A snapshot of rural issues across northern New England

A snapshot of rural issues across northern New England

Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont are the three northern New England states, lying next to each other in a row across the most north-easterly part of the USA along the border with Canada.  They share the same historical development, but each has its own unique set of physical characteristics.  Maine has large areas of Spruce forest and a long Atlantic coastline, New Hampshire has a central lakes area and the White Mountains, Vermont has a softer landscape with better soils and more agricultural land.  Despite the differences they face similar issues in their rural areas.  Some of these are recognisable and familiar to those of us working on rural development in Europe, some are unique to this part of the USA.  This blog provides a snapshot in time (October 2019) of a few of the issues currently of interest in the region.  Most of the information presented here has been gleaned from reading the local town newspapers (plus a few websites) on a drive that went from Boston in Massachusetts up into Western Maine, across Northern New Hampshire, down into central Vermont and back into southern New Hampshire.  It is very much a personal view, a brief glimpse into a rural area, and is not intended to be either comprehensive or objective. 

The three northern New England States: Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
Source: https://sullivanhayesne.com/geography/northern-new-england-2/

Some background

This northern area of New England has always been a tough place to make a living.  On the surface it looks lush and is heavily forested[i], but across much of the area, except in Vermont which is geologically different, soils tend to be poor quality[ii] and acidic, the granite bedrock not far below, particularly in the mountain regions, with peaks up to 6,000 ft high at this northern end of the Appalachian chain.  Winters are long, with snow lying on the ground usually from December to early April, and the lakes freezing over completely.  In the northern parts of these states winter is the dominant season, and people here are currently preparing by ensuring they have sufficient wood (or other fuel) for heating, removing boats and lakeside docks from the water, attaching ploughs to their pick-ups, changing over to snow-tyres, and making essential repairs before it gets too cold and everything gets buried underneath the snow. 

The early settlers looked first to the timber and water resources, stripping the land of its forest[iii] and building mills along the major rivers.  Agriculture was widespread during the early colonial period but slowly declined from the mid-19th century onwards as the west and southern states opened up with far more favourable conditions.  For a long time the local economies of communities in these states was based on timber in the northern parts, and manufacturing in the southern areas along the river valleys where water power was abundant.  Forestry is still significant in some areas, such as Maine, which has the highest level of forest cover of any state in the USA (90% of the land area).  In each state the vast majority of forest is private, the lowest proportion being in Vermont which still has almost 80% of its forest land in private hands.  Forestry is also a major source of employment; Maine, for example, has 200 forest related businesses employing 24,000 people, and the forest products industry directly contributes $1.8 billion to the state’s economy each year[iv].

Forest product: Vermont is currently the largest producer of maple syrup in the USA[v]

The northern areas of all three states are largely rural with relatively few urban centres[vi] and the local economies heavily reliant on the natural resource base to attract visitors to the region.  Outdoor recreation and tourism are among the most important factors driving economic development[vii] and include: camping, hiking, climbing, mountain biking, fishing, canoeing and other water-based activities in summer; hunting, biking, and viewing the foliage in the Fall; ice fishing, downhill and cross-country skiing, and snow-mobiling in winter. 

What’s on people’s minds – current issues

Hunting & fishing

Hunting and fishing are major activities in the rural parts of the state.  Deer hunting season is about to start (2nd – 30th November in Maine), followed by a two-week muzzle-loader season.  In New Hampshire and Vermont bow season has already begun and in Vermont the short two-week rifle season does not start until 16th November).  This year local papers are reporting there has been a heavy acorn crop making it ‘hard to pattern’ the deer behaviour but the population in New Hampshire is thriving and the official figure for the 2018 harvest (14,113 animals) was 27% above the 20-year average for the state[viii].

Hunting is an important part of the rural economy.  It brings visitors, mostly outside the summer and winter tourism seasons, providing continued employment for those in the service sector.  A recent report by the U.S. Department of Commerce[ix] noted that the contribution of outdoor recreation to the GDP of Vermont is one of the highest in the country, with over 17,000 people employed.  Hunting, shooting, and trapping is identified as the second largest sector of outdoor recreation after snow sports, with around 80,000 hunting licenses issued per year, and also provides a significant source of local food[x]

The local papers contain a multitude of articles on a range of associated topics, including: the impact and ethics of trapping and continued controversial use of leg traps;   concerns over old dams which prevent salmon running up-river to spawn, the reduction in the Moose population in Maine as a result of an increase in winter ticks[xi]; reductions in water quality from shoreline development, pesticides, and septic systems; the impacts of plastic bait on aquatic species; and, concern over aquatic invasive species.  The negative effects of climate change also get mentioned in relation to some of these factors (e.g. ticks), raising awareness of the potential for significant damage to outdoor activities, which would impact on the resilience of local economies.

