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Forest Magazine Article: Appalachian Mountain Club

November/December 2000
A Rough Stretch of Trail
By David Dobbs
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Photo © George Wuerthner

If you’ve spent much time in the White Mountain National Forest of New Hampshire, you likely know about the Appalachian Mountain Club. Perhaps you obtained maps, directions or a meal; took a nature walk at the AMC’s Pinkham Notch visitors center; hiked a few of the 1,200 miles of trails the club works to maintain; bunked in one of its seven alpine huts; or, if your luck ran out, had your fanny saved by one of the search-and-rescue crews it helps staff.

If so, you joined the millions who benefit each year from one of the U.S. Forest Service’s longest-running partnerships. Many national forests depend on private concessionaires to perform a variety of functions, but perhaps no other forest relies as heavily on a private group as the White Mountain National Forest does on the AMC. As the primary provider of recreation and interpretive services at the popular national forest (6 million visitors annually), the club directly serves more than 300,000 people each year through its huts and its visitors center (the largest one on the forest) and indirectly serves millions more through its trail work. The influence of the club is so ubiquitous at the 780,000-acre forest that it’s hard to imagine the place without it.

These days, as the shift toward Forest Service partnerships with commercial recreation vendors breeds concern about the “Disneyfication” of public lands, the AMCÐWhite Mountain National Forest partnership seems an attractive, not to mention time-tested, alternative.

But the partnership is far from a controversy-free alliance. Over the past decade, a local backlash against the AMC’s growing environmental advocacy has greatly complicated the relationship—and angered rural residents living near the forest. A current example is the group’s vocal backing of President Clinton’s proposal to protect 43 million acres of national forest roadless areas. Although the vast majority of these pristine lands are in the West, some are in the eastern part of the country, including the White Mountain National Forest. A vocal contingent of northern New Hampshire residents wants to see the White Mountain National Forest exempted from the plan.

“[The AMC’s] lack of understanding about the surrounding communities has put both them and the Forest Service in a difficult position,” says Ned Therrien, a spokesman for the White Mountain National Forest from 1970 to 1995 and an active club member for much of that time. “It’s too bad. Because otherwise it’s just the sort of [public-private sector] relationship you’d want.”

The club was formed in 1876 by Bostonians who, responding to the romanticism of nature that was in vogue then, had taken to traveling north—on train tracks laid to carry logs south—to hike the Whites, New England’s highest range and the only one with extensive area above treeline. The hikers formed the AMC initially for mountaineering companionship and support. In 1888, they built the club’s first hut, in the col between Mounts Adams and Madison. Over the following decades, they built six more, as well as, in 1920, the Pinkham Notch visitors center, which became the club’s White Mountain headquarters (the main AMC offices remained in Boston).

The AMC’s interest in recreation inevitably spawned advocacy, as the sensibility that found beauty in the Whites clashed with the harsh reality of nineteenth-century timber harvesting. Appalled by the scope and intensity of the logging, the AMC played a key role in persuading Congress to pass the Weeks Act of 1911, which established the White Mountain and other eastern national forests. Yet even as the AMC delved into policy arenas, its soul remained the hut and trail system it had established in the Whites.

The Forest Service, for its part, found the AMC integral to its White Mountain operations because the club provided in abundance what are now deemed “recreation services”—trails, lodging, maps, supplies, rescue services and advice. In recognition of these services, the agency charged the club members no fee to use the forest or its facilities. This partnership was formalized in 1934 with a thirty-year special-use permit. In 1965, a renewal extended the arrangement another thirty years, allowing the club to operate its hut system and the visitor center at Pinkham Notch “for the purpose of furnishing meals, lodgings, and minor commissary items to the general public” and authorizing it to levy charges “no greater than necessary and equitable to repay the reasonable cost of operations and maintenance and of services furnished.”

For most of the twentieth century, the club ran its White Mountain facilities very much in a public servant spirit, which sat just fine with area residents. The club sometimes engaged in advocacy, pushing for expansions of the forest, weighing in on forest plans and supporting the landmark Wilderness Act of 1964. But any local resentment raised by this work—and by the yearly summer invasion of well-heeled hikers “from away”—was quieted by the tourist dollars the club’s amenities drew.

The hiking boom of the 1970s and 1980s made the AMC even more indispensable to the Forest Service and resulted in an increase in the club’s professional and volunteer staff, an expansion of the visitors center, and a growing menu of educational and interpretive programs.

