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News Release

Conservation and Preservation Along the Saco River

Contact:
Jeremy J. Fowler, Public Affairs Specialist, NRCS, N.H.
603-868-9931


Story by: Peter Whitcomb, Soil Scientist, Natural Resources Conservation Service, N.H.

Archeologists conduct a survey of the Saco River floodplain in Conway, New Hampshire July 20, 2020 as part of a cultural resource assessment on a future NRCS project. (Natural Resources Conservation Service photo by  Sam Haus, Student Trainee Soil Conservationist)

The Saco River winds through Conway, New Hampshire July 20, 2020 showing erosion concerns along the outside bank.  This site is being assessed for a future conservation project to mitigate the erosion taking place along the stream bank.  (Natural Resources Conservation Service photo by Sam Haus, Student Trainee Soil Conservationist)CONWAY, New Hampshire, July 23, 2020 – It’s summertime in New Hampshire, and that means many folks in the north country are heading to the river to take in some of our great cool, clean water. You will probably see some great wildlife out there as you float along, but what you might see are some archeologists milling about along the banks.  That’s right – you may find yourself floating through a genuine archeological dig.

During the summer months, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) typically contracts out a number of archeological surveys.  These surveys are for conservation projects in ‘archeologically sensitive’ areas.  Navigable rivers were the first real highways to the Native Americans as well as for early settlers.  Who knows what was here before we were? That is what these digs are here to find out.  While the term ‘conservation’ refers to the prevention of a wasteful use of a resource, ‘preservation’ is the term used to refer to keeping something safe from harm or protecting it, such as historical artifacts. At NRCS the mission is conservation, with archeologists it’s preservation; though they often they go together.

An aerial photo of the site of the undertaking for the stream bank stabilization project along the Saco River in Conway, New Hampshire shows the riverbank erosion along agricultural land that the project will attempt to mitigate. (Image generated from the Natural Resources Conservation Service Web Soil Survey online at websoilsurvey.sc.egov.usda.gov )The conservation effort for stream habitat improvement and stabilization project on an historic West Side Road agricultural easement owned by Justin and Julie Hussey and held by the Upper Saco Valley Land Trust (USVLT) in Conway, New Hampshire is an example of one of these surveys we have on-going right now.  The ‘dig,’ as the archeologists refer to processing an area, is a necessary step in the process as the NRCS assesses the site for a future project.  

The proposed project, known as an ‘undertaking’ within the agency, involves the construction of a series of ‘log jam’ revetments along the bank of the Saco River, to mitigate the considerable soil erosion that is taking place there.  Trees, stumps and boulders will be used to construct the log jams and cribs along the banks that are driven into the stream bed and bank.  This will help mitigate erosion on the banks, while leaving a clear channel in the river for continued navigation.  The cribs will be filled with brush, slash, and treetops that will help hold it all together.  Brush mattresses will be placed on the bank to help prevent erosion and trap moving sediment, helping to keep it out of the water.  In addition, a riparian buffer will be planted along the top of the bank and a conservation cover will be sown.  Over time, the root systems of the buffer will help stitch it all back together and stabilize the bank from future erosion and provide great habitat for even more wildlife.

The NRCS can’t just start the heavy digging though.  The area must first be examined for cultural artifacts.  Checking these sensitive areas is to make sure NRCS complies with Section 106 of the National Historical Preservation Act; all projects funded or assisted by a government agency are required to follow these national standards.  Any ground disturbing practice must be reviewed by the Cultural Resources Coordinator and then forwarded to the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) of the New Hampshire Division for Historical Resources (NHDHR) for their comments.

A soils map shows an aerial view of the land surrounding the proposed streambank stabilization project along the Saco River in Conway, New Hampshire. The area shows as Ondawa, frequently flooded (101A), Ondawa, occasionally flooded (201A), and Sunday, occasionally flooded (102A) soils. (Image generated from the Natural Resources Conservation Service  Web Soil Survey online at websoilsurvey.sc.egov.usda.gov )This USVLT site is on a floodplain along the Saco River.  The soils are well drained, fine sandy loam alluvium, which flood frequently.  The archeological potential is high in a site like this, due to the level ground, the deep sandy loam soils, and the proximity to navigable water.  These factors make this area archeologically sensitive. 

To assess the potential for cultural resources, a Phase 1A (background research and site walk) and, if needed, a Phase 1B (digging and describing multiple test pits) survey is performed by a certified archeologist. 

At the Saco River site, Tom Jamison, lead archeologist with Hartgen Associates, and his team performed first the Phase 1A, then a 1B survey over the past several days.  Sam Haus, a Student Trainee Soil Conservationist, and Jessica Wright, a Conservation Planner from the New Hampshire Association of Conservation Districts, came over from the NRCS Conway Field Office to observe and assist the team.  They dug numerous test pits down into the substratum of the floodplain, looking for artifacts and other signs of our history.  Depths, color, texture and other soil properties were all recorded.  All excavated soil was then screened and examined for both ‘pre-contact’ (Native American) artifacts and ‘historic’ artifacts.

Significant historic artifacts that they find, such as glass, ceramics, food remains, hardware, and all pre-contact cultural material are collected.  Coal, ash, cinder, brick, and modern materials are noted and then released.

So, what was unearthed along that stretch of the Saco River?  Tentative reports indicate that nothing significant was found, so the stabilization project will most likely proceed.  

The Saco River winds through Conway, New Hampshire July 20, 2020 and clearly shows the signs of severe erosion happening to the abutting farmland. Planning is underway to utilize NRCS programs to stabilize the bank and prevent future loss of the arable land, archeological assessments are part of thaSo, what if an ancient fire pit or home site was discovered; how would we protect it, without disturbing it?  The challenge would then become to provide conservation and preservation.

So, if you see some archeologists along the banks of your favorite Mt. Washington Valley waterway this summer, now you will know why – happy floating!

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Archeologists use a sieve to sift through soil along the Saco River floodplain in Conway, New Hampshire July 20, 2020 as part of a cultural resource assessment on a future NRCS project. These traditionally heavily traveled waterways have the potential to contain artifacts from Native Americans, early settlements and more recent history; assessing that potential is a requirement before conservation practices can be implemented on these lands.  (Natural Resources Conservation Service photo by Sam Haus, Student Trainee Soil Conservationist)

 

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