The AMC Huts: Good For Another Thirty Years?

March 1999

 [The White Mountain National Forest is an interesting area of Federal land. Because there was no Federal land in the original colonies, Congress had to authorize establishment of the forest, which was done under the Weeks Act of 1911. The state had to approve the establishment plan. The land had to be purchased from private land owners. Some land was condemned, but it appears the majority of condemnations occurred with willing sellers, who needed the legal process to legitimize their titles.   As it is in the Western United States, there are many issues surrounding Federal land ownership in New Hampshire, and how the land is administered. Some of the issues and problems are reviewed in this essay from nearly 20 years ago.]

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On 29 January 1999, the U. S. Forest Service decided to issue a new 30-year permit for the Appalachian Mountain Club to continue operating their chain of hikers' huts in the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. This came after nearly five years of "public involvement", which included "public listening sessions" and culminated in a 500-page Environmental Impact Statement [EIS] that took two years to complete. This decision by the Forest Supervisor could have been appealed to the Regional Forester, but it wasn't. So, case closed for another thirty years? I doubt it.

"The huts" need a little explaining to many people. There are seven of these mini-hotels spaced a day's walk apart from one another across the high ridges of the White Mountains. They were built between 1888 and 1966, the earliest of them actually pre-dating the establishment of the National Forest. For a fee, you can have a bunk for the night and a couple of "pretty good" family-style meals. The huts are nearly always full during their summer operating season.

Staying in bunkhouses in the mountains is not everyone's cup of tea. I know it wasn't mine, when I made my first hut trip in 1970. I grew up camping and hiking in the Sierra Nevada and in the Cascades, where backpacking was a wilderness experience, and one did not intentionally take off on a hard day's hike to end up at the close of day in a little house crammed with noisy people. I still can't say that I like staying in the huts. Still, I've come to believe that having the hut-camping alternative has saved this relatively small area - which, by the way, receives more use than most national parks - from severe degradation. Not everyone agrees with me, and that was a part of the overall issue under consideration in the permit renewal process.

From 1994 on, the AMC huts were major news in the North Country. By 1996, few weeks went by when the local newspapers didn't have major stories, editorials, or commentary on the AMC and the permit renewal. "Forum", the local radio talk show, was indeed a forum for outpourings of feeling - mostly negative - about the AMC. As the EIS process itself kicked into gear, there were a variety of public meetings held to elicit both opinion and constructive ideas. There was no shortage of "public involvement."

As is true in most controversial and emotional situations, the issues were varied and complicated:

  • Some felt that having the huts in the mountains was causing, or at least contributing strongly to, environmental degradation. The concerns were further delineated as (a) physical damage at the hut sites because of the presence of so many people in a limited area; and (b) a perception that the huts "encouraged" people to come to the mountains, thereby increasing the risk of environmental damage.
  • Some groups had a stated agenda of returning the White Mountains to more of a "wilderness" status, in which the hut system was perceived as incompatible.
  • Some objected to the AMC using federal lands to push "the AMC agenda", which was perceived by some as anti-logging and anti-economic development.
  • Some thought the hut rates were too high, and that the AMC was making money off the federal lands.
  • Some thought the AMC should pay an up-front fee for their operating permit, which had not been required previously.
  • Some were clearly out to punish the AMC for what was termed their "environmental advocacy" on other issues in the North Country, particularly their involvement with other environmental groups in seeking to influence the re-licensing of some North Country dams run by timber and utility companies.

In the press release announcing the decision to extend the AMC's hut system permit, the Forest Service had little to say about specific issues. The authorization to continue hut operations was based on "net public benefit to the overall AMC/Forest Service partnership and the public." No real changes in the program are required, although some emphasis is placed on "annual monitoring and mitigation of possible effects." I suspect the decision is the best one possible, but I also suspect that it is a very unsatisfying one for many of those who had an interest in the process. I think a common sentiment in the North Country may be that "the Government screwed us, again."

Because this was one of those "wheels within wheels" situations, where the hut reauthorization was really just a sub-plot in a much bigger play, I feel it would have been virtually impossible to design a public participation strategy to effectively deal with that specific issue. Still, I see some things worth commenting about. [Of course I do; it's my webpage!]

Deciding to do an Environmental Impact Statement

There were demands for an EIS as early as 1994, yet the formal decision to prepare the full-blown product did not come until late in 1996, or maybe even in early 1997. I hate EIS preparation [not conceptually, but because they usually contain a lot more paper than they do good analysis], so I can understand an agency's reluctance to saddle themselves with what is usually an extreme commitment of staff time and money. Whether or not something is "a major federal action" is often legitimately debatable. Still, the local socio-political climate was such that major controversy was almost unavoidable. Consider:

  • The spotted owl-logging controversy was in full swing in the Pacific Northwest, and those in the North Country were in mortal fear that somehow the same thing was going to happen to them.
  • Preservation of the Northern Forests was a hot topic, and many in the North Country were viewing the whole process as prelude to a "government takeover."
  • Certain preservationist groups were lobbying for national park status for vast areas of the northern forest. Others were beginning what became a major anti-clearcutting initiative.
  • The "wise use" movement was in full flower in the North Country, with groups pushing as hard for "landowner rights" and reduced government control as the preservationists were pushing for more controls.

