In Cornish, Trees Are Root Issue

  • Some trees have been marked to be cut down along Saint-Gaudens Road in Cornish, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Former Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site Superintendent John Dryfhout at his home in Cornish, N.H., on Sept.1, 2016. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • This tree has been marked to be cut down along Saint-Gaudens Road in Cornish, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/4/2016 12:11:40 AM
Modified: 9/5/2016 12:30:05 AM

Cornish — Ask John Dryfhout, a retired former superintendent of Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, about the state’s plans to improve a short section of Saint-Gaudens Road, and he’ll express his anger in all sorts of colorful and indelicate ways.

“It shows you the shallowness of the people that are working for them now,” he said during a phone interview on Thursday. “They have no artistic appreciation.”

Then, just a few minutes later: “These silly boobs in 2016 are letting anybody do what they want!”

Followed by: “I don’t want to interfere with their activities like this, but when they (mess) up like this, somebody has to do it.”

What has Dryfhout so upset?

Trees, specifically white pines. Dryfhout’s high emotion isn’t surprising in light of the fact that people have been battling over New Hampshire’s stock of the towering species for more than 200 years.

This time around, Dryfhout and other Cornish residents are angry that a federally funded, state-managed plan to reconstruct the 3,600 feet of cracked blacktop between Route 12A and the national site’s visitors center would remove 14 trees, including some white pines.

The project is budgeted at $587,000, including $35,000 in preliminary engineering costs and about $2,000 to gain right-of-way easements, according to Keith Cota, chief project manager for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation.

The state-maintained road has had recurring drainage problems that have led to exaggerated frost heaves; updating and modernizing the road should alleviate those problems, but it will require the removal of some trees that project leaders say are unsafe or in the way.

Dryfhout says the tree removal violates the spirit of the National Park Service, which manages the 148-acre site, and the legacy of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the sculptor whose founding of the Cornish Art Colony attracted scores of celebrated and elevated artists to the nucleus of his stately mansion, studios and grounds.

The NHDOT held a public hearing about the road project in early August, but there’s general agreement that it wasn’t well-publicized, which left Dryfhout and others, who found out about the hearing only after it had been held, feeling like their voices hadn’t been heard.

The lack of public participation is what really bothers Charles A. Platt, an architect and Cornish homeowner who sits on the Saint-Gaudens Memorial board of trustees.

“I don’t know what’s being proposed,” he said.

While project designs are posted on the DOT website and ribbons mark the trees that would be removed, Platt and Dryfhout both said there still is a great deal of confusion about the details.

“I’ve seen two different maps showing the removal of trees and they don’t seem to be exactly the same, so I’m not sure what trees are being removed,” Platt said. “They have been marked, but it’s difficult to see them from the car.”

Dryfhout said some of the ribbons are on branches that stand a good distance from the trunk, which makes it difficult to determine which trees are marked.

Steve Walasewicz, who has been facility manager for the site for 25 years, said that the majority of the trees in question are not actually white pines at all — depending on whether one counts a double-stemmed pine near the bottom of the hill as one or two trees, there are five or six white pines slated for removal, of which three or four are, in his estimation, over 100 years old.

Of the other trees, a 20-inch diameter basswood and a roughly 2-foot diameter sugar maple also are near that age range, with the remainder a mix of younger basswood, hemlock, white ash and black birch.

Dryfhout maintains that seven or eight of the trees set for removal are an estimated 150 years old.

The NHDOT website also describes a proposed guardrail that would replace the current cable-and-post system that runs along the old country road.

“My concern is the guardrail ..., which I think is perfectly terrible and will change the feeling and nature of that entire stretch of the road,” Platt said.

An overview on the project website says the design of the guardrail, called “NU-Guard,” is in keeping with the look of guardrails on the Scenic Highway portion of Route 12A.

Rick Kendall, the current superintendent of the Saint-Gaudens site, said that while he had input into the parameters of the road project, he has not weighed in on whether the current DOT plan is acceptable.

Trees never came into the pre-design discussions, he said.

“We have been very specific about what we would like to see,” he said. “We don’t want the roadway to be widened. We don’t want to see the big shiny guardrails.”

Former state Sen. Peter Burling, D-Cornish, said he contacted the DOT and that officials have been receptive to the idea of holding another public hearing to clarify the plans and to get public input. No date has yet been set.

“There is, I think, little consensus in favor of cutting down the trees, and I’m not clear why they want to go ahead and do that,” Burling said. “The most important part is to let folks have a say and let them understand what’s going on.”

Tall Trees, High Emotions

Fights over how to manage New Hampshire’s native stock of white pines — topping out at more than 180 feet, making them the tallest species in the New England forest — have raged, off and on, for centuries.

“They’re our redwoods,” Dryfhout said. “And we should treat them like redwoods.”

A history of the town of Cornish written in 1910 demonstrates how integral the white pines were to the community’s first settlers, who “were attracted by these conditions of the forests. ... Many of the trees were of immense size, especially the white pine.” It notes that fires including pine knots were prized for their brightness, while pine distaffs were used to hold wool for spinning, among many other uses.

But the settlers were not allowed unfettered access to the valuable tree, one of many grievances that fed anti-British sentiment.

