Episode 38: Daisy Supply Chain

Ever wonder where those flowers in the grocery come from and why, no matter what time of year, there are always roses available? Just in time for Mother's Day—the second busiest floral day behind Valentine's Day—we look inside the billion dollar flower industry and trace the well oiled supply chain that makes sure saying it with flowers is always an option.

A flower display at a Concord, NH grocery store at 4pm on Valentine's Day. How about some baby's breath? | Photo: Molly Donahue

A flower display at a Concord, NH grocery store at 4pm on Valentine's Day. How about some baby's breath? | Photo: Molly Donahue

Think about Valentine’s Day. Not the stuffed animals and chocolate and cards… zero in on those flowers. Roses. Probably red. Probably a dozen of them. But here’s a quandary that perhaps you haven’t really thought a lot about: Valentine’s Day is in February, right? Where the heck are roses coming from in the dead of winter?

Credit: Logan Shannon & Molly Donahue

The florist? Sure, maybe. If you’re anything like our team, you’ll probably head over to the grocery store first to see what they’ve got. If you’ve waited until 5pm on Valentine’s Day, the selection is probably going to be a little sparse.

But just stop and think about this for a second: those roses that you’re squabbling over in the grocery store aisles, how did those even get there?

Fresh-cut flowers are nature’s most ephemeral phenomenon. Poets have written whole collections using the blossom as a metaphor for the briefness of life. But they rarely write sonnets about how the humble flower affects a country's gross domestic product.

In this episode, we’re tracing the path a cut flower takes, step by step. We looked inside the $31 billion American floral industry to show you what it takes to ensure that nature’s shortest lived product will arrive to the grocery store or florist’s fridge and then make its way onto your kitchen table looking fresh as a daisy. And that means starting down south. South America south.

From Domestic Product to International Import

Today, roughly 80% of our imported flowers come from Ecuador and Colombia. But this wasn’t always the case. Most flowers sold in the U.S. used to be grown in the U.S. New Jersey had a  handle on the rose market until it became more economical to move it to California where real estate wasn’t as valuable (yet). Colorado, with high plateaus, warm days, and cool nights was also a big producer. But in 1967 a graduate student in horticulture named David Cheever at Colorado State University asked a key question: Where’s the best place in the world to grow flowers?

Amy Stewart is the author of Flower Confidential and the woman we turned to for expertise on the flower industry. It turns out it places like Ecuador and Colombia, regions along the equator with high plains, cool nights, and low labor costs are the best places to grow flowers. Here’s a hint from Amy, “Roses happen to grow very well along the equator, they like warm days and cooler nights and the stems get very long.” Another advantage to places like Colombia: Bogota is a convenient 3 hour flight from Miami—which will make sense soon.

Business flocked down there in the 1970s. Colombia now exports more than a billion dollars worth of flowers each year, and most of that comes to the U.S. Other South American countries like Ecuador, Guatemala, and Costa Rica followed suit, but Colombia still has the biggest share.

This fundamentally changed the way we buy flowers here in the U.S. Before the 1970s, flowers weren’t really sold in supermarkets. The business in Colombia was just so successful that all the blossoms coming into the country needed outlets other than florists. And thus the supermarket/bodega bouquet was born! Which illustrates the point that flowers don’t just do really well in these regions, they also do really well for these regions, at least in terms of making money.

The South American Flower Machine

Solitaire Roses from a farm in Ecuador

Solitaire Roses from a farm in Ecuador

Carolina Loza Leon, is an Ecuadorian audio producer who went to check out the rose industry on our behalf. She visited several of the rose farms that blanket the region around Quito, Ecuador. She described the scene at one of the greenhouses near Tabacundo, Ecuador. There are some workers weeding, while another sprayed down the rows with some sort of chemical. According to Carolina, “There’s a guy zigzagging through rows and throwing pesticides, fumigating...He’s all covered but the rest are not covered, they’re wearing long sleeves and gloves and hats.”

Because flower don’t go through the same inspection process as produce entering the United States, the emphasis is on making sure there is nothing visually wrong with the product—no bugs, no fungus. So, there is a lot of spraying of these flowers and at least at this one greenhouse, not a lot of precautions for the workers. Carolina said about ten minutes after being exposed to the spray, her arms started itching, and some of the workers laughed when they saw her scratching.

In the 19th century, people literally said it with flowers. Floriography was a kind of code used by chaste lovers to express their deepest feelings. | Credit: Logan Shannon

This seems like a good time to point out that this story isn’t an exposé on labor practices and pesticide use in the flower growing industry. But from what we heard from Carolina, and from looking at what other reporters have found, it's fair to say it's a mixed bag: workers are exposed to some nasty stuff. Including some pesticides that are illegal to use here in the U.S. But it's also an industry that has bolstered the local economies of flower growing regions. 90,000 people are directly employed by the Colombian flower industry, while another 40,000 work for companies that support it.

Among the people Carolina spoke with was Jose Ivan Chorlango Sanchez. He goes by Don Ivan. He owns his own small flower farm in La Esperanza, north east of Quito. He explained the time table that goes into growing roses—some will need to be cut in a few weeks, other a month. While this might seem like a hassle, there’s a reason flowers rule this area.

In this region, prices and demand for produce is much lower. “Here, we’ve seen that there is no other business as good as this.” Don Ivan said. “Tomatoes, prices are low, demand is low. Same with potatoes...I’d need at least 5-6 hectares for potatoes to work.”

That 5-6 hectares comes out to about 12 acres, which isn’t much land by American standards, but if you’ve just got a little plot of land in the Ecuadorian Highlands, you can make a living with just a couple greenhouses, growing batches of a few thousand roses at a time.

In Don Ivan’s greenhouses, he starts cutting at around 7:00 am for about two hours, then there’s weeding and cutting off buds so stock grows straight. Cut flowers are put into water to be “hydrated” then packed off to the processor, where they’ll be classified, cut down again, and stored in a cold room.

Don Ivan’s processor is the Asociación de Productores Agrícolas Pedro Moncayo. It’s a co-op, formed as a way for smaller farms to group together and sell their flowers to wholesalers. It’s an alternative for smaller farms, formed in response to poor conditions of bigger farms in the area.   

So, while a single rose might cost you a couple of bucks in the grocery store, most of that money isn’t going to the growers themselves. It’s going to the rest of the supply chain that gets that rose to you.

Isabel Ramirez is the director of the Asociación, and she explained the cycle between two major floral holidays: Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, two big booms for the flower industry that come just a couple months apart.

For small-scale growers trying to satisfy demands, it makes sense to have an Asociación like this handling your sales. Someone like Don Ivan can still be in the greenhouse cutting by 7:00 am, while Isabel’s sales team can come in early to handle sales calls on Moscow time.  

Isabel explained that when her sales team comes in early in the morning they overlap for just a few hours with Russian buyers who are just about to head home for the day. Selling to folks in time zones in the U.S. is much easier. And all of this adds up to a setup that really works for smaller growers like Don Ivan, who says he gets about $0.33 per rose through the Asociación, more than he used to get through other processors.

So, while a single rose might cost you a couple of bucks in the grocery store, most of that money isn’t going to the growers themselves. It’s going to the rest of the supply chain that gets that rose to you.   

Alex Madrigal has a great line in his audio-documentary Containers that nothing ships by air except: ‘fresh flowers and fuck-ups.’

Whether or not a flower is coming from an association or a big farm, flowers end up packed together and trundled off to a distributor, then stuffed onto a freighter plane or in the space left in cargo holds of passenger planes. These are usually some of the last flights to leave at night, to limit time spent idling on hot tarmac. This is actually a wild part of this process, since nothing else really gets shipped by air these days. Alex Madrigal has a great line in his audio-documentary Containers that nothing ships by air except: “fresh flowers and fuck-ups.”

After their luxurious airplane trip, flowers wind up—almost always—in beautiful, tropical, Miami. Why Miami?

Amy said, “Most of the flowers in the United States come through the Miami International Airport because they have a cold storage facility there that’s ready to receive flowers and food and it’ll get inspected and go on a truck. So maybe by Wednesday or Thursday it’s on a truck driving across the country to wherever you live and it might at that point make its way into a wholesale market or a distributor where it’s once again going to be in some kind of cold storage for a day or two or longer.”

The Regional Wholesale Market

Emily Herzig loads fresh flowers into her van at the Boston Flower Exchange on a cold winter day. | Photo: Molly Donahue

Let’s back up for a minute. It’s those wholesale markets that caught our interest and lucky for us there’s one right nearby: The Boston Flower Exchange (though it recently moved and has a new name: The New England Flower Exchange).

It’s basically the flowery version of a fish or meat market, complete with very local vendors hawking their wares. It’s catered to people who really care about their arrangements looking good, and who want to see what they’re getting before they buy it. Because getting a bunch of wilted flowers off the internet does not work for high-end florists and many local vendors.

