fbpx

Cog Railway Proposes Railroad Hotel Near Congested Mt. Washington Summit

Coal burning Cog approaching the Lizzie Bourne Memorial. (Photo: Jamie Sayen.)

Coal burning Cog approaching the Lizzie Bourne Memorial. (Photo: Jamie Sayen.)

By Jamie Sayen

From time immemorial, the Abenaki believed it a sacrilege to climb New England’s highest mountain. One Abenaki name for this wild, dangerous peak was Maji Neowaska, where a demon, or bad spirit, was supposed to dwell on the highest peak.[1]

Today, the 60-acre Mt. Washington State Park on the summit of Mt. Washington is a paved-over, debris-littered, congested disgrace. The State has no idea of how many visitors the summit can handle before overcrowding inflicts serious ecological and climatological damage to the fragile alpine tundra and its flora and fauna. The Division of Parks and Recreation estimates that close to half a million visitors ride, drive, or hike to the summit annually. There are as many as 5,000 visitors on peak summer days.

The summit’s overtaxed waste water treatment plant, with a capacity of 5,000 gallons a day, is out of compliance with its permit. The State plans to build a new system with a 7,500 gallon a day capacity because it anticipates—and supports—increased visitor levels that will exacerbate congestion.[2]

In March, the Cog Railway, which has operated since 1869, proposed a new hotel development at 5,800-feet in elevation, a short walk from the summit. On May 20, the State and Cog signed a Memorandum of Understanding  (MOU) covering the Lizzie Project. The Cog agrees to refrain from further development in its right-of-way on state park land in return for the State’s support throughout the Lizzie permitting process. The Cog can move its rolling concession and dining cars to the summit during periods when the Sherman Adams Building, which houses state-run concessions and restrooms, is closed.

In December 2016, the Cog Railway announced plans to open a 35-room hotel and restaurant, the Skyline Lodge, located within the Cog’s right-of-way at the terminus of the rail line. It would operate from May to November. A grassroots group, Keep the Whites Wild secured 20,000 signatures opposing the plan. Numerous established conservation groups joined the opposition. Wayne Presby, President of the Cog, abandoned the idea in 2018, the Lizzie’s Station proposal grew out of secret discussions with the AG and NH Division of Parks and Recreation which manages the Mount Washington State Park.

At the March 4, 2022 meeting of the Mt. Washington Commission (MWC), an advisory board to the NH Division of Parks and Recreation, Presby announced plans to build a high-elevation hostelry offering “upscale accommodations” near the memorial erected in honor of Lizzie Bourne, a 20-year-old hiker who perished in foul weather in 1855 a short distance from the Tip Top House on the summit. Presby proclaimed that when his project is completed, congestion “is gone.”[3] His solution is to disperse congestion to despoil a suburb summit.

Sarah Stewart, Commissioner of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, introduced the Cog’s March 4 presentation and expressed her hope that Lizzie’s Station would increase visitation to the state park.

The Cog proposes to construct two 500-foot-long platforms, supported by trestles, on either side of the existing rail line near the Lizzie Memorial. All Cog riders would debark at Lizzie’s Station where they can hop on a Cog shuttle to the summit or hike to the summit along the current maintenance road after it is upgraded.

“Lizzie’s Station” will consist of 18 Pullman-like cars lining both platforms. Nine cars would provide sleeping quarters for 70 people. Five would serve meals and alcoholic beverages. The remaining cars would house bathrooms and high-end shopping. Lizzie’s Station will require the drilling of a new artesian well, construction of a 16,000-foot-long waste water pipeline to the Cog’s base station, a new transfer switch on the rail line, and the upgrading of a failed fiber optic cable laid in 2007 by the state along the Cog’s maintenance trail. The cost of the Lizzie Station project is estimated at $14 million, and construction would require five years.

Overnight, the Lizzie Station proposal ignited a firestorm of public opposition. Within three weeks, 20,000 people signed a petition opposing further development of the summit region (to sign the petition, go to: https://www.change.org/p/mount-washington-commission-stop-the-cog-railway-again-from-building-a-luxury-hotel-on-mount-washington.)

The Cog claimed Lizzie’s Station is in keeping with the Mt. Washington Commission’s (MWC) 1970 Master Plan. This is a fair assessment: an outdated proposal to further exploit the summit is consistent with an obsolete master plan written before issues such as acid rain and global warming were recognized as threats. Among the 1970 directives still unaddressed in 2022 are: “Summit environs not preserved;”  and “Mountain Flora not identified and protected.” The Commission admits the “1970 MP does not seem to have included the public.”[4]

Private and public entities with conflicts of interest are well-represented on the Commission, but two of the three public representative seats are vacant as of this writing. There are no ecologists or climate scientists on the Commission, and the only time a climate scientist addressed the Commission, on March 25, Commission members asked no questions.

