Controversy Over Whether To Allow A New AMC Hut In Crawford Notch State Park

Jan 19, 2016

The AMC's Greenleaf hut just below the summit of Mount Lafayette is one of eight huts, with the first built in 1888.
Credit Chris Jensen for NHPR

For the first time in five decades the Appalachian Mountain Club wants to build a new hut, which would be its ninth,  in the mountains of the North Country.

The group wants the state to lease it land in the almost 6,000 acre Crawford Notch State Park.

But the proposal is controversial and even New Hampshire Fish and Game has objections.

NHPR’s Chris Jensen has been looking into this and spoke recently with Morning Edition host Rick Ganley.

What makes this controversial?

It’s that old balancing act between preserving the environment and economic development

It comes down to whether it is appropriate to allow a business - even a non-profit - to use state land, basically taking “less than five acres” of the wilderness for use by what critics argue is a relatively small number of people.

What is AMC’s proposal?

They want a new hut they might call “Sparkling Cascade.”

Here’s what Paul Cunha, the AMC’s Vice President of Operations, says.

“It has been 50 years since we built our last hut at Mizpah Springs and since then the use has tripled. We are basically at capacity right now, so we are turning away customers.”

“It would be a medium-sized hut located up above Ripley Falls, providing a wonderful connection to the existing hut system with Zealand and Mizpah.”

As part of the process, the state’s has been collecting comments. What kind of response have they had?

Well, when I last checked the department had somewhere around 180 comments.

Those against the hut slightly outnumbered those in favor. 

But one comment against the hut was a petition with more than 800 names.

After looking at the comments filed with the Department of Resources and Economic Development, who is in favor of the hut?

There are a lot of AMC members in favor, including Laurie Gabriel, of Jackson, a former member of the AMC's board of directors.

“This creates another opportunity to have a hut nearby, especially families with small kids will be able to use and enjoy,” she said.

Advocates said the new location would be easier to reach for families with small children, nurturing a new generation of outdoor enthusiasts who will love New Hampshire and that is a long-term benefit to the state.

Others in favor argue that overall the huts are wonderful, recreational assets that draw tourists to the region.

There are also politicians like Senator Jeb Bradley, Representative Gene Chandler and Executive Councilor Joe Kenney who cite economic benefits.

Many of the workers in the huts are college students or recent grads and chores include preparing meals, such as breakfast at the Greenleaf hut.
Credit Chris Jensen for NHPR

Is there any economic evidence of that?  Do we know if these huts are moneymakers to the state or the AMC?

That’s not clear. There’s no public information yet about how the deal would work because it is apparently still a work in progress. But critics note AMC pays only about $6,000 a year to lease land for its Lonesome Lake hut in the Franconia State Park.

The AMC does have a new report on how it benefits the state economically. Daniel S. Lee, an economics professor at Plymouth State, looked at the year ending last May.

And the report shows that people from other states who spent the night in either a mountain hut or other AMC lodges “supported” almost $18 million in economic activity statewide.

And that about 73 percent went to businesses other than AMC.  We’re talking gas stations, grocery stores such as gas stations and restaurants.

It’s not clear how much of that the hut system contributes.

So that sounds good, but why are people against it?

Those opposed say it would be a terrible intrusion on an area that is already crowded, it sets a bad precedent for the use of state land and it would hurt nearby inns and motels.

And a big part of it is what people describe as the haves versus have-nots.

It costs around $130 a night to stay in a hut during the busy part of the season, including dinner and breakfast. So, that would be about $500 for a family of four.

Christopher Magness is a mountain guide from North Conway and he opposes the hut. He's the one who started the petition with more than 800 names.  He also raises another issue.  Why is it that only the AMC that’s being considered?

“If this is for economic development, open it for bid and give someone else a chance,” he said.

Two big agencies also have concerns.  Fish and Game is worried the hut could hurt a high-elevation habitat.

Fish and Game quotes a different document in which AMC says such habitats are “a very limited, yet critical component of the Northeastern landscape.”

So, Fish and Game is asking: given its stated concern, why is AMC proposing this?

I asked an AMC official about that and he said as the process moves forward the AMC would make “appropriate adjustments.”

Greenleaf Hut.
Credit Chris Jensen for NHPR

And The White Mountain National Forest is worried the wilderness character of the area will change because the hut would only be a few hundred feet from its boundary.

Where is the process now?

DRED is working on the proposal which ultimately would need the approval of the Executive Council and the governor.

It’s not clear how long the process will take.