Sunday, August 9, 2015

On Recreation and Conservation

(From the rebuild of Madison Springs Hut, 2010)

Some of my earliest memories are of being at Mizpah Spring Hut when I was two years old. These are not clear memories—I have scraps of images of being in a bunkroom, in a bunk bed, of the place being filled with men with beards and women with braids—but they are distinct from the photographs my parents took of my older sister and I on the trail and around the hut, so I trust them to be real memories and not re-imagined creations from the pictures.
I don’t know if it is the semi-primal nature of my earliest memories, but I have been drawn to wilderness and wildness all my life. Growing up, the huts themselves carried totemic significance to me as pinnacles within wilderness and mountains. I went to Lonesome when I was an infant, Mizpah when I was two, and Mizpah and Lakes of the Clouds when I was ten. That was all it took for me to fall hard for these beautiful and weather-battered places set amid the mountains. I wanted to be of that world, but saw the whole operation as something like aspiring to have Mt. Olympus as a neighborhood. My eyes perked up when I spotted patches from the huts on other kids bags at school, at summer camp, at college. I thought better of classmates from 4th grade through grad school when they knew anything about locations in the White Mountains.
When I was twenty-one, I began working in the AMC huts. That time of my life has been more formative than any other thus far. Many of my most cherished friendships come from those years, all those hikes, busy nights, and the quiet riot of watching sunset gold become starlight. In those many seasons, I learned to live in questioning balance with wilderness and sustainability, with conservation and recreation, and to appreciate the many uses of the National Forests. These mountains were what I thought of in order to live simply, think global, and act local. The thought of the migratory songbird Bicknell’s Thrush—who’s breeding grounds are the climatically endangered boreal zone of New England—have kept my electrical use low, bike use high, and put up more than one clothesline. With others, I helped to rename a mountain for Abigail Adams as a small act of equality up there. I have lived above treeline in three seasons, hiked tough and beautiful miles, and done some of the hard, strange, wonderful and dirty work that keeps these huts running.
Partly, of course, I was there for my own selfish love and for the all-defying joy of being in those wilder places. For a time, I felt I could no more leave the Whites than I could live without my skin. Partly, though, I was there because, as I cannot imagine my face or heart without them, I want to keep those doors open and latchstrings out for others to come into wildness.
And so, hearing of a proposal for a ninth hut, I am torn between wanting more openings to wildness for more people, and worrying about the ecological impact of further backcountry construction and appropriation for high-impact use.
The AMC and New Hampshire State Parks are proposing an additional hut to be built in Crawford Notch State Park. From what I understand, it would be staffed and operated by the AMC with a highly nuanced special use permit from the State, much as is used for Lonesome Lake Hut. The hut would sleep about 50 people, be staffed for full-service in summer and self-service in fall, winter and spring, and be a less than two-mile hike from Rte. 302.
When I think of all the young children who could fall in love with the wilds by coming to this place, who could grow up to be passionate, stumbling advocates for wildness, I soften towards the idea. Opposing it feels a bit like slamming the door to wilderness behind me, which is unkind and unfair.
However, one of the most important things I have learned because of loving the wilderness, that I learned whilst living cheek by jowl by septic field and gray water system and helicopter-removed human waste and solar panels alongside wilderness in the huts, is that these wild places in the woods and mountains are fragile. Resilient, too, but I truly cannot see enough reason to stretch the ecological forgiveness of wild places to new limits by building additional high-impact structures within their already much trammeled boundaries.
I can be defensive, selfish, and cynical regarding the protection and use of public lands. I know this. I do not have all the facts regarding this ninth hut, its conception, design, purpose or function. What I do know is that eight such highly impacted sites, as well as many campsites—staffed and unmanaged, legal and illegal—already exist in the relatively small area of the White Mountain National Forest. What I do know is that the cost of staying at a hut—adult member prices are over $100 per person on a weekday night in summer—is that they are increasingly prohibitively expensive for many , especially local or even in-state families. I believe it is reprehensible to continue to tie wilderness experiences, environmental education and outreach to socioeconomic class in an era of increasing awareness of climate change, classism, and culturally pervasive racism. Shall only the rich be allowed easy access to the soul-changing experience of a mountain sunrise, of the dawn chorus of birdsongs?
I know that the building of a hut is physically and ecologically hard, and that the workers are there for the love of the work, the place, and each other, not for munificent (or even consistent, year-round, living) wages.
I know that the NH State Park system has had some financial difficulties in recent years and budget cycles and perhaps whatever the agency might garner from a very special use permit seems like a solution in that regard. I know that hut occupancy has been on the rise, even as the rates increase, and perhaps another hut does seem the easiest answer to satisfy demand. I know that I find it strange how little publicity this proposal has had—the public comment period runs from July 17th-August 15th and two public meetings were held in New Hampshire. AMC members with young children, in the greater Boston area—the demographic most likely to support another family friendly hut destination—do not seem aware of this proposal.
I know that I—as an environmentalist who believes that much of climate change is the bastard offspring of our unquestioned cultural demand for “more”—am inherently distrustful of anything that involves more and bigger and new. I believe it would be better to work with what resources are already built—huts, campsites, hotels, and lodges—to achieve the goals of this proposed hut.
What I know most surely is that the thought of breaking new ground in protected landscapes flies in the face of what I learned to value intrinsically within those landscapes. I have loved seeing and being part of the AMC huts’ attempts to transition toward ever greener energies, design, and ideals. As mainstream culture chugs unchecked towards more, these places continually push for efficiency, for shrinking the ecological footprint, for protecting the landscapes even as they draw people deeper in. As a naturalist—both front and backcountry—I felt that it was part of my job to help people fall in love with the mountains and woods and lakes and starlight around the huts. As noted ecologist Dr. Sandra Steingraber has said, “what we love, we must protect.”
Even, I believe, from ourselves.
I write this achingly aware of the privilege I have had in all my mountain life—from my infanthood to Hutmaster-ships. I want those hills wild and open to the wise use of everyone. I want what happens to my heart at the sound of a white-throated sparrow above treeline to happen to everyone. I want as much of that landscape untouched as possible, because I believe it does us good and better as a people to let more wildness remain.
Until August 15th, public comments can be emailed to or mailed to the Dept of Resources & Economic Development, Crawford Notch State Park Comments, 172 Pembroke Rd, PO Box 1856, Concord, NH 03302. If you have an opinion, share it there where it will do good. The public process is nil without an active and engaged public.


  1. Thanks for putting words to my thoughts. It is such a struggle to know how much I love these mountains and my experiences in the huts. But I do agree with you on so many levels. I will take some time to send it to the powers that be.

  2. Thanks for this! There is such a delicate balance here between wanting to experience the wilderness without overuse. But thank you especially for your concern about cost and class. My daughter and I have stayed at Wildcat, Zealand, and most recently Galehead. We call these "luxury trips." We budget for this and greatly appreciate every effort by the croos to provide good food, lodging, and information. But I wish there was a way folks with smaller budgets could share with this, too. For two working adults, it's not too hard, but for young families the cost is a great challenge. Thank you so much for your years of service and your concern!

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