HARPERSFIELD — Perched behind the wheel of his pickup truck as it rumbled along a rutty dirt road slicing through his family’s forest preserve, Bruce Kernan of South Worcester pointed to his right to a small cliff masked by a stand of trees.
“That’s where my mother’s monument is,” said Kernan, 60, a veteran forestry consultant, as the truck careened up a steep hill that would lead to a trail heading to Clapper Lake.
Clapper Lake is an 11.9-acre bog lake that is surrounded by pristine wetlands, including 35.8 acres of peatland. The lake and the site of the monument to Kernan’s mother sit inside a tract of land consisting of nearly 1,000 acres.
The land is known as the Charlotte Forest. Legally, it’s known as the Henry S. Kernan Land Trust property.
A retired forester, Henry S. Kernan, now 97, lives in a retirement home in Cooperstown. In 1946, he purchased what had been abandoned farmland after deciding it had potential to be converted into a woodlot preserve. The soils at that point, Bruce Kernan said, were not hospitable for the kinds of hardwood trees his father wanted to cultivate.
So Henry Kernan, a former forestry columnist for The Daily Star, planted hundreds of pine trees to help condition the soils in a way that would allow the land to sustain his plan for a managed forest.
Bruce Kernan said he and his four siblings decided they wanted to keep their father’s vision intact, which is why they created the land trust instead of dividing the tract up and selling it off in pieces, even though they could have made a lot of money by doing so.
In recent years, he said, they have had to contend with various threats and hassles involving the property, including insects and property-line disputes with adjoining land owners. But one threat he said they could not have foreseen was the $683-million project known as the Constitution Pipeline.
As Bruce Kernan sees it, the pipeline planners have taken a callous approach to coming up with the pathway that the 122-mile transmission line would take to run natural gas from northeastern Pennsylvania to the town of Wright in Schoharie County.
Kernan said the pipeline planners in Houston are steaming ahead with the project, even though, he argued, it poses a major environmental threat to Clapper Lake and nearby Mud Pond, which is located just outside the family’s preserve and has also been been described as having statewide and regional significance as a pristine wetland.
Like many other landowners along the transmission system’s proposed route, Kernan and his siblings rejected Constitution Pipeline’s invitation to have land surveyors examine their property. If they allow the company to have an easement to their land, he said, they would stand to collect about $80,000 from the company.
That’s not going to happen, Bruce Kernan said as he paddled a canoe towards a flock of Canada geese across Clapper Lake.
“This is land that has produced taxes for the last 67 years — taxes to the Harpersfield, taxes to the town of Worcester, taxes to the town of Maryland, taxes to Schenevus, to the school district in Worcester, to the school district in Davenport,” he said. “We pay them from our own income, mostly what we get from the forest (by selling timber). What we have sold in timber is about equal to what we have paid in taxes. It’s not as if we are making some sort of financial killing here.”
The goal, he said, has been simple — to preserve the land, not to make a quick buck from it by selling off pieces to developers.
“Placing the pipeline between Clapper Lake and Mud Pond (which is what the company’s plans call for) would invite invasive species into these wetlands and cause irreversible damage,” Kernan said.
He and his family have become official intervenors in the license application now before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency that has the authority to kill the project or allow it to go forward.
Supporters of the pipeline project argue that it will bring scores of jobs to the region and make natural gas more readily available to schools, hospitals and businesses, and give many homeowners an option other than heating oil and propane to heat their residences.
Bruce Kernan said he is not out to kill the project, and said he isn’t an expert on whether the nation needs a new gas pipeline to take natural gas to markets near Boston and the New York City regions.
But he said it makes far more sense to him and his family to have the pipeline situated along the Interstate 88 corridor, an alternative that the state Department of Environmental Conservation argues deserves greater study despite Constitution Pipeline’s insistence that the I-88 option is impractical from an engineering point of view.
A spokesman for the Constitution Pipeline project, Christopher Stockton, an employee of Williams Partners, one of the companies that has invested in the effort, said while he was not personally familiar with the contentions of the Kernans:
“This illustrates why it is so important that landowners become willing to talk to us and help us identify issues that are out there and that we may not be aware of. We have made considerable changes to the route and demonstrated tremendous flexibility,” Stockton said. “We have changed 50 percent of the route. In terms of making modifications to the route now, although it is more difficult now than it was in the pre-filing stage of the process, if there are issues like that, we would certainly prefer to have an open dialogue with the property owners. I think we have demonstrated that we will do whatever we can to minimize and address those issues.”
Stockton said it is likely that FERC will schedule public scoping hearings after issuing the draft environmental impact statement on the project either late this year or early next year.
Bruce Kernan said if the pipeline company was interested in avoiding disruptions to the lives and property of local residences, it would find a way to locate the pipeline along the I-88 route. The latter route would add just four miles to the project, he said, while greatly reducing damage to interior forests, agricultural acres and wetlands — and would require less blasting through shallow bedrock.
Kernan said he thinks that alternative is better than running the pipeline within 25 to 50 feet of the monument where the ashes of his late mother are kept, and better than burrowing through the strip of land that sits between Clapper Lake and Mud Pond.
“They want access to our land, and then pay us a pittance for it, and have control over it and make money from it while we pay the land taxes, without any income for the next 80 years they will be operating,” he said. “But we’re not interested in making money from the pipeline. We aren’t experts in national energy policy. But we do know this land. We want to continue our 67 years of stewardship of the Charlotte Forest. We know this pipeline would be devastating to our land.”