Cornish’s original charter specified that “all white and other pine trees within the said Township fit for masting our Royal Navy be carefully preserved for that use, and none to be cut or felled without our Special License for so doing.”

This was carrying on a royal tradition established in 1691, when King William and Queen Mary of England asserted England’s right to the massive white pines, which were the only trees in the known world that could serve as one-piece masts for the navy. Like many royal edicts, the Mast Preservation clause drew ire from local colonists, in this case the sawmill owners and workers who derived their income from the white pines.

In April 1772, those tensions boiled over about 50 miles away from Cornish, where a group of 20 Weare, N.H., residents were immortalized as instigators of “The Pine Tree Riot,” in which they blackened their faces with soot and rushed the inn rooms of a sheriff and deputy who had come to town to enforce the Mast Preservation clause. The lawmen were badly beaten with tree switches and driven out of town. Eight men eventually were arrested, but a sympathetic judge gave them a light fine, according to an account of the riot by the New Hampshire Historical Society.

White pines already were integrated into the landscaping when Saint-Gaudens purchased the federal-style main house in 1885; many were preserved as he developed much of the land into gardens in which he displayed his sculptures. According to Dryfhout, Saint-Gaudens’ wife, Augusta, also went to bat for the property’s white pines around 1919, when electric lines were installed along Cornish’s roadways.

“She prevented the electric company from coming up the road, which is what they did everywhere else in the town,” Dryfhout said. “The people who lived above her on Dingleton Hill were annoyed because the electric wasn’t brought up until this was all hashed out.”

Eventually, the electric company agreed to establish a utility corridor that cannot be seen from the road, he said.

In late 2009, the white pines of Saint-Gaudens were at the center of another dispute, when the National Park Service cut down 20 tall white pines with the intent of restoring the same sweeping view of Mount Ascutney that would have been enjoyed during Saint-Gaudens’ life.

That argument didn’t sit well with many residents, including Dryfhout, who actively lobbied to prevent the agency from cutting down an additional seven trees.

Dealing with the question of whether to cut the seven trees was one of the first public decisions made by Kendall when he took the superintendent job in January 2010.

“The seven nearest the road were ultimately not cut down,” he said, noting that one of those seven was removed in 2012 after being struck by lightning.

History and Modernity

Kendall said he recognizes that the trees that line both sides of the 16-foot-wide road add to its sense of place.

“The approach to the historic site is a very important element to your visit,” he said. “You’re driving up through a large primeval forest with some large and some small trees in various states of forest succession. That feeling, that you’re leaving the open highway and the Connecticut River, you do feel like you’re coming into a specific place.”

The outcry over the proposed removal of what amounts to a very small proportion of the total number of trees along the road is a sign of the tension that exists between two human values — the desire to preserve history as it was, and the desire to take advantage of modern innovations, in this case, a state-of-the art road with improved drainage and drivability.

Burling, the former state senator, said he and others feel a real connection to that specific place, and the natural features that support it.

“Trees — how does one say this without being minimized as just a tree-hugger?” he asked. “These trees have been part of the experience of Saint-Gaudens for at least 60 years. I was 5 years old the first time I went up that hill.”

In recent writings about town history, he said, “I talked about my sense of joy at remembering how things looked the way they do now.”

But Kendall said the need to preserve that atmosphere has to be balanced with the road improvement project.

Of the trees, the project website says that three, including the double-stemmed white pine close to the intersection of Route 12A and Saint-Gaudens Road, should be removed because they are dead, an assertion that Dryfhout disputes.

Walasewicz said there is decay on the double-stemmed pine, but that the crowns are healthy. A third trunk from the same root system was removed a few years ago because of decay, he said.

The other trees are identified in the project description as being in conflict with drainage, offsets, and outlets; one is simply labeled as a “safety hazard.”

And while one of the points of contention is the value of the trees, another is the value of the road project.

Dryfhout said the road did well under his management, when projects were largely limited to the application of a fresh layer of asphalt every five years or so.

“For 90 years it’s been maintained by the state without any trouble, any difficulties. We never had any problem with that road,” he said. “I’m very surprised that this has suddenly become a big deal.”

Walasewicz said there is another way to look at it.

“Applying asphalt every few years is not a way to maintain a cost-effective road,” he said. “That was why the grant application was submitted, to look at a longer-term, more sustainable approach and have it built to more modern standards.”

But Dryfhout said that just because there are some advantages to a project doesn’t mean it’s worth spending $587,000 on it.

“Now, suddenly, because a large sum of money is being made available, a lot more is contemplated than needs to be done,” he said.

That plays into a broader concern about top-down government management of a local treasure.

Burling said he and others in the community still are stung by a federally managed transformation of another natural resource at the same location.

“I want to say this without sounding accusatory at any of the current folks,” Burling said, “but those of us who can remember what Blow-Me-Down Pond looked like before the government got hold of it in 1957 have reason for concern. Everything that’s marsh now was beautiful water. It was a big pond.”

Still, Burling said, he’s keeping an open mind until he learns all the details of what is proposed, and what the alternatives might be.

“If somebody wants to tell me that two or three trees or four of the trees have internal rot and will blow down in the next windstorm, then of course let’s be sensible about it,” he said. “But if the plan is ‘let’s cut down these 100-plus-year-old trees pretty much because we can,’ I think that’s a poor argument.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at

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