CCRI's regular blogger, John Powell has recently returned from a trip to New England. Whilst there he visited many rural areas and has written this piece concerning the issues these communities are facing.
Derelict barn, Vermont

Economic development

Rural economic development is a major concern across all three states.  Traditional manufacturing companies continue to decline as work is outsourced to cheaper locations globally, and the retail sector is suffering from on-line competition and largely uncontrolled strip development in some areas, leading to hollowed out town centres and empty shops and buildings.  Agriculture is also in decline, with many of the familiar problems found in Europe: an aging farm population, increasing move to large intensive farms as smaller farms are unable to compete as a result of increasing input costs while sales prices stagnate.  Vermont, for example, reports a continued reduction in dairy farms, once seen as an activity that characterised the state. In the past decade the number of dairy farms has decreased by more than 30%, mostly due to loss of smaller farms with less than 200 cows[xii].  

Walking the land with one Vermont fruit farmer demonstrated some of the problems, steep hillsides, soils not much more than 6 inches deep lying over granite bedrock, a 200-foot deep drilled well to obtain water, and a hayfield that has barely grown since being cut over in July.  “It’s hard country” was his summary of the situation though he also noted that marketing the produce was harder than growing the crop, requiring significant time and constant effort.  Although over half his land is wooded he did not see any prospect for timber production, partly because a large part of the forest had been cut over shortly before he purchased the farm, but also because he perceived current market prices as too low prices to make it a worthwhile activity.

Old mill buildings, Springfield, Vermont

Driving through Bridgton (Maine) we are held up by road works.  Main Street is currently torn up, as old water and sewer lines are replaced and new pavements and lighting go in, to make the town more attractive.  The town has also just hired a Community Development Director to help create a new growth strategy while next door, the adjacent town of Naples is looking to develop a town logo as part of a wider re-branding exercise in an attempt to attract businesses and visitors.  The aim in both cases is to build a more sustainable economic base that will enable the communities to grow.  Residents recognise the significance of a high-quality natural resource base that can be accessed year round and local concerns include the need to support commerce that promotes the use of the area’s natural resources in order to bring people to the area in the Fall, Winter, and Spring and not just the short summer months (a lot of businesses are currently only open during the summer).  There is also recognition of the need to develop mechanisms that enable the wider community to “have more involvement in decision making”. 

It is interesting to note the focus on re-developing, or re-vitalising ‘main street’ or the centres of small towns.  These are areas that have been hit hard by decades of strip mall development outside the downtown areas, and more recently by internet shopping.  Driving across New Hampshire and into Vermont we went through pockets of wealth where tourism and/or the employment base is well developed.  Examples include the northern end of Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, where the lake provides a major tourism attraction, and Woodstock (Vermont), where the proximity to Dartmouth College, the US Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL), and the Hanover-Lebanon-White river Junction urban area provide a wide range of employment along with almost year-round tourism, creating a strong economic base.  We also came across deprivation in some of the old manufacturing towns such as Newport and Claremont (New Hampshire), where mill buildings and retail storefronts stand empty, and town centres have been hollowed out from relocation of production outside the USA, business failures due to inability to compete with cheaper imports, and the loss of associated support services.

A load of logs winding its way through the road works in Bridgton, Maine

Similar to many ‘honeypot’ sites in the UK, high levels of summer traffic and car parking are also identified as important issues to be addressed in areas where it creates problems in the tourism season.  In Naples (Maine) the limited parking in a key area of the town is viewed as a barrier to business development, and in Springfield (Vermont) parking also crops up as an issue limiting access to the downtown area.  A problem often mentioned is that the areas where planners want to increase visitor numbers to support local business are often restricted in size, with limited space for parking, or they are lakeside sites where provision of increased parking space could potentially damage the scenic beauty – a key attraction of the area. 