At its March 25, 2022 meeting, the Commission declared the purpose of the Master Plan is to maintain Mount Washington as a “must-see destination… while also ensuring the resource values are protected.” It sought to: “Maintain [the] quality of the mountain environment in perpetuity while accommodating the significant number of people and vehicles that visit the summit.” This is impossible. Only a major reduction in human visitors, especially those relying upon motorized transport, can reduce congestion, ecological degradation, and carbon emissions from visitors and summit buildings.

There are only 13 square miles of alpine tundra east of the Mississippi River, and Mt. Washington is home to the largest and most significant tract. Rare, hardy alpine plants, including Bigelow’s sedge, mountain cranberry, diapensia, and mountain avens, a yellow flower related to the blackberry/raspberry family, have successfully adapted to harsh growing conditions.

Robbins’ cinquefoil (Potentilla robbinsiana), a small perennial member of the rose family endemic to Mt. Washington, was added to the Endangered Species list in 1980 due to hiker trampling. Recovery measures stabilized its population enough to remove it from the list in 2002. It can take decades or centuries for recovery of pre-disturbance alpine vascular plant abundance. Recovery of alpine bryophytes (mosses) and lichens is generally slow.

As climate change warms the Earth, it drives plant and animal species further north, or, on mountains, further uphill. Georgia Murray, staff scientist for the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), informed the Commission in March that the summit of Mt. Washington has warmed 1.8ºF since 1884. The mountain is experiencing fewer frost days, shorter winters, and a growing season that has lengthened 15-33 days.[5]

Recent research by Suny-ESU and the AMC has determined that tree line has advanced uphill by about 12 meters over the past four decades in the Presidential Range—a rate of about 0.3 meters per year. Alpine tundra area has diminished by about 4 percent. Under business-as-usual climate scenarios, alpine tundra could eventually be driven off Mt. Washington.[6]

The proposed Lizzie Station development bisects the fragile alpine area that provides breeding and rearing grounds for one of New Hampshire’s rarest birds, the American pipit. This slim, migratory songbird about the size of a sparrow is abundant in the Arctic in summer. Mounts Katahdin and Washington are the only locations in the eastern United States where pipits breed. In 2015, New Hampshire Fish and Game’s Wildlife Action Plan listed pipits as a “species of greatest conservation need” due to declining habitat patches threatened by various management issues.

Most sightings of breeding pipits are in sedge meadows or cushion tussock vegetation on the northwest side of Mt. Washington at elevations ranging from 5,200-5,800 feet. A 1998 study conducted by the Audubon Society of New Hampshire and the White Mountain National Forest found 11 breeding territories, primarily on Mount Washington’s northwestern slope. Once the hatchlings fledge, the adults bring them uphill to the Bigelow sedge.

In mid-June, in the company of two respected ornithologists, I heard a breeding male pipit just below the proposed Lizzie Station site. It rose from the meadow, circled, and dove back to earth while issuing a call that varies with the different stages of the display flight—somewhat akin to woodcock mating behavior. We heard a display call near the Lizzie Monument, on both sides of the Cog along the Gulfside Trail, and at the Cow Pasture, near the Auto Road.

My ornithological companions expressed concern that the Lizzie proposal, by dispersing the congestion from the summit, posed a greater threat to alpine tundra and habitat for American pipits than a hotel at the summit. I suggested we needed to prevent dispersed congestion and reduce summit visitor numbers to levels well below carrying capacity. They nodded.

Following its April meeting, Commission member, Howie Wemyss, representing the Auto Road, reiterated his February recommendation for the completion of a comprehensive Environmental Assessment before the Commission began to write the new master plan. He wrote: “The purpose of this analysis is to make sure that any future expansion, development or construction of any kind will not harm the environmental health of the summit. This may well mean that ALL entities must put their individual plans on hold in favor of the greater good of the summit of Mt. Washington.

Rather than the current unfettered growth in guest numbers currently happening, the numbers need to be controlled to what the current summit infrastructure can handle.

This analysis will likely take several years but will be essential to the future health and success of Mt. Washington and the Mt. Washington partners.”[7] (emphasis added)

At its June 10 meeting, Senator Bradley rejected Wemyss’—and repeated public—calls for an environmental assessment first. The Commission, lacking a quorum, informally adopted the Draft MP it released to the public on July 5.[8]

Elements of an Ecological and Climate Assessment: An independent, comprehensive Environmental and Climate Assessment must examine Mount Washington from base to summit, and not merely the 60-acre State Park. Essential elements of the Assessment include: Alpine Ecology, Climate Change, and Visitor Carrying Capacity on the summit. The Assessment Team must be composed of independent ecologists and climate scientists, not underfunded State Agency scientists vulnerable to political pressure. The State and private interests responsible for current degradation and congestion should pay for the assessment, but have no influence over its methodology or report. For a more detailed description of a proper Assessment, go to: https://nhconservation.org/lib/exe/fetch.php?media=mw:elements_of_an_environmental_and_climate_assessment.pdf

Great Gulf Wilderness. The Cog Tracks are a short distance behind the photographer. The rim at the top of the Great Gulf in the foreground and extending to the right is prime pipit nesting territory. (Photo: Jamie Sayen)

Great Gulf Wilderness. The Cog Tracks are a short distance behind the photographer. The rim at the top of the Great Gulf in the foreground and extending to the right is prime pipit nesting territory. (Photo: Jamie Sayen)

Who has Jurisdiction over the Approval of the Lizzie Project?

