the most popular area in the state for bird watchers by Tudor Richards, president of the Audubon Society of New Hampshire. More field trips are held there than at any other spot, some of them in the middle of the winter, he told the group.

"The marsh is vital for some species for nesting and as a winter habitat. We are getting more and more persons attending the bird trips, both for pleasure and for scientific interest in migration.

"In the winter there are herring gulls and black backed gulls, purple sandpipers, mallard ducks and black ducks, teal, dunlins, widgeons. In the spring you can see a greater yellowlegs chasing fish in some of the pools, and that's a very exciting thing to see. There are sandpipers and plovers early in May during migrations and terns later in May. There are hundreds of sand-pipers in the marsh.

"In the summer on the marsh you can find one of the most beautiful birds in the world - the snowy egret. In the fall during the migration, the white rumped sandpiper, a bird hardly bigger than a sparrow, stops here on its way to southern-most part of South America, 10,000 miles away. In late summer and early fall the shore birds go through. Then come the ducks. Some ducks live in the marsh all year round.

"The marsh birds are a part of the natural marsh community helping with the control of lesser animals. But the marsh is also a place of great beauty and interest, part of the natural land-scape. There are not nearly enough objects of beauty and interest."

One of the simplest statements for the marsh was given by Samuel A. Towle, Hampton postmaster and a member of the Hampton Historical Society. He also heads a group which is seeking land in the "Drakeside" part of the marsh, west of Route 1 in Hampton.

"Right after we heard about the Authority plans, two or three of us old-timers got together and sort of viewed the project with alarm. They called it 'marsh reclamation' but actually it is marsh eliminating.

"I was brought up in Hampton and when I was a boy I used to trap on the marsh for extra money. And we used to haul hay off the marsh.

"The marsh is part of the town. We have the 95 bypass going through it and a lot of drivers comment on the scenic beauty of the marsh.

"We approached a good many of the owners asking them for their part of the marsh for preservation. But they think we have some ulterior motive. We're working slowly picking up people on the marsh here and there. We lack someone like Carl Lougee to persuade these people.

"But I hope we can all enjoy the marshes in the future - without the buildings.

Editor's note (2004): The marsh was never filled in and remains a natural area to this day. For more on the battle of the marshes, and the ultimate outcome, see the chapter in Peter Randall's history of Hampton titled "The Tidal Marshes".