A year ago, the Mount Washington Railway Company announced their intention of building a lodge at 5,600 feet on Mount Washington. Despite growing opposition, they still intend to move forward with their plans. The Protect Mount Washington campaign needs your support!
It was a snowy December evening and the Coos County Planning Board meeting was packed. There were over 40 members of the outdoor community in attendance to hear what Wayne Presby, owner of the Mount Washington Railway Company (MWRC), had to say about his latest plans to introduce more development on the tallest and most iconic mountain in the Northeast. The MWRC owns a 99-foot wide tract of land on which it operates the Cog Railway, a mountain train that has been taking passengers to the summit since 1869. It is at 5,600 feet on this tract of land, perched above the cliffs of the Great Gulf Headwall, where Presby intends to build a 25,000 square foot, 35-room ‘luxury’ lodge.
That same evening, a small group of North Conway based climbers began preparations to organize opposition against, what Presby called, Skyline Lodge, with the intention of halting the formal building application to the Planning Board. Soon after, the group formed Keep The Whites Wild (KtWW), a New Hampshire non-profit organization. Their mission: to preserve and protect the diverse biology, natural aesthetic, and intrinsic value of New England’s White Mountain region. They quickly launched Protect Mount Washington, a campaign specifically designed to stop MWRC’s lodge proposal.
When the news broke, it made both regional and national headlines. The Washington Post read: “Coming Soon: a Luxury Hotel With the Worst Weather You’ve Ever Seen”, while the Boston Globe and New Hampshire newspapers published articles interviewing those for and against the development. As time went on and word spread, the opposition grew. Two months after the announcement, six conservation groups, including the Nature Conservancy and Appalachian Mountain Club, submitted a letter to the Coos County Planning Board stating the development would be harmful to the sensitive alpine habitat and is contradictory to County Master Plan which was adopted to conserve and protect these natural and ecological resources. The Protect Mount Washington campaign started an online petition just days after the announcement and it has now received over 17,000 signatures.
Since that time, Protect Mount Washington has been on the front lines defending the alpine tundra which is in danger of being irreparably harmed by the Skyline Lodge proposal. Backed by scientific expertise, they contend that the rare alpine habitat, which comprises less than 1% of New Hampshire’s landscape yet holds numerous rare and some endemic plant and insect species, is too ecologically important to lose. Using that reason and others related to safety and view-shed impacts, they have undertaken public advocacy by fielding thousands of emails and phone calls, sending out press releases, organizing events and networking with numerous conservation organizations and countless individuals. Perhaps the biggest move the campaign has made was hiring an environmental attorney, Jason Reimers of BCM Environmental Land Law to defend the recreational, ecological and economic benefits that Mount Washington provides to the region.
The MWRC has also been busy since their announcement. Wayne Presby continues to inform the public that Skyline Lodge is still on the table despite having not formally applied for permitting through Coos County; and there is no evidence to the contrary, as surveyors were recently seen in the proposed building area. In a recent move which could be interpreted as a step toward the reality of the lodge, the MWRC sent excavators from the railroad base station up along their tracks and began moving soil. Without any local or state permitting, they cleared and widened an old utility trench scar that serves the summit buildings with the stated intention of driving passenger-carrying snowcat machines up and down the mountain. Although they own the land, it is zoned as a Protected District (PD6), and only certain activities on that land can happen without permitting. According to the Coos County Zoning Ordinances, the purpose of PD6 is to regulate certain land use activities in mountain areas “in order to preserve the natural equilibrium of vegetation, geology, slope, soil and climate in order to reduce danger to public health and safety posed by unstable mountain areas, to protect water quality and to preserve mountain areas for their scenic values and recreational opportunities.” Lands are zoned as such in areas above 2,700 feet in elevation or slopes in excess of 60 percent (27 degree angle) over ten contiguous acres.
Keep the Whites Wild argues the use of the land as a road intended to bring tourists to the summit of the mountain would be prohibited according to County regulations and they’ve requested the County Commissioner cite MWRC and require it to restore the land that was disturbed by the excavator work. Presby responded to reporters stating he is well within his rights and told InDepthNH.org that he built a trail, not a road and didn’t need a permit.
According to InDepthNH.org, he said Keep the Whites Wild misunderstands the zoning regulation and his plan for the three-mile trail is for maintenance and to provide emergency responders and others quicker wintertime access to the summit than the auto road, which is eight miles long. However, the Berlin Daily Sun reported that during a Mount Washington Commission Meeting in November, Presby stated the Cog had just opened up a trail to the summit that he believes will be able to accommodate passenger-carrying snowcats up the three-mile route in winter, a concept that would soon be tested. At the upcoming Coos County Commissioners meeting on December 13, 2017, commissioners plan to discuss KtWW’s letter and potential violations brought up by the Protect Mount Washington Campaign.
When the MWRC is going to formally apply for the permits to move forward with the Skyline Lodge is a question still unanswered. In the meantime, the alpine of Mount Washington puts on its coat of white as winter settles in. The large majority of hikers and tourists leave the high peaks as the plants and insects continue to find a way to survive in the harsh extreme. Ice climbers, backcountry skiers and hardy winter hikers will start coming to the mountain now to watch the landscape transform into a cold, strikingly beautiful world. To all who seek out the mountain’s ravines, trails, rocky cliffs, icy gullies, alpine gardens, famous weather and tallest summit, Mount Washington is a precious and finite resource. It is a resource that provides not just significant ecological value, but also solitude, challenge, appreciation, reflection and inspiration.
Support Protect Mount Washington’s efforts
Previous NEice Article: Cog Railway Announces Intentions to Build a 35 Room Luxury Hotel on Mount Washington
Other Recent Media Links:
Caledonian Record: Group Opposed To Mountainside Hotel On Mt. Washington Claims Illegal Road
Berlin Daily Sun: Keep the Whites Wild Accuses Cog of Constructing Unpermitted Road