Local decision making

There appears to be growing recognition that economic development strategies require widespread local support if they are going to succeed, and this in turn might require new and more participatory approaches to community planning and development.  One interesting example is the First Impressions program[xiii] being tried out in Moultonborough and Derry (both in New Hampshire) with support from the State University.  Towns are matched and a team of volunteer citizens is assembled in each community.  They visit each other’s downtown area looking ‘with fresh eyes’ at potential opportunities, assessing both the good and bad aspects of what they see.  The aim is to empower communities to improve their own downtown area, and to encourage those involved to discuss what they have seen and learned and take a role in ‘identifying community projects’.

Farm, central Vermont

A second example, in Fryeburg on the Maine/New Hampshire border, is the involvement with a programme focused on ‘re-vitalizing main streets in rural communities through outdoor recreation’.  The town is working in partnership with the Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission (an organisation that works to coordinate development and planning activities across 39 townships in Maine) and the (Federal) Environmental Protection Agency.  The aim is to develop a strategy that will improve outdoor education opportunities in the town, support ‘utilisation of vacant spaces’ and develop a “more walkable and thriving main street”.  The process involves development of an action plan “to grow the local outdoor recreation economy in ways that promote sustainable resource management”, building on a strong outdoor recreation culture locally and in the wider White Mountain National Forest area.

Marijuana production

One issue we do not hear much about in Europe, is Marijuana production.  All three states currently allow Marijuana production for medical use, but only Maine has taken the next step of legalising recreational use (legislation adopted in 2018)[xiv].  In Bridgton (Maine) Marijuana is currently grown in an old knitting mill and two other locations.  The discussion in the local community is currently about ‘opting-in’ to the State’s ‘Adult Use Program’ which enables local municipalities to adopt state laws while also developing some form of ‘municipal standard’ which can limit the size and location of both growing and use facilities.  A total of 21 towns have so far opted-in to the programme, the attraction being small business development, employment opportunities, and the potential for raising revenue through local taxes. 

In Vermont and New Hampshire, where recreational use of Marijuana is currently illegal there has been more of a focus on growing Hemp to support the development of Cannabidiol (CBD)-based alternative medicine products.  But moving into new markets is not without problems.  In Vermont, where the 2018 Farm Bill legalised the growing and selling of Hemp the market was quickly flooded with farmers wanting to diversify, and in the space of a year the number of growers doubled while demand for the crop did not.  The result has been a steep drop in prices and only those with sufficient knowledge, who invested in drying barns and other equipment, and have worked out their marketing strategy through pre-agreed contracts, are making money.  A salutary lesson regarding the importance of knowledge transfer and advisory programmes to support diversification into new areas of activity[xv]

Health care

Another issue we do not hear about in the UK, but which causes concern across the whole country, is that of health care costs, and the number of people with insufficient income to pay for health insurance.  Health insurance often comes with jobs, where employers pay, and people will stay in jobs in order to access healthcare benefits for their families.  Those without good health insurance live with increased stress from the potential impact of a major medical emergency, and also may have their quality of life reduced due to inability to pay for care[xvi].  Few people with a young family are going to risk the loss of a healthcare plan to change jobs, or set up their own business, which has a dampening effect on innovation and small business development.  Even those with health insurance are often faced with high deductibles and requirements for co-payment (e.g. paying part of the costs of a visit to the doctor).  Old people are also vulnerable as often Medicaid does not cover all of their health care costs, requiring them to spend extra on insurance.  The high cost of health care comes up in conversations all the time and is a regular topic addressed in local newspapers and other media.

The Future

Outdoor recreation is one of the few growth industries across the region, but it is heavily reliant on access to the relatively small proportion of public land available across the region.  At the local level, where towns are looking more closely at development strategies, three factors stand out: the first is the need to draw in visitors over a wider part of the year to enable local businesses to ‘thrive and not just survive’; the second is to understand the capacity and limits of the natural resource base; and the third is recognition of the importance of wider community involvement in decision making. 

The need for a shift to more sustainable local economic activity is accepted in this part of New England.  People recognise their future livelihoods depend on maintaining a high-quality natural resource base.  They are also beginning to recognise the fragility of that resource base in the face of threats from climate change, increased recreational pressure, and uncontrolled development.  There is also increasing awareness that wider community participation is needed in order to develop (and adopt) the strategies that will lead to more resilient communities based on new approaches to a familiar problem – how to live sustainably on a limited set of resources. 