But the larger club stumbled. It overextended itself with environmental initiatives and a couple of land purchases (some in the White Mountains, some elsewhere) that left it debt-ridden. Meanwhile, membership numbers stagnated as the organization found itself hobbled, in an age of increasing environmental activism, by its image as a tweedy, old-fashioned New England hiking group—“old Dartmouth people with knobby knees,” as one observer characterized the stereotype. The club grew much more slowly than other environmental groups did at the time, as potential members joined more dynamic organizations like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. Even those of a more traditional bent found environmentally active regional groups, such as the Society for the Protection for New Hampshire Forests and state Audubon societies, more attractive.

A sign of the growing environmental awareness came in the late 1980s, when the surrounding region—the 26 million acres of hardwood and spruce-fir forest covering upstate New York and northern New England—was dubbed by local and national environmental organizations as “the Northern Forest,” a bioregion threatened by overcutting and sprawl. The AMC was not at the forefront of this initiative—which essentially sought to slow development of the entire area. Not long after its 100th anniversary, the club was in danger of becoming a fringe player in a critical debate about the future of the entire region.

In 1989, club leaders moved to remedy that. They hired a new director, Andy Falender, and filled a new policy position, director of conservation, with a smart young activist named Steve Blackmer. During the 1990s this new team succeeded in expanding the club’s membership from 35,000 to 80,000, tightening its operations and bottom line and making the AMC a key player in the intensifying debate about how to protect the national forest and the surrounding region. The AMC was back, and bigger than ever.

Unfortunately, by making itself a major player in regional environmental politics, the AMC stirred up a good deal of local resentment. While the trouble played itself out in a confusing swirl of events, hindsight makes it possible to pick out a few key causes.

One factor was the Northern Forest initiative, which had become a hot button issue. Residents long accustomed to solitude (and to thinking of themselves as living in the North Country rather than the Northern Forest) were growing uneasy about several things: the buying up of “wilderness lots” by wealthy outsiders; accelerating, often destructive timber harvesting, even as log exports and papermill automation reduced jobs; and the growing attention given the region by environmental groups and state and federal regulatory agencies.

“Big changes were happening fast,” says Blackmer, who left the AMC in 1998 (amicably) to found the Northern Forest Center, a research group. “AMC didn’t drive those changes. But we became the messengers who got shot.

“Plus,” concedes Blackmer, with the sort of chuckle that distance allows, “as Reagan once put it, ÔMistakes were made.’ That is, the AMC—by which I include myself—bumbled some things. The FERC thing, for starters.”

The “FERC thing” was a blowup over the AMC’s participation in the early 1990s in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s repermitting process for a dam on the Androscoggin River owned by the James River Paper Company. Despite shedding a couple of thousand jobs over the previous two decades, James River’s paper mill in nearby Berlin was still the county’s biggest employer. The AMC and other groups sought to condition the dam’s relicensing on (among other things) the conservation of company land some twenty miles distant. Though this condition rose from both ecological logic and political precedent, it struck many residents as holding the company’s health—and jobs—hostage to an environmental agenda. The move infuriated many locals. When the AMC neglected to send a representative to a key hearing, the occasion became an AMC bashing session that attracted wide press coverage and fanned the flames of smoldering resentment.

“The whole thing made it seem the AMC didn’t care to pay attention to local concerns, legitimate or otherwise,” says Jamie Sayen, an environmental activist and wilderness advocate who lives in nearby Stratford. “By the time the AMC woke up, they had a real problem.”

Indeed they did. In 1994, the heat over the dam relicensing grew so intense that the AMC removed itself from the whole process. By then the controversy over the club’s handling of the matter had galvanized a rather formidable coalition of AMC critics. Two of the most energetic and effective, Mike Waddell and Bruce Sloat, were former AMC employees whose knowledge of the club’s White Mountain operations, coupled with their history of work in other local civic and governmental bodies, made them forceful adversaries. Both men, as well as a handful of other determined critics, such as David Guernsey, a selectman in nearby Kingfield, Maine, and Fred King, another prominent local official, spent hundreds, possibly thousands, of hours in the 1990s holding the club’s feet to the fire—supported at least in part by local residents who shared some of their complaints.