Since you need someone in the industry to escort you in the Exchange we called up Emily Herzig. She owns the Emily Herzig Floral Studio up in Littleton, New Hampshire, and was nice enough to let us tag along with her.

While Emily was piling up her double decker cart at one of her vendors run by Chris Goodman, we learned one of the core tenants of coming to a place like the flower exchange: it’s about quality, not quantity.

Chris started working summers in his family’s flower shop in high school and 25 years later he’s racked up some surprisingly global connections. 80% of the flowers imported to the US come from South America, but that last 20% are coming from all over the world. There are certain trade routes that are much more popular (we get most of our flowers from South America, while Europe relies heavily on Africa) but this is definitely a global industry.

It has to be, because when a person is getting married, they don’t really care that lily of the valley are out of season. So their hardworking florist will haggle with their wholesaler and they’ll track down some lily of the valley from Japan...for a price of course. But a big chunk of the floral industry isn’t being run through wholesale markets anymore, and that’s because these days most people aren’t getting their flowers from the shop downtown. They’re either going to the supermarket or they’re going to the biggest store on earth: the internet.

From the Internet to Your Doorstep

We’re talking about FTD, internet flower juggernauts. To be fair, FTD has been around much longer than the internet; it was founded in 1910 as Florists’ Telegraph Delivery. And it’s not the only “Big Flora” business out there. There’s 1-800-Flowers, Teleflora, Pro-Flowers, every other flower related play on words you can imagine.

Most of these big companies work in similar way. Let’s say you live here, in the NHPR studios, in Concord, NH. But you want to send flowers to a friend in Austin, TX. In the FTD universe, you can go to your local florist and place an order with them. They transfer that order to a local florist in Austin, through an FTD network. Bing, bang, boom! Your florist gets a percentage, FTD gets a cut, and that local florist thousands of miles away gets a sale. That sort of transaction makes up a big part of the flower market—Teleflora claims to have 15,000 shops in its network alone.

After a boom in the market in the 1990s, the number of retail florist shops in the U.S. dropped—but the industry value continued to grow. Remember? $31 billion. And at the end of this long and wild supply chain—from a greenhouse in Ecuador, to an airport in Miami, to a wholesaler or market, then through a retailer to your doorstep—that’s still a lot of roses. Even when they’re going for a couple dollars a stem. So why roses?

Well, roses are available and in demand. And according to Amy the best selling flowers aren’t necessarily the best loved flowers—they’re just the ones we’re used to buying. “We used to just sort of roll with that and those were the flowers we wanted because those were the ones in the field, but we’ve gotten used to this more technologically advanced way to growing things where if you want a rose in February, you get a rose in February even though that’s kind of an absurd idea.”

So, if Valentine’s Day happened any other time of year, like summer, we might be giving bunches of dahlias, not roses. Genetically modified roses, at that, bred for size and color and lacking in any scent. (It’s true! Give those roses in the grocery store a whiff. A rose by any other name, would smell as sweet, but those sure don’t.) Which brings up another question: if people want huge, colorful flowers...why not just get silk ones?

We’ve gotten used to this more technologically advanced way to growing things where if you want a rose in February, you get a rose in February even though that’s kind of an absurd idea.
— Amy Stewart, Author of FLOWER CONFIDENTIAL

Here’s what Amy had to say, “We can all spot a fake and I think it’s not the point. The point is not to have a colorful blob, but the point is to bring some of the outdoors inside. You know, to have something of nature, but also something that’s kind of exotic.”

If this is all getting too big, too industrial, if there are too many voices trying to explain this system to you: don’t worry. Remember Emily, the floral designer from earlier? She’s your other option.



Farm to Vase

Producers Molly Donahue and Logan Shannon visited Emily Herzig’s studio in Littleton, NH where she was gearing up for that other boon for the floral industry: wedding season. Beginning in May, they’ll start doing more events, about 40 over the course of the summer, and that’s on top of the normal “say it with flowers” sorts of days, stuff like birthdays, special occasions, and of course, apologies. We caught her chatting with Emma Brumenschenkel, her assistant and all around right-hand woman.

If you’re uncomfortable with the whole flower supply chain thing, the other option is something Emily and Emma work with fairly often: local plants and flowers. The American Grown flowers movement is picking up steam, educating people about the potential profit in flower farms. In Emily’s case, she does try to work with more local flower growers, because it’s a popular option, but there’s a lot of practical reasons too:  

Floret Farms, which is actually in the Skagit Valley over in Washington, she’s a big leader of this movement where she’s doing a lot of education and training for people to grow flowers and realizing that it’s a really profitable farming opportunity that we have. There’s a need for it and it’s environmentally better to be sourcing things from within the United States...cutting down on that carbon footprint of things being shipped from all over the world.”

And Amy Stewart made a good point about this too, “When you buy local flowers, you’re not just supporting a local farmer growing flowers, you may well be supporting someone who’s also growing your food and trying to find a way to make that [aspect of their business] financially viable for them.”

This is all well and good, but there’s a reason New England isn’t the nation’s bread basket. We’re not exactly in a prime flower growing zone here, which makes sourcing locally a little tricky. Emily said she sometimes has challenges getting enough quantity, especially from local farms like Tarrnation Flower Farm that runs its own shop, and that means she has to find several sources for the same kind of flower. Or, if you’re really lucky, she might just go foraging for your event.

There’s a reason we pick up flowers from the supermarket, or put in a rush order for a bouquet when you’ve forgotten your friend’s birthday, and why silk flowers simply will not do. Emily’s assistant Emma put it like this, “You walk [into a special event] and there’s nothing and when we walk out of there and it’s like a completely different world. It’s definitely so important.” But, if you want to opt out of this wild and crazy industry, but you still want to give someone a little bit of the outdoors, maybe say no to giant bouquets wrapped in cellophane on Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, or at the very least forgo the roses. Mix it up a little!


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Outside/In was produced this week by Molly Donahue and Sam Evans-Brown, with help from, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Logan Shannon, and Jimmy Gutierrez.

Special thanks go to the Society of American Florists and their CEO Peter Moran. Also, thanks to Emily for bringing back the bonsai Sam bought then forgot on her cart - it’s doing well in its new home.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Episode 36: Leave it to Beavers

Beavers (Castor canadensis), have been kicking around in North America for 2 million years. Ecologically they do all sorts of great things: their ponds ease flooding downstream, and support large numbers of bird species, fish, amphibians, and otters. They're what's called a keystone species, as in the keystone to an entire eco-system. But they're also the world's second largest rodent and a nightmare for property owners. Humans and beavers have a long history together because they like to live in the same places, but the way we've built our infrastructure has almost guaranteed our two species will be locked in eternal conflict.

We have created a trap for ourselves. A trap that ensures that we will come into conflict with nature’s most industrious rodent. A trap that also guarantees that we will come into conflict with each other as we try to sort out how to get out of this trap. That’s the conclusion I’ve reached, anyway, after spending the last few weeks researching beaver.

For seven years I said, you can’t kill them, you have to outwit them. That’s back when I thought you could actually outwit a beaver, but you can’t.
— Carol Leonard

Take Carol Leonard for example: a self-described “hippy-girl” who was the first registered midwife in the state of New Hampshire. (Incidentally, in what was perhaps the weirdest reporting coincidence I’ve ever come across, Carol was the same midwife who helped deliver me, 31 years ago.) When Carol retired to a beautiful 400-acre spread in mid-coast Maine, hoping to build her dream house, she and her husband ran head-first into conflict with beavers. A growing dam led to an expanding pond that was getting ominously close to where Carol wanted to put her septic system.

A pick-up truck swallowed whole by a beaver dam. | Photo Courtesy of Mike Callahan,  beaversolutions.com

A pick-up truck swallowed whole by a beaver dam. | Photo Courtesy of Mike Callahan, beaversolutions.com

“For seven years I said, you can’t kill them, you have to outwit them,” Carol told me. “That’s back when I thought you could actually outwit a beaver, but you can’t.” Eventually Carol apprenticed to become a trapper. Her decision was that if she couldn’t outwit them, she would eat them. “I always thought I was on the other side, when I was doing my midwifery, so it always surprised me when I got into trapping.”

Beavers and people like to live in the same places, and if you pick a fight with a beaver, here’s what you’ve got to consider: we’ve got other stuff to do—jobs, meals to cook, soccer games. Beavers on the other hand, they do one thing: build dams.

So if, as in Carol’s case, a beaver were eyeing the same spot that you wanted to live, what would you do?

First We Eliminated the Beaver

If you’ve never seen a proper, massive beaver dam before, you need to get yourself over to Google image search right now and look at some. The biggest one in the world is about a half a mile long and 13 feet tall, and was identified from outer space.

