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Upper Valley Author Looks At What Happens When 'A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear'

An image of reporter Matthew Hongoltz-Hetlings next to the cover of his book A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear.
Public Affairs Books, courtesy
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A new book by Longtime Upper Valley reporter Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling examines the story of the Free Town Project in Grafton, NH. The book is called A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear.

In 2004, the Upper Valley town of Grafton, N.H. was set to transform into a libertarian paradise. But the group that wanted to make Grafton a tax-free town void of almost any government footprint found themselves up against a literal force of nature: a sleuth of curious, bold and, above all, hungry bears.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with journalist and author Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, who chronicles this unique story of man versus nature in his new book, A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear: The Utopian Plot To Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears). Their conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: What was the goal of the libertarians you wrote about, who came to Grafton? What did they want to do?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling: One of the issues that's plagued the libertarian community over the decades, is that they didn't really have any examples of a community, or a state or a government that's been ruled by libertarian principles. So what they wanted to do was they wanted to kind of found a community that could be a showcase for the world to see how libertarian rules and philosophies work in practice.

Well, New Hampshire seems like the perfect state for this to happen in, the "Live free or die" state. Why did the libertarians that you met target Grafton in the Upper Valley, specifically, for this planned utopia of theirs?

They put a lot of thought into it, actually. They first evaluated a few different states, and found that New Hampshire was very appealing because of its tax situation, and just kind of a general support for individual responsibility.

One of the things that appealed to them about Grafton was that it had no zoning rules or regulations in place. That meant that they could come in, they could build homes without having to conform to regulations, they didn't have to worry about fire codes. And so, over the first few years of the experiment, a chain of camps started to emerge in the woods as people built a tent city over here, a cluster of cabins over there, a yurt, a trailer, a shipping container.

Nobody really knows for sure exactly how many free towners came in. They called themselves 'Free Towners' because they called it the 'Free Town Project.'

How did they propose to do this? I mean, did they announce what their plans were? Did they say, 'Hey, we're libertarians, we want to come live in Grafton?' Or did they just sort of make their way in and start to make their own libertarian paradise as they saw it?

One of the things that really rankled the longtime Graftonites who lived there was that, [the libertarian transplants] didn't go through any sort of a formal process or announcement. They kind of hatched the plan in secret, with just a couple of sympathetic people within the town, and their plan was to come to Grafton and outvote the existing town residents, in order to make the changes to the town to create their ideal community. And so they wanted to get rid of taxes, withdraw from the school district, abolish any sorts of rules and oversights that the town currently had.

Well, bears, I guess, had other ideas. I mean, how do bears throw a monkey wrench into these plans if I can mix my animal metaphors there a little bit?

Yeah, they threw the 'bear wrench' right in the thick of things.

[The people of Grafton] really rejected government advice on all sorts of fronts, including how to manage their food and their waste streams. And so that unintentionally attracted bears, or provided an incentive for bears. And then others decided to feed the bears intentionally, just kind of, like, for the joy of watching them eat.

The unintended consequence of all of this was that they were essentially training the bears in the area that humans were a viable food source. They kind of taught bears that they could problem-solve and figure out how to look at each house, and try to extract a payload of calories from that house.

But you also write in the book that New Hampshire, some of these wildlife officials, bear some responsibility, too. What were they doing right or wrong?

The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department is chronically underfunded, and so they don't really have a lot of resources to deal with bears. They also kind of have evolved a strategy of just relying on public education. And so, you know, they tell people very clearly, "Don't feed the bears," but they don't really have any sort of system to deal with the fact that a large and growing percentage of New Hampshire residents, exemplified in Grafton and other communities, are kind of actively seeking to ignore their advice.

As in so many other issues in American society right now, we have to come to terms with the fact that there is a sizable minority of people who are ignoring the best advice and practices; that they're not going to voluntarily manage their bears in a responsible manner. And policy has to reflect and come to terms with that, whether that means stronger mandates, or a new way of reaching out to this population of Americans who are living by a different set of rules.

And the consequences end up being pretty serious because as much as this seems at first glance like kind of a funny, quirky story, you write that Grafton saw its first homicide in decades. There were some sexual assaults. There were some deadly road rage incidents. These things became very serious, and you actually described Grafton in the book as 'becoming a haven for miserable people' and 'a town gone feral.' Was it really as bad as all that? And if so, has the town recovered in the years since?

There was definitely a really troubling societal decay. Not to mention that the town was the site of the first wild bear attack on a human in living memory. It was also [in] that region – not within town limits but within a bear's range of Grafton – where there have now been two other attacks. After 150 years of no bear attacks, there have been three bear attacks over the last several years.

Also, and perhaps more troublingly, the number of sex offenders goes up, violence goes up, neighbor complaints go up, recycling rates go down. And all of those things kind of work to slowly undermine the sense of community and civic pride that some people in Grafton and across the state would very much like to foster. I think there is more of a balance there today. And hopefully those more civic-minded folks who appreciate tax-supported services like libraries will make up some of the ground that they lost.

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