Trouble Above the Treeline

New Hampshire’s Presidential Range, a picturesque area topped by expansive alpine terrain in the White Mountain National Forest, has long been known as a place where fair weather can quickly turn vicious. No one knows this better than the Appalachian Mountain Club. For over a century, the AMC has used its hut system in the Presidentials-a dorm and hiking center in the valley of Pinkham Notch and eight Alps-style overnight huts near and above the treeline-to offer guidance to hikers and shelter from meteorological ambushes. Now the AMC finds itself weathering an unexpected storm of its own. The squall caught the Club by surprise, and has pinned it down for much of the last two years.

The storm started brewing in 1995, when the Club’s 30-year U.S. Forest Service permit to operate the huts (which are on federal land) came up for renewal. The last two times the Club renewed the permits, in 1935 and 1965, the process went briefly and painlessly. This time, however, several vociferous critics of the organization, led by a former AMC employee named Mike Waddell, and David Guernsey, an activist from Maine, are accusing the AMC of using the huts to commit misdeeds, both environmental and political.

The story has a certain grotesque symmetry to it, for Guernsey and Waddell are adroitly using the hut-permitting process to punish the AMC for raising its political profile in the region over the last decade. In doing so they are training on the AMC the weapons-particularly federal environmental review and public appeals processes-that the AMC and other groups have long wielded so effectively in fighting unwanted development.

Robert J. Kozlow/AMC

The Appalachian Mountain Club has operated national park huts for over a century. Their recent political involvement in northern forest protection is now being denounced as “meddling.” Photo by Robert J. Kozlow/AMC.

“It’s very much a tit-for-tat affair,” says Richard Ober, a senior director at the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, New England’s largest environmental group. “Guernsey and Waddell say that if the Club is going to insist on environmental reviews for other types of activities, they should go through the same rigorous review. Some of the issues they raise-particularly those about the impact of the high huts-are legitimate. But they’re being pushed with a malice that comes from a resentment of AMC’s advocacy work.”

Guernsey doesn’t deny this. “This goes back to the 1970s,” he says, “when the AMC and other environmental groups started to work more from a political agenda. It used to be just a hiking club. Now they’re using a preferred position with the Forest Service-a free lease on some of the national forest’s most attractive property-to reap both money and members for an organization that works against the welfare of the people who live up here. Our rural culture depends on land use. But the focus of these groups is on stopping land use.”

Obviously there’s some history here. Though the AMC has been active in the White Mountains since 1876 and played a key role in pushing the Weeks Act, the legislation that created the White Mountain National Forest in the early 1900s, the Club made itself felt mainly as a recreational group. Its hiking center, trail and rescue crews, outdoor education workshops, and most of all its hut system, have made it an invaluable resource to hikers-and a relatively uncontroversial presence to locals, many of whom recognized that the huts help bring tens of millions of dollars in tourist spending to the area.

In the 1980s, however, the AMC started making its feelings known on regional environmental issues, arguing for increased protection of New England’s 26-million-acre Northern Forest from logging and development, more conservation in the White Mountain National Forest, and stricter environmental regulation of several hydropower dams. This increased activism came at a time of layoffs and economic anxiety in the regional logging industry. In a place that relishes local control and independence, some saw the AMC’s advocacy work as meddling by “people from away.”

Guernsey and Waddell have leveraged this resentment, along with an impressive knowledge of both Forest Service public participation processes and the AMC’s activities, into a remarkably effective protest focusing on the formerly uncontroversial huts. Pressed relentlessly to open up the permitting process, the Forest Service agreed last spring to have AMC submit its permit plan to public review and comment (which occurred last May); then revise it accordingly (which AMC did last fall); and then submit the plan to a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a draft of which the Service expects to complete this fall. After that, the public-including Waddell and Guernsey-will have 45 days to comment on the EIS’s recommendations before the Service makes its final decision, expected sometime early next year.

The AMC finds itself weathering an unexpected political storm that has pinned it down for much of the last two years.

This laborious process has required far more time, money and political capital than the AMC expected to spend. No one really expects the Forest Service will deny the permits. However, the AMC may be required to reduce visitors, decrease some overnight fees, and make expensive improvements to the huts’ septic systems (some already have composting toilets).

Meanwhile, the Club has already tempered its advocacy efforts (on Forest Service land at least) and has created a citizen advisory committee to advise it on its educational programs. It has also taken pains to educate its employees about the importance of the local forest-based economy-a clear sign that the AMC is trying to balance advocacy and recreational activities more carefully. As AMC spokesperson Rob Burbank puts it, “We need to be more attuned to community sentiment. This whole process has really made us step back and look at how we operate.”

“Waddell and Guernsey have made AMC pay for the mistake they made in not holding a full public discussion of this before,” says Michael Kellett, executive director of the regional environmental group Restore The North Woods. “Now that we’re having that discussion, I think most people see that the huts offer some good things, along with a few problems that need addressing-and that we need to fix the problems and put this behind us.”