By THOMAS P. CALDWELL
LACONIA DAILY SUN
GILFORD — Four decades of effort and tenacity culminated in a celebration on Saturday atop the summit of Piper Mountain among the parties that have ensured the peak's preservation for use by future generations.
The dedication ceremony included champagne, ice cream and Piper Mountain blueberries — and the presentation of a plaque to Everett McLaughlin, credited with making the purchase possible.
Don Berry, president of the Lakes Region Conservation Trust that now owns the 273-acre property, said the $220,000 purchase was the collaborative effort of several organizations, as well as businesses and individuals who contributed the funds needed. The Gilford Conservation Commission and Gilford Land Conservation Task Force also spearheaded the effort, with support from the Belknap Range Conservation Coalition and the Belknap County Sportsmen's Association.
"From the beginning, this was at the top of our wish list," Berry said of the summit's purchase, "but it seemed that nothing was ever going to happen. Then, last fall, Everett accomplished the impossible, and told us the owner wanted to sell."
That still left the task of raising the money for the purchase, and Berry said the Samuel P. Pardoe Foundation stepped in with a challenge grant to help bring the campaign to a successful conclusion.
With the purchase, the conservation trust now owns contiguous parcels totaling 691 acres, and the town of Gilford holds conservation easements on that property, ensuring the protection of the forest habitat and preservation of the popular hiking trails. As part of the project, the conservation trust also granted an easement to the town of 86 acres the organization already owned.
Doug Hill, who serves on the Gilford Conservation Commission and the Land Conservation Task Force, said the town's voters in March 1979 had agreed to purchase the summit, but a title search showed that the seller they thought owned the property was not the owner, after all. The town was able to go ahead with the purchase of what has become known as the Whiteface-Powell tract, but, "The Piper Mountain tract somewhat eluded us."
After several years of litigation between the parties claiming ownership of the summit, Ernie Gould emerged as the owner and, in 2011, the conservation commission and land trust tried in vain to reach an agreement to purchase the property from Gould.
"We moved on to other things," Hill said, "but it left us with a doughnut hole." While land around the summit was now protected, the top remained in private ownership.
"We gave up," Hill said, "except Everett McLaughlin didn't give up. He was worse than the IRS: He tracked Ernie Gould down, kept after him on his cell phone, and finally showed up with this signed document. ... Nobody, not even Ernie Gould, can withstand an Everett attack."
McLaughlin deflected the accolades, thanking Gould and saying, without him, they would not have the property.
The purchase-and-sales agreement had been signed Aug. 17, 2016, but its terms included that the closing would have to occur no later than January 2017.
"When Everett came into the meeting," recalled Russ Wilkins of the Belknap Range Conservation Coalition, "he said it's all arranged; all you have to do is raise umpteen thousands of dollars to purchase it."
A massive fundraising effort followed, with $115,000 in seed money from the town's conservation fund. The Pardoe challenge grant helped to push the campaign over the top, Wilkins said, and he cited Grappone Ford of Concord and Piche's of Gilford as among the many businesses that stepped forward to support the purchase.
"I always say that conservation is good business," Wilkins commented. "This is what we do around here."
Conservation also is what McLaughlin does. Since he started a second career as a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and moved to Gilford in 1984, he has repeatedly volunteered to protect the land. In dedicating the 2013 Gilford Town Report to him, the selectmen cited his protection of the 236-acre Weeks Farm in 2004, and the 332-acre Gage parcel on the east slope of Piper Mountain in 2013, as well as a number of smaller purchases in between.
McLaughlin joined the Gilford Conservation Commission and Land Conservation Task Force in 2006, and was named N.H. Audubon Society Volunteer of the Year in 2010. In 2011, he and his wife, Sandy, were grand marshals of the Gilford Old Home Day parade.
"This whole process wasn't the easiest thing in the world," McLaughlin said, "and we wouldn't be here without all of you."
Speakers also acknowledged the contributions of the late Dave Roberts, the Belknap County Sportsmen's Association's representative on the Belknap Range Conservation Coalition. Even during his illness, Roberts provided valuable maps and information, sharing his personal knowledge of the area. Piper Mountain's 2,044-foot-high peak was at the top of his list of priorities, as well, and he shared information about the effort with the sportsmen's club and encouraged its members to help with trail markers.
Doug Hill and Don Berry look on as Everett McLaughlin accepts a plaque for his role in pursuing the conservation of the summit of Piper Mountain. (Adam Drapcho/The Laconia Daily Sun)