Club defenders dismiss the most strident AMC critics as ideologues grinding personal axes—a criticism seemingly buttressed by the critics’ vehemence. They also say that many of the complaints came from disgruntled former employees. Edith Tucker, a local journalist, said several ex-workers felt mistreated as the group grew into a larger organization. “[A lot of] former AMC employees [and] volunteers [felt] they were ill used as the club profession-alized its operations. People who used to write for their guidebook, for instance, and now they don’t because the club hired professionals to write it, and no one ever thanked them for all those years they did it for free. People who feel the club moved into a different economic reality, a focus on getting bigger, and began acting differently.”

The stew of resentments, rallied and sharpened by the FERC flap, soon found a new focal point: the AMC’s 1995 application for renewal of its thirty-year hut permit. Critics forced a full-scale review of the application, including the production of an environmental impact statement that took the AMC until 1998 to complete.

Those who pressed for a vigorous review were in part playing a game of turnabout-is-fair-play. The AMC’s critics took advantage of the time-consuming review process that conservation groups, including the AMC, had so often utilized to try to stop or delay projects. Still, there was a legitimate environmental concern: the impact of the AMC’s network of huts on the fragile, high-altitude ecosystem in which they are situated. But that issue was overshadowed by the claim, pursued vigorously by AMC critics, that the club improperly used its White Mountain facilities to fund and propagate an agenda hostile to local concerns.

The complaint boiled down to three basic charges:

1) The club had abused the terms of its 1965 permit by conducting both sales and advocacy activities far beyond the furnishing of “meals, lodgings, and minor commissary” the permit specified.

2) The club abused its privileged position on federal land (and its de facto monopoly on the hut business) by conducting advocacy activities contrary to the forest’s public mission.

3) The organization cooked its hut-system books to hide profits (estimated by Sloat and others at about a million dollars) that funded the advocacy work.

The Forest Service took these charges seriously enough to require a full-blown review of the permit—but not enough to deny the permit itself. Forest Supervisor Donna Hepp’s April 1999 decision (upheld later by the agency’s regional office) refuted the critics’ main arguments, noting that the AMC’s audited financial statements, far from proving that the club was hiding profits, showed that the AMC was losing money on its White Mountain facilities. As for the claim that the club was improperly pushing its environmental agenda, Hepp noted that as long as the AMC didn’t violate IRS limitations on the lobbying activities of nonprofit organizations, the group could say whatever it wanted in its programs.

Hepp did place new financial reporting requirements on the club. She also directed the club to take steps to make its huts more environmentally friendly—such as upgrading waste disposal and water treatment systems and ending the club’s midsummer helicopter supply flights (which had generated complaints about noise). But Hepp allowed the club to continue to operate the huts—and to continue the education and environmental research that so irked its critics. She justified this portion of her decision on the principle of free speech and the “net public benefit to the overall AMCÐForest Service partnership and the public.” If AMC critics wanted the club’s activities radically curbed or ended, they would have to wait until the permit came up for renewal again in 2025.

With the permit issue settled, the question now is not whether the AMCÐForest Service partnership will exist but how much political friction it will produce.

Only time will tell. The club has launched several programs to improve relationships with local communities, helping create environmental curricula for schools, supporting a Northern Forest Heritage Museum that celebrates the forest-based economy and culture, and working with the city of Berlin to create a business development center designed to grow new, low-impact businesses. With this work under way and the permit in hand, club officials hope for smoother going.

“Though I can’t say we were glad to go through all this,” says AMC deputy director and Pinkham Notch director Walter Graff, “we see it as a plus now. It taught us a lot—particularly that we need to do a better job working with the local communities—and gave us credibility. Are the wounds healed? That will take awhile. But I think we’re through the worst of it.”

Perhaps. But already another controversy is brewing, this time over AMC support of the Forest Service’s proposal to protect 43 million acres of unroaded lands. That stand has confirmed in the minds of many locals the suspicion that the club, despite its stated support for continued harvesting on the rest of the White Mountain National Forest, in truth supports a no-cut agenda.

The prospect of more such issues has some observers assessing the trail ahead as rather rough and steep.

“There’s a philosophical divide here that won’t go away easily,” says Tucker, the reporter. “Those that live here think the woods are to be used, and they’ll tell you that’s the way God intended it. There are people with the AMC who also think they know what God intended for these woods. The two ideas don’t necessarily match.”

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Forest Magazine is published by Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, P.O. Box 11615, Eugene, OR 97440. The views expressed in Forest Magazine are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect FSEEE’s position or that of the Forest Service. Copyright © 2008 Forest Service Employees For Environmental Ethics.

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