Just a few miles north of Keene, nearly 1,400 acres of land populated by a diverse array of wildlife — from yellow birch trees to black bears to bobcats — straddles the line between Gilsum and Surry.
The property on the eastern side of Surry Mountain has been owned by a private family trust for decades. But that may soon change. The Nature Conservancy has launched a fundraising campaign aimed at acquiring the land and making it a nature preserve.
The property has long been of interest to the state’s conservation community, according to Mark Zankel, New Hampshire state director for The Nature Conservancy. That’s partially because of its location amid other conserved and public lands, he explained.
“There’s this whole network — it’s 50,000 acres — and the Surry Mountain piece is one of those anchors that helps to link up the southwestern part of that connected landscape,” he said.
The nonprofit organization had previously approached the Casagrande Family Trust about the possibility of conserving the land, according to Zankel. And in the fall, he said, the beneficiaries of the trust alerted the conservancy that they were interested in selling.
In February, the two parties reached an agreement giving the conservancy until the end of December to finance a conservation effort before the land — most of which is in Gilsum — is put up for private sale. Shortly after, the organization began its push to raise $3.6 million, which would be enough to purchase the land along with additional project costs, such as land surveying and creating an endowment to provide stewardship of the property into the future.
So far, public and private contributions total $2 million, Zankel said, with $1.5 million of that to come from the N.H. Fish and Game Department. That leaves about $1.6 million still to be raised before the end of the year, when he said The Nature Conservancy must decide whether to move forward with the project.
“I feel like we have six months to figure out, is there enough community support for this opportunity to help us raise the funds? And we hope there will be,” Zankel said. “The project has so many great community values, from water resource protection to recreation to wildlife habitat.”
The Nature Conservancy also plans to apply for additional funding through state grants, he said.
Those interested in learning more about the project can attend an upcoming “Conservation Conversation” scheduled for July 25 at Branch and Blade Brewing Co. on Bradco Street in Keene. Attendees will discuss some of the challenges facing land conservation and how to confront them, Zankel said, noting that Surry Mountain is an apt case study.
“And it’s an issue not only in New Hampshire, but more broadly, which is how do we ensure a resilient and connected landscape?” he said. “How do we make sure that our landscape remains connected in the face of development, climate change and other kinds of stresses that humanity is bringing to bear?”
The Nature Conservancy has also organized a hike on the property the following day to give anyone interested an opportunity to experience the land for themselves. The 2.5-mile hike will depart from Old Gilsum Road at 8:30 a.m. on July 26.
Another hike will be scheduled for sometime in the fall, Zankel said, and if all goes well with the fundraising campaign, the conservancy hopes to buy the land in the first half of 2020.
The organization also plans to improve the existing trail network and put in additional signage to allow visitors to enjoy the landscape while prioritizing the property’s conservation, according to Zankel.
“This is what we live for at The Nature Conservancy,” he said, “and so we’re excited to have this opportunity and to engage this community to see if we can make a go of it.”