Beaver teeth grow constantly, and they actually have to keep chewing wood to keep them in check. And yes, they do actually just eat wood: they eat the cambium, the soft spongy layer of new growth that’s just under the bark.

On the ecological side, beavers do all sorts of great things. Beaver ponds help to ease flooding downstream. They slow water down as it rushes towards the ocean, meaning they help to recharge drinking water aquifers. Their ponds support large numbers of bird species, fish,  amphibians, otters. They’re what’s called a keystone species, as in the keystone to an entire ecosystem.

Beaver have been kicking around in North America for 2 million years. What’s new, on the millennial time scale, is Europeans.

When the Europeans arrived in the US, first came the fur trappers and fur traders, driven by intense demand for top hats, made from felt which is made from beaver fur. (Because nothing says class like putting the world’s second largest rodent on your noggin.) They traded extensively with Native Americans, and paid them for every pelt they brought. After the fur traders, came the farmers.

On the ecological side, beavers do all sorts of great things.
chewed log_P1180716.JPG

“Beaver were going to be both a source of cash for these settlers and, of course, a problem for these settlers, because beaver are competing for the same environment,” explains Ann Carlos, economic historian from the University of Colorado Boulder.

Beaver ponds, once the dams are destroyed and the water drains, turn into something called beaver meadows, which are fantastic places to grow crops. So farmers come in, trap any beaver that are left, destroy the dams, drain the ponds and make their fields. One study found that sixteen states lost more than 50 percent of their wetlands as the settlers rolled in. Another six states, mostly in the Midwest, lost more than 85 percent.

“By about 1830, many of these populations were being seriously over harvested, and run down,” notes Carlos. This was especially true in the United States, where all throughout the Northeastern part of the US, beaver were virtually wiped out.

And Then We Set The Trap

Meanwhile, year after year, we’re building. Those farms built on old beaver ponds are connected together by roads. More of the fields are subdivided and turned into housing developments. Bit by bit, we occupied the space the beavers once held.

Pat tate with a local beaver's handiwork | Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

Pat tate with a local beaver's handiwork | Photo: Sam Evans-Brown

Then in the early 1900s, we brought the beaver back. Why? Because for one, biologists had begun to recognize how good they are for ecosystems. But also people like having beaver around as a game species. In other words, an animal that is around so they can be trapped. So wildlife agencies reintroduced them and helped them build back up until they numbered in the thousands.

“Our roads were based on native American trails—a high number of them—and a high number of those native american trails were based on game trails. And I can say as a hunter who has walked all over the state of New Hampshire, their preferred wetland crossing every time has been a beaver dam,” explained Pat Tate, the furbearer biologist for Fish and Game here in New Hampshire.

In other words, many of our roads have been built the same spot that beavers like to build their dams. And in the cases of bridges and culverts, we punch a tiny hole through those roads for the water to pass, which is like a giant blinking arrow to any beaver that encounters it, indicating “build your dam here!”

So What Do We Do? Kill them?

The paradigm under which we currently operate is called the American system of wildlife management, under which wildlife is a commonly owned resource, and through regulation we decide how many animals we will kill. Are deer eating the shoots off of too many saplings out in the forest? Increase the number of deer hunting permits issued. Are farmers complaining about losing livestock to coyotes? Relax limitations on hunting them. Are there so many beaver that they are expanding wetlands until they flood wells and roads? Call in trappers to reduce beaver populations in that location.

This ensures that the population stays below what is called the “biological carrying capacity” which is a fancy science-y way of saying “how many beaver the land can sustain.” Pat Tate is a big believer in keeping animal density low, because he believes it makes the animal’s lives better.

I once removed a beaver that had a beaver-tooth in its back, and it didn’t grow its own tooth in its back, that was a tooth from another beaver that somehow broke off in the animal’s back.
— Pat Tate
Jeff Traynor shows us one of his beaver traps. The stick is the food. | Photo: Logan Shannon

Jeff Traynor shows us one of his beaver traps. The stick is the food. | Photo: Logan Shannon

Beaver are very territorial animals. When a young beaver reaches two-years-old, they strike out on their own to find their own water body to live in. Often they have to battle other adult beavers to find their place. “I once removed a beaver that had a beaver-tooth in its back, and it didn’t grow its own tooth in its back, that was a tooth from another beaver that somehow broke off in the animal’s back,” Pat said, “As I’ve reduced numbers in the wetlands, and went back subsequent years to trap, the amount of scarring and bite-marks on the beaver decreases. So the individual animal’s health increases.”

Most trappers aren’t doing it for a living, or to feed their families they do it because they want to. They want to connect with a tradition they identify with, or maybe they just like getting outside, and doing the close observation of nature that trapping requires.

And trappers I’ve spoken to hear a lot of hypocrisy whenever they hear people call trapping immoral. For instance, a trapper from Southern New Hampshire, Jeff Traynor, points out there isn’t the same outrage at housing developments or highways or parking lots: forces that have just as much to do with keeping beaver populations low.

“We are the most invasive species on the planet, there’s no doubt about it,” he told me, “As we encroach more we’re pushing them. So where is that overflow going? There’s only so many places that they can go. It comes to a point where you can say, well let’s just let nature take its course, or you can say, as human beings can we manage this creature with moral wisdom?”

Jeff Traynor prepares a trap. | Photo: Logan Shannon

Jeff Traynor prepares a trap. | Photo: Logan Shannon

One of jeff traynor's traps under a thin layer of ice and snow | Photo: Logan Shannon

One of jeff traynor's traps under a thin layer of ice and snow | Photo: Logan Shannon

After chopping away at the ice, jeff Prepares to check the trap. | Photo: Logan Shannon

After chopping away at the ice, jeff Prepares to check the trap. | Photo: Logan Shannon

Or Just Keep Them Off Our Lawns?

But this “moral wisdom” argument, just doesn’t do it for many beaver believers. Skip Lisle, founder of Beaver Deceivers International, has heard this argument for years in his line of work, and doesn’t buy it. “You know, you always hear, we have to kill the beavers so they don’t get hungry. And if you were an individual beaver, you can imagine which choice they would choose if they had one to make, right? Would you rather be hungry or dead?”

The proponents of restricting beaver trapping often point out that while some management decisions are based on ecosystems science—with government biologists going out and to try to estimate how many animals the land can sustain— other times, the decision is based on our willingness to tolerate animals. This is, almost euphemistically, what we call the “cultural carrying capacity.” And for beavers, it’s often that cultural limit, and not the actual limits of the habitat, that they bump up against.

Beavers are a two-million-year-old species, right? By some miracle, they survived just fine. They suffered, they died, they thrived, but they did it on their own, like most species do. You know we don’t manage chickadees so that some chickadees aren’t hungry sometimes.
— Skip Lisle

Skip and his disciples argue they can increase society's tolerance for beaver by keeping the two species from coming into conflict. Beavers’ damming instinct is triggered by running water, and by using a clever arrangements of grates, culverts, and drainage pipes, Skip keeps beaver far enough away from the running water that they don’t get the urge to start building a dam.

By putting in this type of “fixed protection” whenever a conflict arises, Skip argues we can have the best of both worlds: a growing beaver population and an infrastructure that isn’t submerged under beaver ponds. For him, the argument that trapping leads to a healthier population is beside the point.

This is a pond leveler or flow device, prior to being installed. This device tricks the beaver into believing that his or her dam is working. | photo courtesy of Mike Callahan.

This is a pond leveler or flow device, prior to being installed. This device tricks the beaver into believing that his or her dam is working. | photo courtesy of Mike Callahan.

“Beavers are a two-million-year-old species, right? By some miracle, they survived just fine. They suffered, they died, they thrived, but they did it on their own, like most species do. You know we don’t manage chickadees so that some chickadees aren’t hungry sometimes.”

These pipes and fences, limit where and how much habitat beavers can make. When the young beaver in these beaver colonies move out of their parents lodge, they won’t be able to just make this pond bigger and move to the other side. Instead of coming into conflict with humans who live close to the pond of their birth, they set off over land, and come into conflict with things that normally keep beaver populations in check: predators or other beaver.

Or maybe they’ll just wind in somebody else’s backyard; someone less dedicated to a non-lethal intervention.

What Would Happen If Trapping Went Away?

In 1996, animal welfare groups put forth a ballot referendum in Massachusetts proposing to eliminate the use of ,what they considered to be, inhumane traps. The referendum passed, making Massachusetts one of a handful of states to restrict the use of the standard trap that is used to kill beaver. After the referendum passed, the beaver population tripled in just a few years. (Though local wildlife advocacy groups argue this would have happened even if trapping was left in place.)

“As a result, the conflicts with people and the complaints essentially skyrocketed,” said Dave Wattles, the furbearer biologist for MassWildlife.