The Coos County Planning Board (CCPB) and the Coos County Zoning Board of Authority appear to be the only entities that have jurisdiction over the Lizzie proposal. It is essential that the CCPB require a thorough Environmental and Climate Assessment of Mt. Washington and its summit, with particular focus on the impacts of the Lizzie Station proposal before considering any application from the Cog and the State.

The White Mountain National Forest is the sole abutter of the Cog right-of-way. As of early August 2022, its seems to be adopting a hands-off approach. The WMNF has a statutory and a moral obligation to protect the integrity of the ecosystems that sustain the alpine flora and fauna. It has not yet supported calls for conducting an Environmental and Climate Assessment before writing the MWC Master Plan. For a more thorough discussion of Jurisdiction, go to: https://nhconservation.org/lib/exe/fetch.php?media=mw:who_has_jurisdiction_over_the_approval_of_the_lizzie_project.pdf

The Public Can Stop the Lizzie Station Proposal

Presby recently acknowledged that public opposition had played a major role in stopping the Skyline Lodge proposal.[9] Regional and national opposition can stop the Lizzie Station project. You can access the July 5 Draft Master Plan at: https://www.nhstateparks.org/getmedia/92318d92-d2c4-4688-9b49-308a71af1944/Master-Plan-Draft4-7-5-22_1.pdf.

I have compiled an “annotated” response to the most troubling elements of the July 5 Draft. You can access it here: https://nhconservation.org/lib/exe/fetch.php?media=mw:master_plan_annotated_july_5_draft.pdf

Public Hearings: The Mt. Washington Commission has scheduled two public comment sessions for its Draft Master Plan:

  • Monday, August 22, 7:00 PM at the North Conway Community Center, 78 Norcross Circle, North Conway, NH;
  • Tuesday, August 23, 10:00 AM at the State House, Room 100.

Written Comments: The Commission will accept written comments from citizens until August 31. Send comments to: MtWashingtonComments@dncr.nh.gov. Or mail to: Master Plan Comments, 172 Pembroke Road, Concord, NH 03301.

What You Can Do

Attend one of the public hearings on August 22 or August 23, or submit written comments before August 31.

  • Express your opposition to the Lizzie Bourne Station proposed development;
  • Demand that the MWC conduct a thorough, independent, Environmental and Climate Assessment of the Summit Region and the entirety of Mt. Washington;
  • Demand that there be a complete moratorium on any future expansion, development, or construction of any kind until the completion of the Assessment and the subsequent Master Plan;
  • Reject the July 5, 2022 Draft Master Plan in its entirety and demand that no MWC Master Plan be written before a credible Environmental and Climate Assessment has been completed.

References

[1] John C. Huden, Indian Place Names of New England (New York: Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, 1962).

[2] David Mercier and Thaddeus Webb, Underwood Engineers, to Jay Poulin, HEB Engineers, “Technical Memorandum: Sewer Interceptor Pipeline Feasibility Study,” January 26, 2018. https://www.nhstateparks.org/getmedia/6da29141-b715-44d6-9991-4df60ec3b46b/Mt-Washington-Sewer-Interceptor-Feasibility-Study-01-26-2018.pdf.

[3] Cog Railway, “Volume 3: Timeline-Lizzie’s Station,” March 4, 2022, 644. It cites Cog Clatter.

[4] Mount Washington Commission, “Status: 1970 Master Plan,” April 22, 2022. https://www.nhstateparks.org/getmedia/87900cd9-2269-49f5-b60d-b82a70396bd2/Status-1970-Master-Plan-items.pdf

[5] Georgia Murray, AMC Staff Scientist, “AMC Climate and Conservation Research on Mt. Washington,” a powerpoint presentation to the Mount Washington Commission, March 25, 2022.

[6] Jordan Tourville, Forests on the Move: Tracking Climate Related Changes in Treelines in Montane Systems of the Northeast, video presentation at UVM Conference, January 3, 2022. https://streaming.uvm.edu/watch/41670/forests-on-the-move-tracking-climate-related-changes-in-treelines-in-montane-systems-of-the-northeast/

[7] https://www.nhstateparks.org/getmedia/1c86dc42-e145-407f-ab67-93b18a226291/Additional-Commission-Concepts-05192022.pdf.

[8] Video of Mount Washington Commission meeting, June 10, 2022 at 1-hour 1-minute mark. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wVqdMyCLkjI

[9] John Koziol, “Cog Railway Owner Says Proposed Hotel Would Include Settlement with the State,” Manchester Union-Leader, March 7, 2022.

Spread Rewilding Around the Globe!

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below

Leave a Reply: