Having lived in the area since 87, the local pulp mill although a major economic engine did impact the local environment. Prior to 1991, there were two recovery boilers, one was 1946 vintage which lacked any emission controls and the newer 1967 boiler that had a energy savings option, called a direct contact evaporator, that did increase the efficiency of the boiler but the trade off was a lot more odor in the region along with very high SO2 emissions. On a warm day the taste of SO2 was in the air. In 1991 James River the current owner closed down the 1946 boiler and "rebuilt" the 1967 boiler. It was rebuilt in name only and was actually replaced with what was at the time the cleanest recovery boiler in the US possibly the world. For various permit reasons, the boiler had to operate far cleaner than any other boiler in the US and it was quite effective. This really cleaned up the air in the region but an economic tradeoff was made by James River to install a process that made the facility operate more acidic, this caused a higher generation of very foul smelling sulfur compounds from the process. I spent several years and millions of dollars installing projects and systems to reduce these sulfur compounds but given that some of the them are detectible in parts per billion, even though the numeric amount was reduced substantially, the remaining trace amounts were still quite detectable especially to visitors. It was quite noticeable that locals became "nose blind" but visitors were not. When I left the area for a week or two and came home (usually from Portland) I would pick up the odor at a certain corner on RT2 near the Gilead/West Bethel line. Eventually around 2004 the mill installed a steam stripping process that further reduced the odor but by then the facility had been purchased by Fraser Papers which acted as shell for Brookfield Renewable Resources to strip the remaining valuable assets which were the hydro plants on the river. Once that was accomplished and the books had time to settle, the pulp mill was closed in 2006 and torn down soon after except for the boiler which is now a biomass boiler which also was rebuilt to exceed fairly stringent environmental standards.
The combination of a less than pleasant local environment and the extra hour from Boston and southern NH both probably led to these cliffs begin under appreciated. I expect that an urban environment right at the base of the cliffs also served as a deterrent. It is interesting to note that despite the pulpmill being out of operation for more than 10 years, there are still people who think that it is still in operation.
The other potential hidden gem is one of the biggest potential urban whitewater stretches in the region. Despite the presence of hydro dams, there is about 200 feet of drop in the river as it goes through town, much of the original river bed remains despite the two major diversion penstocks which bypass much of the rivers flow. The most recent google earth image (9/18/2013) actually was taken when the lower dam was closed down for maintenance so the original flow of the river is shown. The upper section north of the lower dam immediately west of the pulpmill is in steep stone gorge that few people ever access. Generally any attempt at accessing the upper gorge has been resisted by the owner of the dam as they realize that if the public ever saw the area they would want it improved. The original developer of the biomass plant was going to provide public access but the subsequent owner traded it off for a snow machine route outside the fence. The lower section is publically accessible but it is serious whitewater going through the remains of a much older mill that left all sorts of potential hazards in place.
The majority of the folks using the cliffs appear to be relatively new to the area, the older mill workers are slowly dying off or moving away and that means lots of housing is available quite cheap. Like any city there are rough neighborhoods but there are also some nice ones and homes can be had for less than 50 K with some folks picking some up for 25K. Berlin has actively been sprucing up the city and they are starting to open up access along the river with various river walks. There are zero municipal or industrial wastewater treatment plants north of the cross power hydro station near the Berlin Gorham line so the river is effectively as pristine as the water in Lake Umbagog. Folk actively fish right across the street from their homes north of the sawmill hydro dam which is above the northern most extent of possible contamination from the former mill operations.