Mike Callahan of BeaverSolutions.com installed a flow control device on our beaver pond, to maintain the pond at its current level.

While the beaver advocates likely see the population boom as a victory, the rise in complaints had unintended consequences. In 2001 the state legislature passed a bill allowing kill trapping to be done through an emergency permitting process. Now though, those permits are given out by towns, instead of the state. This means that the state is no longer collecting data about how much trapping happens in Massachusetts, and that beaver can be trapped in the spring when it's possible to kill mothers, thus leaving young kits abandoned.

Dave Wattles also notes that beavers killed under a nuisance permit aren’t necessarily used for meat or fur. “The beaver that are now taken during these emergency permits, quite often they’re just trapped and thrown into a landfill and not used at all.”

What Would You Do?

Carol Leonard, who started off our story, spent seven-years trying to figure out how to fool the beavers on her property. “In my naivete I said oh well we’ll try these beaver deceivers and these beaver bafflers and all these do-hickers,” she recalled. But eventually she gave up and apprenticed with a trapper, and started to trap out the animals that threatened her property.

I think the traditions of hunting and trapping in New England are good, healthy traditions. And I can’t talk against hunters… I can’t. I’m a meat-eater.
— Carol Leonard

“We are meat eaters, you know, we are hunter gatherers, it’s part of who we are. And so to be able to turn a blind eye to that is just a blind eye,” she said. She applauds animal rights activists, but says she thinks their efforts are better spent protesting concentrated animal feeding operations, or other places where animals live short and miserable lives before heading to our plates.

“I think the traditions of hunting and trapping in New England are good, healthy traditions. And I can’t talk against hunters… I can’t. I’m a meat-eater."

Carol says she has trapped somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 beavers from her property, and while many still remain just downstream, the pond that was threatening her septic setback is no longer growing. In 2015, she and her husband were able to start construction and their home, now completed, is gorgeous, judging from a recent photo spread done by Down East Magazine.

Beavers and people, we like to live in the same places. And if you ever find that a family of them are eying the same spot as you... well, good luck.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown, with help from, Maureen McMurray, Molly Donahue, and Jimmy Gutierrez. Logan Shannon was our digital producer.

Thanks this week to Ben Goldfarb, Dave Wattles, and Peter Busher, all beaver pros who helped me sort this week’s story out.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Music this week from Ari De Niro, The Marian Circle Drum Brigade, Blue Dot Sessions, Revolution Void, Jason Leonard and Podington Bear. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

Outside/In is a production of New Hampshire Public Radio.

Episode 33: "Gnar Pow"

Is skiing a sport reserved for rich people? It’s a question that has come up among the Outside/In crew a bunch this winter. Producers Maureen and Jimmy think so. They’ve never been skiing, and always associated it with exclusive resorts and tricked-out gear. Sam wants to prove them wrong. 

In this episode, Sam takes his skeptical colleagues skiing for the very first time to prove that it doesn’t have to be a fancy endeavor. Will he succeed? Will it be wicked expensive? Will they enjoy it? Listen to find out.

“When did skiing get fancy?”

This was the question that set this all off. It came from Maureen McMurray, executive producer over here at Outside/In. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

“What makes you think skiing is fancy?” I probably didn’t say this in response, but I likely thought it. I started snowboarding because every Friday during the month of February my entire public school would go skiing. The mountain offered discounted tickets, and after a few years of being one of just a handful of kids to stay behind and choose between activities like calligraphy or cribbage, I scrounged together my odd-jobs money until I could get equipment. I’m reflexively defensive of skiing.

Both Maureen and our newest producer Jimmy Gutierrez had never been skiing, and so for me this kicked off a quest to convince them that skiing is not just a sport for “fancy people.”

But the truth is that today, I hardly do any alpine skiing. I essentially refuse to go unless there has been fresh snow in the past 48 hours. Even then, I tend to rely heavily on the “daily deals” that many resorts offer. The lift-tickets are simply too expensive, and I find the dollars-to-fun ratio to be much higher in cross-country skiing.

Nonetheless, I took them both to Loon Mountain, one of New Hampshire’s biggest and most expensive ski areas, where Jimmy revealed himself to be a quick study. “Too much rigmarole,” he said, “Price-wise, value-wise, would I ever do this again? I don’t think I would.” In one day he had reached the conclusion that I seem to have landed on after a decade on the slopes.

Maureen, on the other hand, was determined to try again, despite having had a rough day. “I was genuinely part angry and part humiliated,” she said, after getting down off the trails.

As a new skier, it’s hard to justify spending a small fortune for the privilege of falling down over and over while doing laps on the bunny hill. And in retrospect, going to one of the biggest and most expensive ski resorts for their first day on snow was simply silly. If all you need is a gradual incline, there’s no reason to shell out for big-mountain lift tickets.

So I recalibrated. Our second stop was the Veteran’s Memorial Recreation Area in Franklin, New Hampshire. This is a volunteer-operated community ski area that has a 100-year lease from the city, which cost it $1 back in 1961. Lift-tickets are only $20 for the day and it comes stocked with a basement full of donated equipment, free to use at your own risk.

This is not a hill that will keep experts enthralled for a full day: it has a rope-tow and a T-bar and only 230 feet of vertical drop. But as long as the snow is good, (a big if, given that the hill doesn’t have snowmaking) it’s perfect for beginners.

Little backyard ski hills like this used to be in virtually every town that had any kind of significant incline in New England. The “golden era” of skiing began in the 1930s, according to Jeremy Davis, founder of the New England and Northeast Lost Ski Areas Project. He says at the peak of the craze there were five or six hundred rope tows all across the region.

“That’s what’s really incredible about the whole thing, is you look at the sheer volume of these places, and they were pretty much everywhere,” said Davis, “I think it’s really hard for people to realize how many of these places there were.”

These ski areas were done in by a number of factors that lead to consolidation of the ski industry: rationing and travel bans during World War II took the first bite, increasing competition from mountains that were able to invest in new lodges and better grooming, not to mention higher costs for insurance and snowmaking today. In the end, smaller ski areas have all but ceased to exist.

But for new skiers like Maureen who find the big mountains intimidating, places like the hill in Franklin are hard to beat. “I love this,” Maureen said upon walking into the lodge and seeing the families seated next to a hot wood stove, outfitting their tiny children with second-hand boots and skis.

But, the truth is, the future doesn’t look great for these community ski areas. Last year, Franklin was unable to open at all, because the conditions were terrible all winter long and the outing club that runs the hill can’t afford snowmaking. “We rely on natural snow,” said Kathy Fuller, matriarch of the Franklin Outing Club, “and that’s an issue.”

In other words, these inexpensive, truly accessible ski areas are an endangered species. A 2012 analysis by an economist based in Canada forecast that in the 2020s, ski areas in New Hampshire would experience a 25-40% increase in the need for snowmaking. As these snowmaking expenses start to increase, this analysis forecast that even major ski areas in New England would start to go out of business. Of the 103 resorts the study modeled, it predicted only 30 would be economically viable in the 2070 to 2099 timeframe.

And that’s ski areas that make artificial snow. Those that don’t... how long can they last?

Skiing is not an inexpensive sport, but at least when I was growing up it was one that most kids in my public school class were able to afford. I think the question in my mind is, given the way things are going, will that be the case when my kids are ready to try skiing?

Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown with help from Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon.

Special thanks this week go out to Veteran's Memorial Recreational Ski Area, Loon Mountainand New England Lost Ski Areas Project

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

Episode 31: Ask Sam | Snow Fleas, Wind, Mount Mitchell

Every so often, we take some time out from telling stories to answer questions from you, our friends and listeners. These questions have been piling up, and so we thought we’d dig through them and bring you some of the more interesting ones.

If you want us to answer your question, you should give us a call! The number is 603-223-2448. If you’re technologically inclined, record your question on a voice-memo and send it to outsidein@nhpr.org.

Enough preamble, the the questions!

Question 1. Eric: I’m standing in the middle of Blue Job State Forest in Strafford, and it just snowed, and there are all these tiny little black bugs crawling around the snow. They look like snow fleas? I don’t know what they are. But there’s probably, oh there’s got to be billions of them, because they’re everywhere. And I was just wondering, what are they and where on earth did they come from?

A local caller! If you’re an out-of-state listener, Blue Job is a a little knob with very nice views in southeastern New Hampshire, but this particular type of tiny beasty is found all over the globe. Snow fleas are a type of springtail (cue link to a Wikipedia page!) which are one of the most abundant types of creatures on earth. They are literally everywhere there is dirt.

If you cast your memory back to our episode about all of the hidden biodiversity in a routine traffic circle, you might remember that we talked about microarthropods — which is science speak for itsy-bitsy bugs — as being the largest critter in the soil food web. Springtails are one of the creatures we were talking about. The munching that they do is one of the mechanisms that serves to decompose organic matter that falls onto the ground. Up here in New England, we call them snow fleas (and not dirt fleas) because, even though they live in the dirt, we only tend to notice them when they come out onto the snow, thanks to the contrast between their tiny black bodies and the white surface.

