Protecting New Hampshire’s Lands: A Voice for Stewardship
by Kathy Henderson ’99
When it comes to the intimate connection between the land and the people who use it, few understand the delicate balance of their co-existence better than Richard Ober ’83. And when it comes to raising public awareness of this symbiotic relationship and the impact they have on each other, he has a compelling way of putting it into words.
Ober, executive director of the Monadnock Conservancy based in Keene, N.H., has spent more than 20 years bringing a message of environmental stewardship to the public through his career with conservation organizations, lecturing and his award-winning writing. “I’ve always loved the outdoors,” says Ober. “From the time I was three until I was 18, I camped with my family for six weeks every summer on a hundred acres of woods and pasture that were purchased by my great-great-grandfather Charles Jenkins during the Civil War. We all spent many hours pruning trees and clearing brush, and my dad and I still cut firewood every fall. I developed an attachment to the land, and a strong sense of place.”
While attending Plymouth State as an English major in the early 1980s, Ober’s passion for the outdoors and concern for the environment put him at the forefront of some of the University’s earliest organized environmental efforts. “I was a member of the Outing Club at Plymouth State, and was also active in political issues of the day. In 1982, a few friends and I founded the student group Common Ground. At the time we were focused on two major issues. One was peace and social justice and the other was the environment.”
Ober received his Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Plymouth State in 1983. He explains, “My goal then was to establish a career where I could combine my interest in land use and the environment with my education and my passion for writing. My first two years out of Plymouth State I worked as a publicist for an arts center and as a reporter in Nashua. Then
in 1985 I went to work for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire
Forests, and it was everything I’d been hoping for.” The Society for the
Protection of New Hampshire Forests is the state’s oldest and largest conservation organization. For 16 years Ober directed communications, education and development programs, and edited the journal Forest Notes.
In July 2001, he joined the Monadnock Conservancy as their executive director. The Monadnock Conservancy was founded in 1990 by area residents as an independent, non-profit, membership-based organization. The 850-member conservation land trust serves 35 towns in the Monadnock
Region, overseeing 85 conservation areas in 28 towns for a total of 6,000 acres. On average, the Conservancy protects 1,200 new acres every year. Among its many accomplishments, it has protected river shorelines, working farms, productive forests, natural areas, ridgelines, community lands, hiking trails and wildlife habitat.
Ober lives in Hillsborough, N.H., with his wife, Liz. He continues to write professionally, but is quick to explain that he is not a traditional nature writer. “I write about environmental issues and the connection between land and people, and the sense of place it inspires.” The Northern Forest (Chelsea Green 1995), which Ober co-authored with David Dobbs, is a compelling illustration of this land-people connection. The Northern Forest consists of 26 million acres stretching along the Canadian border from the Maine coast, across Northern New England almost to Lake Ontario, and south to Glens Falls, N.Y. Ober’s interviews with diverse individuals in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont reveal the feelings they hold for the Northern Forest and the varying ways they depend on it, from recreation to the tourism industry,
logging and farming. Their stories illustrate how proper use of the land does not necessarily harm it, and can often help protect it. In 1996, The Northern Forest was awarded the New Hampshire Outstanding Non-fiction Award, the Vermont Book of the Year Award and the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award. It also received a Choice Academic Award.
In addition to three other books Ober has co-authored or edited, his writings have appeared in Yankee, Outside, Dartmouth Magazine, Habitat, AMC Outdoors and in numerous books and collections on environmental writing. He lectures widely on topics of land use and relationships between land and people. His commentaries have been broadcast on New Hampshire Public Radio, and he has assisted with numerous programs, video documentaries, exhibitions and special events. He is past board president of the New Hampshire Writers’ Project, and has served on several other non-profit and public boards.
Ober has seen environmental attitudes change during his 20-plus year career. “In the ’80s activism was more like a $20 donation to Green Peace, or writing a congressman about acid rain,” he explains. “It was more of a global expression of concern. In general, people today are looking to make a difference closer to home. They are devoting more personal time and energy to land conservation, recycling and other tangible acts in their communities. Both locally and nationally, people also seem to be more conscientious about personal environmental habits.”
In his essay “Use and Reservation: Land Stewardship in New Hampshire,” published in 1999 in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival Program Book, Ober writes about New Hampshire’s changing land use patterns since the mid 19th century when Charles Jenkins bought the 100 acres that is still in Ober’s family. He explains that maintaining the delicate balance between the needs of the land and the needs of people is challenging, but not impossible:
Embracing this prosperity while retaining our distinctive landscapes and culture is not easy. Indeed, it constantly tests our traditionally close relationship with the land and demands a steady dose of Yankee ingenuity. … Jenkins Pasture is a good place to ponder these things. The stone walls especially get me thinking. Built to enclose fields but now a seamless part of the forest, the stone wall is an icon of both continuity and change. And isn’t that the essence of land stewardship? To accommodate growth in such a way that our human artifacts fit the landscape as smoothly as a stone wall, a steeple rising over a green hillside, a covered bridge spanning a swift and ever-changing river.
As Plymouth State opened the 2004 academic year celebrating the
environmental theme, Go Green, Ober delivered the keynote address,
commending Plymouth State on its goal of creating a sustainable campus
and a sustainable world. In the address, Ober pointed out what he refers to as a very basic truth. “Real environmental solutions have to start from the ground up … they have to engage local residents … and above all, they have to respect people’s connection to place. That’s because connection to place
is a very powerful part of the human experience—second only to our
connections with other people.”