In the near future, hikers working their way up the western side of Mount Washington could encounter a startling sight: a hotel straddling the Cog Railway tracks. The railway unveiled a preliminary plan in December to build a two-story, 25,000-square foot hotel on its 99-foot-wide strip of land above 5,000 feet and is currently working on a formal proposal to bring before New Hampshire’s Coos County planning board. Many environmental and outdoor groups, including AMC, New Hampshire Audubon, and The Nature Conservancy, have voiced strong concerns about the plan.
“To build something within a mile of the summit, abutting the Appalachian Trail, and add a brand-new structure in the alpine zone is representative of developmental sprawl in one of the most critical habitats we have in the state,” says Ken Kimball, AMC’s director of research.
Mount Washington has seen significant development over time. Beginning in the 19th century, when both the railway and the original auto road were constructed, the summit was home to a succession of large hotels. AMC’s Lakes of the Clouds Hut, located in the col between Mount Monroe and Mount Washington, opened in 1915.
But in recent years, the public has come to appreciate the ecological and scenic integrity of wild places. Since 1980, when the current visitor center and Mount Washington Observatory replaced the last of the summit’s hotels, there has been little significant construction high on the mountain.
“In the old days, it was just called wasteland, or barren land, and that’s because, to the people then, it didn’t have any economic value,” says David Govatski, a founding member of the group Keep the Whites Wild, which opposes the hotel. “But today we have a much better understanding of nature and the environment.”
“You could just go in a circle 500 feet away from that proposed site, and you’re talking about 40 species of plants and animals that are endangered species on the state of New Hampshire list,” Govatski says. Among those that could be affected by construction and guest traffic are Bigelow’s sedge, a grass; the White Mountain arctic and White Mountain fritillary butterflies; and the American pipit, an arctic bird that nests in the alpine zone.
Kimball has another concern: the hotel’s effect on a treasured viewshed. “A structure of this size would be visible not only from locations in the alpine area itself but also from many areas in the lower valleys,” he says.
Initial reports suggested the Cog Railway was hoping to open a hotel as early as 2019, but according to the company’s owner, Wayne Presby, he is no longer aiming for that deadline. Instead, he says he hopes to file an application within the next year and to begin construction in three to four years. A spokesperson for the White Mountain National Forest, which owns the land on either side of the Cog Railway, says the agency is waiting for more details before commenting on the proposal.
Presby says he plans to operate the hotel between April and November, but with the railway aiming to expand its winter service starting next season, he is exploring the possibility of keeping the hotel open year-round. He disputes the idea that a new hotel would significantly impact its surroundings, arguing that the mountain suffers more damage from hikers than it does from the railway or would from a new hotel.
As part of its December proposal, Cog Railway pledged to build a new sewage line that would transport waste from the existing summit buildings, as well as from the new hotel. While Kimball acknowledges an increase in visitors has put new pressures on the mountain, “The answer isn’t to keep building more,” he says. “We need to look at new solutions if we’re actually going to protect these resources.”
Kimball continues: “All of us recognize that the Cog has a long history and is an important economic engine to New Hampshire. But we’re opposed to this specific location for a hotel.” He cites the example of the Auto Road’s Glen House Hotel, which is slated to open in 2018, in Pinkham Notch, as an alternative model. “The Cog could build a valley hotel at their base station where they own sufficient land.”
Read AMC’s response to the plan at outdoors.org/coghotel.