There’s an incredible variety in the number of species of springtails, and much we don’t know about the lifecycles of all the individual species, but there is a lot of interest in them because of their ability to survive and even be active in extremely cold temperatures.

One additional fun-fact. Springtails are useful to folks who care for insects in cages, like Gwen Pearson who manages Purdue Universities Insect Zoo. Because springtails eat mold and fungus spores, they can be used to keep the sultry enclosures of tropical creatures free of gunk. In fact, you can buy them in bulk on Amazon for just this purpose.

Question 2, Aubrey: I wanted to ask Sam about wind, because anecdotally I feel like there’s a lot more wind recently, than there was in the past. I’m just wondering if there’s any correlation between increased wind events and our global warming situation. It seems like intuitively, if there’s more energy in the atmosphere, there should be more wind, but maybe I’m just imagining it.

Full disclosure, Aubrey is my lovely wife (and as I often joke — as a powerhouse middle school science teacher —  the source of all of my knowledge). We have talked about this question for a long time, and she finally got fed up with me stalling and called it into the hotline so that I’d be forced to answer it.

There’s also a fairly easy answer, Ian Young of the University of Melbourne has been working on the surprisingly tricky task of teasing out global trends in wind speed. As you might imagine, its a big world and there are a lot of places that wind isn’t getting measured second-by-second, and satellite wind data can be a little noisy. But despite the challenges, he has an estimate, largely derived from wind speeds over the oceans.

“What our observations show is that for an area like the northeast coast of the United States we’ve seen wind-speeds increase, on average, by about seven percent,” Young told me when we managed to connect over the phone (at 11 PM his time, and 7 AM ours).

The tricky business for professor Young has been determining whether that increase is due to a general increase in background windiness, or a rise in the power of extreme wind events… stronger storms. He says they aren’t yet sure, but he leans towards stronger storms.

This discussion also yielded a fascinating revelation from executive producer Maureen McMurray: she hates wind chimes, and equates hanging up a wind chime within ear-shot of your neighbors to blasting Steely Dan’s Black Cow from your back porch all-day, every-day.

PSA: Take in your wind-chimes, people.

Question 3. Alex: I was just in North Carolina and went up to Mount Mitchell, which had a sign very proudly proclaiming it to be the highest peak east of the Mississippi, but we all know that’s false because the highest peak east of the Mississippi is Barbeau Peak, up on Ellesmere Island. So, I’m wondering how the state parks system can get away with such a catastrophic lie to the public?

Credit: mitchell adams via flickr cc, https://flic.kr/p/zXuvyh

Credit: mitchell adams via flickr cc, https://flic.kr/p/zXuvyh

Wow, Alex. Tell us how you really feel? He is correct, ladies and gentlemen, anyone with access to a search engine can indeed discover for themselves that Barbeau Peak is taller than Mount Mitchell. (Although it looks somehow… sadder.)

This is clearly a question of semantics. I think we can all agree that since if you go far enough east you’ll eventually circumnavigate the entire globe and find yourself back at Mount Mitchell, this sign is missing some sort of important qualifier. Is it the highest peak east of the Mississippi in America? In North America? WEST OF THE PRIME MERIDIAN?! MY GOD WHICH IS IT?

Leaving aside how exactly this “lie” is “catastrophic,” we at Outside/In do believe that accuracy is paramount. As such, in collaboration with Alex, we have come up with a proposed solution. If any listener happens to hike Mount Mitchell in the near future, try to figure out a way to make the sign more accurate. Using a method that does not deface the sign, please! Add a note using a sticky note, perhaps. Or stand in front of the sign without your own hand-fashioned placard which adds an appropriate geographical caveat afterward.

Once you’re done, send us a picture, and maybe the internet will make it go all viral. (Ok, I confess, I probably don’t know how viral things on the internet work.)

Question 4. Maureen: In the last few weeks we have had very cold weather and then a warm up and then it gets cold again.  As the snow has melted and I’ve been out walking, I’ve noticed what looks like rocks that have sunk into the ground.  My guess is that the rocks stay colder and heavier longer and the soil warms and expands, or loosens and the cold heavy rock sinks, then the ground refreezes over it.  Can you explain this phenomenon?

This one came in over email. And you know what that means: exclusive web only content!

I’ve been observing this phenomenon in my own back yard, Maureen, and what you’re witnessing (or at least what I’m witnessing and assuming is the same at your house) is the formation and later melting away of needle ice.

Basically, what happens is that when the soil is above freezing but the air is above freezing, moisture in the soil is drawn towards the surface (through capillary action, the same process that plants use to send water from the roots to the leaves) and as it rises it freezes in a column. As it rises it brings the mud or sand around it up as well. If the ice then melts (as it has done numerous times this winter in New England… *sigh*), you’re left with disturbed, aerated, slightly taller soil. So what you’re actually seeing is the dirt around the rocks rising up, not the rocks sinking down. Oh, those tricksy rocks!

Indeed, any gardener from New Hampshire will tell you that far from sinking because of their density, rocks in New England soil have a tendency to “heave” their way towards the surface as they undergo freeze-thaw cycles. This occurs for the same reason that you always find all the brazil nuts at the top of a can of mixed nuts.

As a fun bonus, needle ice can also be incredibly beautiful, if you’re willing to get down on your belly and look.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown with help from Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

 

Episode 27: Millionaires' Hunt Club

A quick note: this episode previously appeared in our podcast feed back in the spring of 2016, as an individual segment in one of our hour-long episodes we produced to air on New Hampshire Public Radio. So you might have already heard it, but…you might not have!

Sam is going to take us all hunting this week. Not hunting for animals, but instead, hunting for the secret of what’s behind that 26-mile fence cutting through the woods of New Hampshire, and why some people want it to stay a secret.

From my very first days as a reporter in New Hampshire, I started to hear about a place hidden up in the woods of New Hampshire. A place full of unfamiliar animals from other places, but fenced off from the rest of the state, and kept quiet. I never heard about it directly it was always through a guy who knew a guy, who had been inside but the more I heard about the place, the more unbelievable it seemed.

This massive, private park was called a “millionaires hunt club” and “the most exclusive game preserve in the United States” and yet there were many people I know who had lived their entire lives in this state, but had never heard of it. So what is the secret of what’s behind that 26-mile fence cutting through the woods of New Hampshire, and why do some people work so hard to keep it a mystery?

Helen M. Derry at corbin park central station, courtesy brian meyette. 

Officially it’s called the Blue Mountain Forest Association, but everybody who knows about it calls it Corbin Park. (Seemingly shortened from Corbin’s Park… we’ll get to the origin of the name.) It’s near the border with Vermont and it’s huge, though its exact size seems to be something of a mystery. Regardless, at somewhere between 24,000 and 26,000 acres this park is actually bigger than something like 60 percent of New Hampshire towns.

You can find the chain-link fence that encircles the entirety of the park at the end of any number of long rough dirt roads that lead to locked gates. It feels almost like like stumbling across a military base full of UFOs or some similar secret. The fence itself looks sturdy, if slightly weather-worn, and at regular intervals features small signs reprinted hundreds of times, “the enclosed park fence and signs are protected by a special law of this state and any person trespassing herein or in any way violating that law will be prosecuted.”

I got my introduction to the park from a man named Brian Meyette, a retired database administrator, who lives in an off-the-grid home, right next to the fence. “In the fall it’s cool, because you get elk bugling in here,” he said as we walked down his icy driveway,  “I actually even came down here once because I could hear one and it sounded like he was bugling just inside the fence.”

Elk, in case you didn’t know, are a Western thing. We don’t have them in New Hampshire. Except on the other side of this fence. And that’s not the only thing that’s over there.

“Any time people come up here to work or anything, they always say, ‘oh did you see the pigs?’ said Brian, laughing. When he says pigs, he’s referring to Eurasian wild boar, imported from Germany into New Hampshire.  “And no,” Brian continued, “normally you come down here and it’s just you see a bunch of trees, that’s all you ever see.”

But while you might not see them, there are elk bugling and Eurasian wild boars hustling around behind those fences.

But why?

The trouble with finding the answer to that question is that no one inside of Corbin's Park wants to talk about it. Corbin’s Park is a member’s only club. If you are a reporter, and identify yourself as such, not only do the employees of the park not want to talk to you, but the members don't want to talk to you, the people they have invited as guests don't want to talk to you, even some regular folks in town don't want to talk to you.

