Mount Washington isn’t exactly wilderness. The New Hampshire peak is home to a summit weather station, visitors’ center and museum, all accessible by road or even rail.
But when one of the businessmen behind the Mount Washington Cog Railway announced plans in December for the construction for a 35-room hotel and restaurant about 600 vertical feet below the mountain’s rocky summit, local hikers had a message for him: Enough is enough.
The plan, put forward by Wayne Presby calls for a 25,000-square-foot structure on the railway’s tracks roughly a half mile from the mountain’s summit, well above treeline and inside the mountain’s fragile alpine zone.
At 6,288 feet, Mount Washington is the tallest peak in the Northeast and is known for having the “world’s worst weather.” The hotel, at approximately 5,600 feet, would be a thrilling stopover for tourists riding the railway from the mountain’s base.
According to Presby, the ever-increasing number of visitors to Mount Washington (on a nice summer day, more than 5,000 people can reach the summit) would benefit from on-mountain accomodations.
A “high-end” destination for backpackers.
Though hotels have periodically been a part of the summit complex in the past (one, the Summit House Hotel was owned and operated by the Cog Railway from 1852 through 1951), the only facility currently housing overnight visitors is the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Lakes of the Clouds Hut, more than a mile below the summit. Presby argues that his company’s new hotel will provide a more high-end experience.
While the AAC hut operates via permit on National Forest Land, Presby’s building would be built with private funds and entirely on the railroad’s property, a 99-foot-wide easement known as Skyline Switch where at one time there was enough room for trains to pass another. The Gulfside Trail, a part of the Appalachian Trail, will sit just outside the building’s front door.
The hotel would operate during railway season, roughly from May to November each year, through the peak of the mountain’s busy season in an attempt to, according to Presby, relieve some of the summit’s overcrowding. Early designs have the building sitting atop the tracks, with trains unloading in the sheltered area within.
Protecting the alpine.
The backlash to Presby’s plan was almost immediate. Following the announcement, a collection of local activists banded together to form Keep The Whites Wild, a grassroots advocacy group with the goal of protecting the White Mountain region at large, but focusing immediately on stopping the hotel.
“This is the greatest threat to New Hampshire’s alpine in recent history,” says Chris Magness, one of KWW’s founding board members.
In a March letter to the Coos County Planning Board, which has yet to approve the construction, KWW, as well as a cadre of undersigning organizations including the American Alpine Club, Access Fund, and The Friends of Tuckerman Ravine, stressed the sensitivity of the state’s minimal alpine tundra terrain.
“The footprint of the hotel and the trenching and other disturbances involved with the installation of electrical, sewage, and other utilities will irreparably destroy a substantial amount of alpine habitat. Additional damage will inevitably be caused by hotel guests, who...will wander around the area, and the impact to alpine vegetation and soils from new trails and off-trail exploring will be devastating,” said the letter.
“We need to do what we can to preserve what we have,” adds Magness. According to him, the new hotel would be in an area that hasn’t already been damaged.
Jim O’Brien, the Director of External Affairs for The Nature Conservancy of New Hampshire, echoes his concerns. “You’re having a large group of people exploring an area that’s not already disturbed,” he says
The Nature Conservancy, along with six other organizations including the Audubon Society of New Hampshire, Appalachian Trail Conservancy and Appalachian Mountain Club, signed a letter similar to KWW’s arguing against the hotel.
The terrain surrounding Mount Washington is part of only 13 square miles of alpine tundra east of the Mississippi River. According to Susan Arnold, the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Vice President for Conservation, Mount Washington and the Presidential Range make up the most important piece.
“This is an extraordinarily special and valuable habitat, she says.
Presby counters that keeping Mount Washington wild might be a lost cause. According to him, the continued commercialization and promotion of the mountain, and the crowding that comes with it, means that responding to the demand for facilities needs to be a higher priority than conservation.
“I know people are concerned about the impacts on the area up there, but there’s been a lot of impact there over the years anyway, and there continues to be,” he said. Don’t like it? “Maybe you shouldn’t be climbing on Mount Washington.”
Presby goes a step further to argue that the largest impacts done to mountains like Mount Washington actually come from hikers and backpackers, rather than tourists who venture up the road or railway.
In contrast to non-hikers, who typically don’t stray far from the developed areas, “it’s the hikers that are coming that are unprepared and causing problems,” he says. “They’re the ones actually going off the trails and doing all this damage to the alpine zone. Providing facilities to those folks helps mitigate some of that impact.”
“Ultimately, this is a matter of experience and education,” he says. At the AMC’s Lakes of the Clouds hut, Arnold adds, education has been a priority. Simplistic offerings, a smaller scale, more distant location and broader purpose (including search and rescue response, emergency shelter, and scientific work) all contribute to the hut’s diminished impact.
Nonetheless, asks Presby, “why should the AAC be the only one offering a hut?”
“I wouldn’t want to stay there,” he adds.
While official paperwork has yet to be submitted—the Coos County Planning Board has only just provided Presby with the necessary applications—Keep the Whites Wild has already retained counsel and plans to fight the hotel.
“There is grassroots opposition and we represent a large portion of that,” said Magness. “But it’s more widespread community opposition.” In any case, Magness expects that when meetings do finally consider the hotel, locals will turn out en masse.
Presby hopes to complete the hotel by July 2018, in time for the Cog Railway’s 150th anniversary.