Good News, Bad News

Good News, Bad News

A reserve is born—and another dark cloud gathers
Friday, June 13, 2014

Peter Wellenberger '74

"I owe my career to Onassis," says Peter Wellenberger '74, who joined the student chapter of Save Our Shores when he was at UNH and has logged an awful lot of miles since, hiking the shores of Great Bay. He's seen great blue herons wing past overhead and watched the fog shift and settle over the tidal marshlands—and he's spent more than 20 years helping to preserve some of the very land the shipping magnate had been eyeing for his oil tanks.

"The refinery scared people," says Wellenberger. "The bay had been spared this time, but it was still vulnerable." Concerned about what could be done to protect the bay in the future, former SOS members formed the Great Bay Estuarine System Conservation Trust, and in 1989, the Great Bay was accepted into a network of 28 protected coastal areas of national significance. The dedication took place on the property of UNH physical education professor Evelyn Browne '62G (the site today of the university's Browne Center) and was attended by many who had fought the refinery—including Wellenberger, who was appointed director of the new reserve in 1990.

With thousands of acres around the bay in private ownership—and ripe for development—Wellenberger and others took action, forming the Great Bay Resource Protection Partnership, a coalition of conservation organizations focused on land protection. In 1996, the partnership went to Washington in search of funding—and came back with $20 million for the next four years. Thanks to New Hampshire's Senator Judd Gregg, the money kept coming—$5 million each year for 12 years. Asked one time by a reporter about whether all that money was an example of pork, Gregg, standing on the shore of the bay, famously quipped: "No, this isn't pork.This is filet mignon steak." By the time Wellenberger retired in 2012, the partnership had protected 107 properties totaling just over 6,000 acres.

But even as the partnership went to work, another "dark cloud" was gathering. As more people discovered the beauty of the Seacoast—and decided to stay—development skyrocketed. Between 1990 and 2010, the region's population grew 20 percent—faster than anywhere else in the state. Paved areas, rooftops, and other "impervious surfaces" shot up 120 percent, sending rain water straight into the bay without seeping into the earth for "filtering" en route. Meanwhile, the water quality in Great Bay was plummeting. By 2009, the EPA declared the Great Bay officially "impaired," citing nitrogen overload and issuing tougher standards for the 18 New Hampshire wastewater treatment plants that discharge directly into the estuary.

"It really crept up on us," says Wellenberger. "We were patting ourselves on the back, but one day I was gazing out at the bay and it hit me: Wouldn't it be ironic to have done all this work, protected all this land—and then have the bay collapse?"

Originally published by: 

UNH Magazine

Written by Suki Casanave '86G

Photo by Lisa Nugent