Meet Austin Corbin

Basically the only way to talk about Corbin's park today is to start by talking about Corbin's park 100 years ago. The farther back in time I went, the easier it was for me to find people who wanted to talk about this place, which is what brought me to Larry Cote. Cote is a retiree, and chair of the Newport Historical Society, which is where all the historical documents about Corbin’s Park have come to be kept.

“This is our 4th year and you’re the first person who’s asked about it, so I’d say it’s pretty rare that somebody’s got a lot of inquisitive-ism,” Cote told me as we dug through binders full of photos and letters.

Here are the outlines of the history of the park. It starts with a guy named Austin Corbin born in 1827, grandson of the town doctor in Newport, New Hampshire, who left home to go to Harvard as a young man. He then he went to Davenport, Iowa where he fell into real-estate and banking, and became one of the founders of the American banking industry alongside giants like J.P. Morgan.

After making a lot of money in the midwest, he then headed out to New York, where he invested in some swampy property out in an underdeveloped borough: Brooklyn. “He drained the swamp, he tore down the shacks, he built two hotels  the Oriental and the Manhattan  and that’s how Coney Island got started,” said Cote.

But as he was amassing his fortune, part of him just wanted to go back to New Hampshire. So he hired an agent to start buying up farms in the towns around his childhood home. In so doing, he didn’t exactly endear himself to the locals. “There’s people that say he was a robber and all that stuff,” said Cote, who was quick to defend Corbin, saying the farmers got fair prices for their land. Even so, there was even a rhyme that people in Croydon  one of the towns bordering the park started saying about this time:

Austin Corbin, grasping soul,

Wants this land from pole to pole.

Croydon people bless your stars,

You’ll find plenty of land on MARS.

Corbin bought sixty some-odd farms, (again, in New Hampshire, this is the size of an entire town) and he set about building his very own dream game reserve.

“The elk cost him $5,000 dollars. The Moose $1,500, the buffalo $6,000, deer and antelope $1,000, wild boar pigs $1,000 dollars, and then additional other animals were another $5,500,” said Cote as he read from a ledger from the park’s archives. Caribou, reindeer, big-horned sheep, pheasants, Himalayan Mountain goats. The park contained animals from all over the world, like an exotic, cold-weather safari.

But just when the park was really starting to shape up, Austin Corbin and his son decided to take some new horses for a day of fishing and picnics by a nearby lake. His driver hitched some new horses to the buggy, but didn’t give them blinders and when Corbin opened a parasol the horses spooked. The carriage was overturned, and both Corbin and his coachman were killed.

For a few decades, the park was operated by Austin Corbin’s son (charmingly but confusingly also named Austin Corbin) and these are what you might call the ‘Golden Years’ of the park. Famous people like Teddy Roosevelt came to hunt, and a world renowned naturalist takes up residence in the park to make observations and take notes. The park’s buffalo were at least according to some instrumental in restoring Bison to the American West.

In the early days, the park was open to the public. Every Wednesday, they were invited in to explore and there was even a winter carnival held there when the townsfolk came in for a deer hunt, ski jumping, a ball, and a banquet.

But after Austin Corbin the senior died, his fortune slowly began to ebb away. Austin Corbin the son can’t quite replicate whatever business magic his dad had, and Cote said that the when Corbin the son died in 1938, he was more or less penniless. That same year, a massive hurricane blew down huge amounts of the fence that kept the park enclosed, and boar and elk escaped in large numbers. The park fell into disrepair, until eventually in 1944 his family gave it up and a group of wealthy hunters took it over.

As time went by, the park dropped further and further from the public eye. Today, most people I talk to who are from New Hampshire have never heard of the place.

These days, whatever’s going on in Corbin’s park, stays in Corbin’s park.

Except for when not everything stays inside.

Hunting around the edges

“Back in 1987 we believe,” Sonny Martin began explaining to me over the phone, before his wife shouted from the background (“Eighty-six!”), “Oh now, my wife corrected me, ‘86.” Martin is the now retired former owner of a hardware store in Lancaster, New Hampshire some 70 miles north of Corbin’s Park.

“So, somewhere, 1st of November, I was sitting in my tree-stand. It was getting dusky, I always call it next to dark,” said Sonny, falling into the rythms of a story he’s obviously told more than a few times, “Well, the next thing I knew, out comes this wild boar, and he just moves out into the middle of the clearing. He reminded me like a train, the way his legs moving, you know, I’ve always said that. And he just stood there, and does this ‘take your best shot.’”

Martin did take his best shot, and he mounted the head of the boar that he killed that day and for years it hung on the wall behind the register at his hardware store.

gate around corbin park, photo by sam evans-brown

Wild boar can weigh more than 200 pounds, and need to eat more than 4,000 calories a day. They’re aggressive, a nuisance to farmers, and they reproduce like crazy. It’s not unusual for one sow to have six piglets per litter, and sometimes they have two litters per year. To top it all off, they’re smart and wiley. One federal wildlife control official I interviewed said once they design a fence that can hold water, it will be strong enough to hold a pig.

“I mean it was kind of… it was a little bit unbelievable to see something laying there,” Martin said of the animal.

Martin is not the only one to have killed one of the escaped pigs of Corbin park. Technically, the wild boar that escape Corbin’s Park are property of Corbin’s Park, and hunters outside the fence aren’t allowed to shoot them without permission. But the park is liable for any damage to crops or lawns that an escaped boar might cause, so from what I’ve gathered from talking to locals and neighbors, they’re fine with letting local hunters clean up the problem for them. State Fish and Game doesn’t want to issue permits to hunt the pigs because they don’t want to create a demand among hunters for a species that in other parts of the country has become an invasive pest. (Now that you know to look for it, you’ll start to regularly see headlines about men arrested for transporting and releasing wild boar to new places to get new populations going.)

So, with this unregulated hunt, there’s something of a symbiotic relationship going on: local hunters experience the thrill of hunting exotic game without being a part of Corbin’s exclusive club, and they take care of one of the park’s more troublesome issues. I’ve spoken with several people who say they’ve hunted pigs outside the fence, including one who said he shoots multiple ones every year, but none of them agreed to be interviewed in front of a microphone.

It’s another layer of secrets. Not only is what happening inside the fence shrouded in mystery, but some of the activities outside the fence are happening under the radar too. Secrets within secrets: a Russian matryoshka doll of secrets.

But what’s happening today, on the inside?

I tried for a very long-time to talk to someone who is a member of Corbin Park. I called the president of the park. I called the superintendent a bunch of times. I called two other members whose names I managed to find. I even eventually wrote a letter to the park’s general address.

image courtesy brian meyette

No response.

I did succeed in talking to a number of people who have been guests and hunted inside the park and even managed to talk to a current member, but none of these folks wanted to be interviewed in front of a microphone. I was also able to pull the park’s tax returns, because it’s a non-profit, and they file numbers of how many animals are shot each year with Fish and Game.

So here’s what I learned.

There are 30 members. We know who some of these folks are, because their names show up as directors of the park on the tax-forms: one is the CEO of a plastics company that makes things like spout on a can of whipped cream; there’s a self-made millionaire whose company built a stealth boat they’re trying to sell to the US military; there’s the owner of a major gun manufacturing company, who also happens to own Austin Corbin’s old mansion; and there’s even one of the descendents of the Von Trapp Family Singers, from the Sound of Music.

central station, corbin park. image via google maps. 

These 30 members and their guests shoot somewhere between 200 and 600 wild boar every year, and between 40 and 120 deer and elk.

From the tax forms you can see that the park makes money off of meat-cutting (members can pay to have their meat butchered for them) but most of their income comes from membership dues, which cost something in the neighborhood of $25,000 dollars a year.

To become a member, you also have to buy the shares of a former member. No one told me how much it cost them to buy into the club initially, but I was told that calling it a millionaire’s hunt club is not an exaggeration.

So why all the secrecy? These are wealthy people who don’t want to attract the attention and perhaps the resentment of those who don’t approve of their habits. And believe me, there’s plenty of resentment.

“You can’t get into it. It’s the biggest secret. It’s the millionaires hunt club. The most exclusive game preserve in the United States,” said Rene Cushing in an interview, a New Hampshire state legislator who says that on the political spectrum he leans toward the socialism, “Millionaires only, and New Hampshire peasants need not apply.”

Cushing tried to get a bill passed to require the people who hunt boar inside Corbin Park to buy a New Hampshire hunting license, which is not currently required. I asked him why he felt their exclusivity was a reason to go after the club members.

“I don’t think it’s fair that the people who go surf-casting, pay their $8, pay the Fish and Game Department, should end up subsidizing the Fish and Game Department when they have to go to Corbin Park to respond to a hunter being shot, or when they have to go up to 89 and pick up a wild boar that’s escaped from this fenced in property, and the rest of us are picking up the tab,” said Cushing, “It’s just about fairness.”

I think this is why it’s so hard to talk to members of Corbin Park.  The probably feel like just laying out the facts of this place the cost, the invasive species escaping into the state, the overwhelmingly male membership and guests will prompt a negative reaction from the Rene Cushing’s of the world.

Reporters sniffing around the fences of the park inevitably puts them into a bind, though. If they talk to reporters, it could encourage more reporters to do more stories, which means more people talking (some negatively) about this gigantic exclusive park. If they don’t talk, then the eventual stories that do come out sound like this one, where the members seem somehow shady, for exercising their right to not comment.

The members probably feel like outside the fence, they can’t win.

So what is Corbin Park?

corbin park central station, photo by sam evans-brown

It’s 26,000 acres of rocky New Hampshire land, fenced off, stocked with elk, eurasian wild boar and white-tailed deer. It’s private, but you can get in if invited by a member, or if you ask on the right day. It was built over 100 years ago, by a super-wealthy banker. Every year, hunters inside shoot somewhere between 200 and 600 wild boar, and between 40 and 120 elk and deer. The animals are fed through the winter to help keep the populations up, but you’re not allowed to hunt around the feeding sites.

Members can get the meat butchered and smoked on site. They can stay in cabins and old farmhouses - the ones that are still standing - that are sprinkled throughout the park. They can hike up Croydon and Grantham peaks, the two tallest mountains in Sullivan County, which are inside the fence.

It’s expensive to be a member, and only 30 people are allowed to be members. When someone wants to sell their shares, you’ve got to know a guy who knows a guy if you want to buy them; there’s no announcement in the papers.

And we also know that most of the people who live near this park, folks like Brian Meyette, have no problem with the place and tend to say it’s a good neighbor. The park is quiet, pays its taxes.

However you feel about all that… it’s up to you.

In the end, I don’t think Corbin Park is actually a mystery. At one point, I spoke to Heidi Murphy a lieutenant with Fish and Game, who has been inside to help the park staff with occasional issues with bears.

“It’s just you know a big huge patch of woods with some hunters that are camping out in some cabin,” she said, laughing at my insistence that it must be more interesting than that.

“It’s, you know, it’s New Hampshire woods,” she shrugged.


Outside/In was produced this week by: 

Sam Evans-Brown, with help from Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon.

Special thanks to David Allaben and Tony Musante from the USDA. By the way, if you see an escaped boar in New Hampshire, you should report it to those guys. 


Thanks also to Ken Hoff, who volunteered his time and his skills to give us an airplane ride over Corbin’s Park

This week’s episode featured tracks from [tk tk tk]. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks.

Theme music by Breakmaster Cylinder

Episode 25: The 2nd Greatest Show on Earth

A quick note: this episode previously appeared in our podcast feed back in the spring of 2016, as an individual segment in one of our hour-long episodes we produced to air on New Hampshire Public Radio. So you might have already heard it, but…you might not have! And because there have been recent reports about a proposed new hotel for the summit, we thought it all the more relevant. 

Mount Washington is famously home of "The World's Worst Weather", but it also hosts a huge amount of tourist infrastructure. Senior producer Taylor Quimby brings us this tale of how the mountain was conquered, and how that process became the template for mountain tourism nation-wide. 

Voices From Mount Washington

As part of our research for this story, we went to the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord to check out the Summit House Guest Register from 1854 - an incredible document where early tourists would sign their names and often leave short poems or comments about their stay on Mt. Washington.  What’s really fascinating is the diversity of reactions and writing styles contained in the guest register - everything from dreary verse about bad weather, to religious expressions of praise for the mountain, and the view. We mocked up some playful recordings of the more colorful entries.

Early Slam Poet?

THis PHOTO is OF THE 1854 MT. WASHINGTON SUMMIT HOUSE GUEST REGISTRY, WHICH IS HOUSED AT THE NEW HAMPSHIRE HISTORICAL SOCIETY IN CONCORD, NH.

THis PHOTO is OF THE 1854 MT. WASHINGTON SUMMIT HOUSE GUEST REGISTRY, WHICH IS HOUSED AT THE NEW HAMPSHIRE HISTORICAL SOCIETY IN CONCORD, NH.

Here’s an excerpt from one by Mary Huntington, who visited the summit on July 17th, 1854.  We think it sounds a little bit like a slam poem:

Sulky & Glum

THIS PHOTO IS OF THE 1854 MT. WASHINGTON SUMMIT HOUSE GUEST REGISTRY, WHICH IS HOUSED AT THE NEW HAMPSHIRE HISTORICAL SOCIETY IN CONCORD, NH.

Here is another from August 20th of the same year. We’re not sure about the author on this one, but it sounds a little bit like an Edgar Allen Poe poem, or maybe a drinking song:

Near Death Account

Image from page 50 of "The White Mountains of New Hampshire : in the heart of the nation's playground" (1917)

Image from page 50 of "The White Mountains of New Hampshire : in the heart of the nation's playground" (1917)

On August 15th, 1854, a man from Philadelphia named W.N. Conckle penned a frightening account of his near-death experience on the summit, as he climbed through a terrific August storm.  Here’s just a bit:

Two Opposing Views

Tip Top House, Mount Washington, N. H. |   White, Franklin, 1813-1870 -- Photographer

Tip Top House, Mount Washington, N. H. |  White, Franklin, 1813-1870 -- Photographer

And finally, excerpts from two entries that appear back to back in the register - one a glowing appraisal of them mountain’s breathtaking scale, and another somewhat less enthusiastic review:


Outside/In was produced this week by: 

Taylor Quimby, with help from Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon.

Special thanks to Cornelius Allsopp, a former project manager for Harvey Construction - he headed the construction of the awesome Sherman Adams Visitor Center, and knows personally how hard it is to build on Mt. Washington.

Also thanks to Jeff Leich, Executive Director of the New England Ski Museum, and Rick Russack, founder and president of WhiteMountainHistory.org.

And thanks also to the New Hampshire Historical Society, which houses the 1854 Summit House Guest Register.

Thanks to our historical re-enactors for this story, Kevin Flynn, Starskee Suavé, Sean Hurley, Maureen McMurray, and Taylor Quimby, as the voice of obnoxious circus man!

This week’s episode featured tracks from Podington Bear. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks.

Theme music by Breakmaster Cylinder

 

Episode 23: 10x10 - Traffic Circle

In our series, 10X10, we take you on a journey to a 10X10 plot and uncover the secrets in spaces you’d never think to look. This time, we look for signs of extraordinary life, at the center of a traffic circle.

Two busy lanes of traffic curve around a median of weedy grass, and highways stretch out in four different directions. A McDonald's squats on one corner, a Wendy’s on the opposite side. And in the middle, what appears to be the world’s least interesting island, and our subject today.

It’s easy to be ho-hum about spaces like these, but if you look closely, you’ll discover that this ordinary traffic circle has the structure of a shortgrass prairie, more than twenty higher plant species, and a hidden world containing billions of microbes.

Screen capture from google.maps

We took two biologists, separately, to this traffic circle in Lee, New Hampshire. The first, botany professor Tom Lee of the University of New Hampshire started counting plants as soon as we hopped over the curb. In all, he was able to identify more than 20 species of plants, including weeds, broad-leaf herbs—what you’d probably think of as ‘wildflowers’—and even some edible greens.

“This is a species called Wintercress,” Tom said. “It’s not native, but it has these rather succulent fleshy leaves that I believe you can put in a salad.” Of course the traffic circle isn’t exactly a farmer’s market. “I wouldn’t put these in a salad,” Tom added.

Of the species Tom identified on the traffic circle, only a handful are technically native to the area. He guesses that only six or seven of them were intentionally planted and the rest somehow crossed two lanes of traffic, all on their own.

“Some of them blew in on the wind,” Lee says. “The fleabanes and the dandelions have those little parachutes that carry them in on a breeze. But then there are seeds like those of the evening primrose, just small barrel-type things. My guess is they were carried on the bodies of vehicles on a rainy day, with some mud splattered up on the side, driving through here they hit a puddle, and the seeds are washed off and sent flying into the center of the circle where they germinate and grow.”

Underneath the surface of the traffic circle, another, smaller ecosystem is bubbling with activity.  Nematodes are roundworms, and many of them are smaller than an eyelash and soils are teeming with them.  “We know now that every phylum, ever major group of life above ground, is much reduced below ground,” says Dianna Wall, a nematode expert and biology professor at Colorado University, “It’s still represented in the soil, but it’s going to be at a much smaller size.”

By KDS444 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27606319

By KDS444 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27606319

We wanted to know just how active the traffic circle soil is, so we asked UNH soil microbiologist Serita Frey to come take a sample. She bolted across the lanes of traffic with us and took out a tulip-bulb planter, and twisted it into the soil.  “Normally,” Serita tells us, “in a handful of garden variety soil you would have in the order of two-hundred billion organisms in the soil.” The soil here is crumbly and dry, which is not a good sign, given that many soil organisms are technically aquatic animals–but according to Dianna Wall, microorganisms are a hearty bunch.