The northern end of Lake Winnipesaukee (New Hampshire) from the Bald Knob trail


[i] Forest cover and characteristics:

State Forest Cover Main species Ownership
Maine 90% 39% softwood; red spruce, red maple and eastern white pine 89.1% privately owned 9.6% publicly owned, 1.3% owned by Native American tribes
New Hampshire 83% Maple/beech/birch is dominant forest-type. White/red pine and spruce/fir is main softwood forest-type – 21% of forest area 71% private individuals 11% private businesses and corporations 18% public (local, state and federal)  
Vermont 78% Maple/beech/birch accounts for 70.7% of the forest area. White/red/jack pine, spruce/fir, and aspen/birch is 2nd most common forest-type.  Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is the most common tree by volume. 79.1% privately owned 20.9% publicly owned



[ii] https://www.cheshireconservation.org/soil-potential-index-surveys

[iii] When the first settlers came to New Hampshire in the 1600s, over 90% of the state was forested. The settlers cleared the land for farms and towns and by the 1850s about 70% of the land south of the White Mountains had been cleared of trees. Farming in New Hampshire was never easy, the land was hilly and rocky and the soil was often poor. Farmers in the state were often able to farm just enough to support their families. In the mid-1800s, farms across New Hampshire were being abandoned. https://nhpbs.org/wild/nhforests.asp

[iv] http://www.forestsformainesfuture.org/forest-facts/#section6

[v] https://eu.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/news/local/2019/06/12/vermont-leads-in-u-s-maple-production-for-2019/1429280001/

[vi] These states tend to have low population densities, ranging from 43.1/Square mile in Maine to 148.4/square mile for New Hampshire but the northern areas are relatively sparsely populated while southern parts of each state tend to be more densely populated.  Three-quarters of the population of New England, and most of the major cities, are in the three southern states of the region: Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Their combined population density is 786.83 people/sq mile, compared to northern New England’s 63.56 people/sq mile (USA 2000 census).

[vii] All three states have a reputation for high quality natural environments which have long attracted visitors.  Maine, for example, has been a mecca for recreationists since the 1800s. Fishing and hunting,  hiking, whitewater rafting, quiet water canoeing and kayaking, skiing and snowmobiling, mountain biking, moose watching, bring thousands of people into Maine’s forests every year. It’s estimated that those activities and others pump $1 billion a year into the state’s economy. (http://www.forestsformainesfuture.org/forest-facts/)  New Hampshire and Vermont are where downhill skiing first started in the USA, and also have mountains, lakes and forest providing a wide range of outdoor recreational activities.  The White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire is one of most heavily visited outdoor recreation sites in the eastern half of the USA, with over 1,000 miles of trails, suitable for hiking and cross-country skiing, downhill ski areas, and six designated wilderness areas.  (https://www.nationalforests.org/who-we-are/our-impact/whitemountain)

[viii] http://www.deerfriendly.com/deer/new-hampshire/new-hampshire-deer-population-management-and-hunting-regulations/-2019/New-Hampshire-2018-Deer-Harvest


[ix] https://www.bea.gov/data/special-topics/outdoor-recreation

[x] https://vermontjournal.com/outdoor-news/gov-scott-recognizes-the-contribution-of-hunting-fishing-to-the-economy/

[xi] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/18/climate/moose-ticks.html

[xii] https://www.sevendaysvt.com/vermont/selling-the-herd-a-milk-price-crisis-is-devastating-vermonts-dairy-farms/Content?oid=14631009

[xiii] https://extension.unh.edu/resource/first-impressions-more-information

[xiv] Under current legislation in Maine there are possession, purchasing, and consumption restrictions that limit use to those aged 21 years or over.  Possession is limited to 2.5 ounces (70 grams) of Marijuana, the same amount can be purchased from marijuana dispensaries for recreational use (once they are licensed to open), and small amounts can be cultivated.  Consumption of recreational marijuana will only be allowed on private property and prohibited on public or federal land (illustrating some of the current conflict between State and Federal law). https://potguide.com/maine/marijuana-laws/

[xv] The Mountain Times, 23-29 October 2019.

[xvi] https://www.cnbc.com/2017/06/23/heres-how-much-the-average-american-spends-on-health-care.html