All things considered, failure to implement some sort of process at any early date was certain to be construed as a "government plot", or at least another example of "the government" not taking the needs of the local community to heart.

Perceiving true issues and real "publics"

For years, in speaking and teaching, I have used the AMC as an example of a "good" environmental group, one that not only talks a good talk, but actually works with others [particularly the Forest Service] on environmental issues. [This is in contrast to the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and many others who are best at taking others to task for things done or undone, and who have used the lawsuit much more often than they have utilized the workshop or negotiating table.] Despite what I think, I am sure that the prevailing thought in the North Country is that the AMC is (as expressed in an editorial in a local paper) a "high class, snobby, elitist organization." To the majority of North Country locals, the AMC are people "from Boston" trying to force their values on the local people.

This may seem odd, because the AMC has very clearly earned its place in the White Mountains. "North of the notches", however, is a different world. I believe that the majority of people in the North Country are interested in the White Mountains only philosophically. Yes, some hike, and a few have visited the huts, but in general the White Mountains are perceived as the playground for folks from "away". North Country people don't claim the White Mountains until there is talk of logging cutbacks, establishment of a national park, payment of fees for trail use [even if they don't use the trails], or other evidence of increased government control over "their" land.

What I am trying to say with all this rambling is that there were two very different sets of issues to be dealt with in this hut re-permitting process, and two very different "publics." Those who were really interested in the huts showed up at the various public meetings as very strongly pro-AMC [except for those who considered the huts as infringing on "wilderness" values]. Most of those others who were so negative to the AMC were really sending a message that they don't like "outsiders" deciding what to do with their county. For all intents and purposes, the AMC was "the government" interfering.

It is much easier to keep the public involved and informed when there is a clear-cut question to be resolved [e.g., should we issue a new permit for the AMC huts]. The only way to deal with philosophical differences [e.g., the role of government control over lands] is to develop long-term relationships in the communities involved. It is hard - sometimes impossible - to get beyond being an "outsider", but over the long-term you can become an "outsider" who "understands."

Even though the AMC was contributing greatly to the North Country economy, and even though their land use philosophies were generally quite compatible with North Country needs and desires, they hadn't made a great effort to be part of the community "north of the notches". Recently, and largely as a result of the huts controversy, AMC has established some important outreach in the North Country. If they stick with their commitment to work with the community, they should be much better prepared for the next controversy.

Sending mixed signals

Both the Forest Service and the AMC contributed to the confusion by indecisiveness, and by apparently "changing their mind" for suspect reasons. I noted above how slow the Forest Service was to commit to a formal EIS. The AMC also did its share of confusing. For example, in June 1995, AMC President Fallender was quoted as saying that AMC would do an EIS even if the Forest Service didn't request one. In February 1996, after the issue had really heated up, AMC public affairs director Burbank was quoted in the same paper as saying that AMC didn't feel an EIS was needed - that it was entirely up to the Forest Service whether or not one was done.

Some of the good things that AMC did were also looked on with suspicion, because of timing. AMC established a North Country office in Gorham; they suggested that the Forest Service set up a local advisory committee to help with long-term hut management; and they announced some new rate policies that substantially reduced the price of some hut stays. All of these resulted in cynical responses locally, because it looked like AMC was trying to "buy" goodwill - maybe, some suggested, only until the permit was issued and then they would go back to their old ways!

Most of the cynicism was, in my opinion, unwarranted, but even the most trusting soul had to wonder about some happenings. For instance, almost in the same mail with the copy of AMC "Outdoors" that had AMC President Fallender's editorial that "we have heard your concerns" and are making changes, was an impassioned fund-raising letter from him to AMC members. It talked about the "powerful forces that would have our permit denied", forces that "abuse the land because [they] regard it as a commodity belonging to [them]", and who "want to return the nation to the laissez-faire days of a disastrous environmental past." Talk about reinforcing the "Us vs. Them" climate.

 Some of the earliest training I received in working with the public concerned establishing "informed consent." At its most basic, what this means is that you are able to do what you want to do because: (1) you have made the public understand what it is that you want to do; and (2) you have convinced them that, even if they don't really like what it is you want to do, it isn't important enough to them that they will fight you about it. That sounds pretty cynical, but in many ways it was a giant step forward - it was an acknowledgment that the public should be informed, at least. But it still looks at public participation in decision-making as a process (with the resultant EISes, cookie-cutter workshops, etc.), rather than as a way of life. The kinds of issues we deal with today - preservation of the Northern Forest, spotted owl, salmon in the Northwest, disposal of nuclear waste, urban expansion-agriculture preservation interfaces - cannot be handled by process, alone. They require long-term interaction and understanding. What happened with the AMC hut permit should serve as a reminder of these needs.

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