“You can put them under liquid nitrogen,” She says, “you can put them in a freezer. You can keep them on a shelf for sixty years…and then you bring them back into the lab and say ‘hey, here’s some water’ and you watch them come back to life.”

Back at Serita’s lab, we seal the soil in mason jars and let them sit for three days. Because—just like us—microorganisms exhale carbon dioxide, and you can measure how much biological activity there is by studying how much CO2 has accumulated in the jars.

For the sake of comparison, Serita has also brought a sample of soil from her husband’s garden, and incredibly, we discover that the soil from the traffic circle has significantly more biological activity.

Serita admits “I was not expecting that.” She points out that in order to do a proper measurement, we’d have to take more samples. Still, the fact that the traffic circle, clearly the underdog in this exercise, had come out on top is a perfect illustration of our point: there’s a lot going on in these overlooked places.

And for the most part that life is still a complete mystery to us.

“Soil is considered one of the most diverse habitats on the planet,” Serita says, “even more diverse than a rainforest in terms of the organisms that live there and the complexity of these relationships that we’re talking about. Tens of thousands of species in a handful of soil…and less than one to ten percent of those are known to science. We know that there are many species we just don’t know who they are and what they’re doing.”

So next time you’re driving on a boring stretch of highway, and you round a dusty, patch of overgrown grass, remember that those plants may have hitchhiked for miles on the mudflaps of tractor trailers to get there. Remember that there in the dirt there are billions of tiny organisms, predators and prey, that have never been named by science.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Taylor Quimby and Sam Evans-Brown  with help from Logan Shannon, Maureen McMurray,  Molly Donahue and Jimmy Gutierrez.

Special thanks this week to our UNH experts Tom Lee and Serita Frey, for being willing to run across two lanes of traffic for this story.  Serita’s crew is actually doing a DNA analysis of our soil microbes - but that’s not something you can do in just a couple days,  so we’ll let you know what we find out once they get results back. Also, if you’re interested in learning the difference between roundabouts and traffic circles - go to RoundaboutsUSA.comQuick primer - it apparently has something to do with Yield at Entry, Deflection, and “Flare”.  

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

This week’s episode featured tracks from Podington Bear and Ikimashoo Aoi. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists. 

Episode 21: Nature is a Haunted House

Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Friday the Thirteenth, Blair Witch. It seems the woods make a great backdrop for scary stories, but why? Are we hardwired to fear the forest? Or, let’s throw it out there, do ghosts just like hanging out in the thickets? Sam goes on the trail with paranormal experts and talks with Lore’s Aaron Mahnke to find out what makes the woods so terrifying, and tests his own beliefs along the way.

Meet our paranormal experts

Rich Damboise is a nature photographer, screen printer, and ex-moto cross racer. He traded in his bike for an EMF reader and now speeds around New England investigating the paranormal.

Jerry “The Candyman” Seavey is a former pro-wrestler who hopped in the ring alongside Randy Savage, The Undertaker, and Shawn Michaels. He now gets his adrenaline rush chasing ghosts.

Rich and Candyman, along with a few other friends, run Adventure Cam-Paranormal, a YouTube series which investigates New England’s most haunted locations.

The Location

Rich and Candyman met the Outside/In crew at Vale End Cemetery in Wilton, New Hampshire which, according to the internet, is wicked haunted.

The Equipment

No ghost hunting expedition would be complete without the following tools.

EMF meter

...or electromagnetic field meter. This handy little tool can be easily purchased on-line and detects fluctuations in electromagnetic fields. If there are sudden bumps in activity, watch out! There could be a ghost, or power lines, near by.

Voice recorder

It’s always good for a paranormal investigator to have a voice recorder on hand because some ghosts want to be heard rather than seen. These ghostly recordings are known as EVP, or electronic voice phenomenon. A shotgun mic is a sure bet, but there are many recorders out there to suit any budget.

Camera

Photography is a must when capturing spirits who prefer to be seen and not heard. Things to look out for: orbs,  aura, mist, spirits. Rich is a seasoned photographer with a professional camera, but budget models will work in a pinch.

Of course there are many other tools that Rich and Candyman use including camcorders, infra-red thermometers, flashlights, motion detectors, and a teddy bear called BooBuddy.

The results

Our paranormal investigation didn’t turn up any spirits, but it did bring us to a beautiful New England cemetery rich in history. Plus, Rich and Candyman have promised to take Sam to a haunted house and they assure us things WILL go bump in the night.


The Shadowy Side of the Outdoors

Former extreme athletes Rich and Candyman say that the adrenaline of paranormal investigations is a good substitute for the heart-pounding moto-cross races and wrestling matches. There is a logical connection between fear and adrenaline, but what’s causing the fear? Why are we scared of the dark? Why are so many spooky stories set in the woods? To get those answers, Sam spoke with a man steeped in the stuff. Aaron Mahnke, host of the podcast Lore.

Why can the woods be so frightening?

I think for a very long time the wilderness represented the unknown to us. I know we like to feel like we have a full understanding of what’s out there, we’re modern humans after all, but I think we’d be lying to ourselves if we said there was nothing left to learn or explore. Sometimes I tell people, go find a photo of the New Jersey pine barrens or forests of the northwest. There are places in this world that are so huge that we can’t say with confidence that we’ve mastered them completely. I think that’s where the fear comes from. We fear the things that we can’t control. The great outdoors are a beautiful place, but they also hide a lot from us.

"I think for a very long time, the wilderness represented the unknown to us...I think that’s where the fear comes from, right? Because, we fear the things that we can’t control. The great outdoors are a beautiful place, but they also hide a lot from us. And I think that’s how the wilderness casts that spell of fear over us." - Aaron Mahnke

Why are people drawn to spooky stories?

I think we really want to believe that we’re not alone. Yeah, there are 6.5 billion of us on the planet, which shouldn’t make us feel alone , but we do live pretty solitary lives. We got through things in our lives, like loss and separation, I think, to some degree, people believe in stories of ghosts because it gives them hope that there might be something more, that there might be a way to stay connected to the people to the people that they’ve lost. But I also think there’s an entertainment value to it. The things that ghosts might do, the noises they might make in the house, it makes a good story.

Do you believe in ghosts?

So what I tell people, even the preface makes me sound like I’m dodging the question, but I tell people that I believe the stories. I believe that people really believe that these things happened. I believe them and there’s value in listening and sometimes there’s value in repeating those stories. I try to ride the fence. It makes for a better storyteller when you don’t fully believe in one side or the other.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon.

Music for this episode is from Uncanny Valleys.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

S02|E01: Take the Reins

In this week’s episode, we look at a controversial method of wildlife management called biocontrol. Then we practice a little biocontrol of our own by cooking and eating an invasive fish that’s terrorizing the ocean, and finally we set sail with just the sun, the stars, and our long lost sense of direction to guide us.

Note: This is an hour-long broadcast version of our show made especially for the radio. This show is made up of stories subscribers to the podcast have already heard so it won't show up in your podcast feed. If you'd like to hear us on the airwaves instead of just in your earbuds, consider asking your local public radio station to air the show! We're currently offering up our seasons for FREE! And if you'd like to support the work that we do, consider supporting NHPR, the NPR member station for the great state of New Hampshire, and the entity that pays our bills. Thanks!

Click on the individual segment titles to see photos, videos, and more!

Part 1

Photo: Molly Donahue

Never Bring a Sledgehammer to a Scalpel Fight

When a Harvard professor accidentally let Gypsy Moths loose in the 1860s, he didn’t realize he was releasing a scourge that would plague New England forests for more than a century. Nothing could stop the moths except a controversial method of wildlife management called biocontrol. It’s the scientific version of “fighting fire with fire”: eradicate an invasive species by introducing another invasive species. Since then, there have been lots of biocontrol success stories, but also a few disastrous failures. In this episode, we ask whether biocontrol is the best--maybe the only way--to combat invasives, or if it’s just an example of scientific hubris.


Part 2

Photo: Logan Shannon

Eat the Invaders - Lionfish

This is Eat The Invaders - our occasional segment where we take a bite out of invasive species populations. On the menu today, one of the scariest, most voracious and intractable invaders out there. The lionfish.


Part 3

Photo: Logan Shannon

Look Toward the Dawn

Today, we take a step back to imagine a world without a web of GPS satellites telling your smartphone where you are every second of the day. While this might sound scary, come along and maybe you’ll discover you have a secret sixth sense...one that’s been inside you all along, if you just knew how to turn it on.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

This week’s episode includes tracks from D-Lay, La Venganza de Cheetara, Podington Bear, Blue Dot Sessions and David Szesztay. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists.