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The Fight Over New Hampshire's Tallest Mountain


New Hampshire's Mount Washington, the highest mountain in the Northeast, is attracting more visitors every year. But it's also home to delicate ecosystems that some fear could suffer from overuse. New Hampshire Public Radio's Annie Ropeik has this story from the summit on how to keep that peak welcoming but wild.

ANNIE ROPEIK, BYLINE: As you near the top of Mount Washington, the trees get shorter and shorter and finally disappear. This is the alpine zone - a bare, windswept slope of yellow-green grass, endangered flowers and fragile lichens.

DAVID GOVATSKI: I can see some deer's hair sedge, Bigelow's sedge. And there's some Lapland rosebay.

ROPEIK: Naturalist David Govatski first climbed the mountain when he was 14. Since then, he's climbed every foot of the region's 1,400 miles of trails. He leads me down one of them - an ankle-bending, rocky path that's part of the Appalachian Trail. And he points down the mountainside.

GOVATSKI: That's actually the area where the hotel would be. You can see how close it would be.

ROPEIK: The hotel is a plan from the Mount Washington Cog Railway, which runs tourist trains up the mountain and owns a narrow strip of land for its tracks. The potential hotel would straddle those tracks in the alpine zone. But not everyone's on board. Molly Carmody from Massachusetts is hiking by on her way to the summit. She thinks this place should remain an escape from society.

MOLLY CARMODY: To get to someplace where you can only get by the power of your body is pretty cool.

ROPEIK: But right above us, there are hundreds of people at the summit visitors center who did not use their bodies to get here. Hiking is not the only way to scale Mount Washington. You can pay to take the train or drive the hairpin turns of a private toll road. Both have been here since the 1800s. And they're getting more popular every year. In the gift shop, with windows looking out on panoramic views and high blue sky, Jodie Heal and her 5-year-old son Austin are buying postcards to send home to family in Maine. They drove the mountain last time they visited and took the train this year. Heal says she's not sure they'd have come if the summit had no facilities.

JODIE HEAL: Especially traveling will children, they don't always hike very well, so it's nice when we get up here that if they're hungry, we can get food. And if they want to get a souvenir, they can. So...

ROPEIK: Outside, dozens of people wait in line for a photo with a pile of rocks marking the summit. And Cog Railway trains chug out of their station, heading down the mountain. I meet Cog owner Wayne Presby at their base station. He says his hotel could boost this rural economy and ease the strain on other overcrowded mountain facilities.

WAYNE PRESBY: I think we're one of the key pieces of the economy for Mount Washington and for tourism in general in the state of New Hampshire.

ROPEIK: Presby would need a special county permit to build his hotel in the alpine zone. But he thinks it'd be worth it. He says people who don't hike up the mountain want to enjoy that environment just as much as hikers do. And he thinks they'll respect it.

PRESBY: People like to visit mountain tops, and not all of them are capable of hiking. People need refuge when the weather gets bad, so I think there's any number of reasons why there's a need for additional facilities up there.

ROPEIK: This year, New Hampshire plans to find out exactly how much need there is with a study of Mount Washington's carrying capacity. It could help settle some debate over if and how this iconic summit can be accessible to everyone and still remain wild. For NPR News, I'm Annie Ropeik. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Annie Ropeik reports on state economy and business issues for all Indiana Public Broadcasting stations, from a home base of WBAA. She has lived and worked on either side of the country, but never in the middle of it. At NPR affiliate KUCB in Alaska's Aleutian Islands, she covered fish, oil and shipping and earned an Alaska Press Club Award for business reporting. She then moved 4,100 miles to report on chickens, chemicals and more for Delaware Public Media. She is originally from the D.C. suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland, but her mom is a Hoosier. Annie graduated from Boston University with a degree in classics and philosophy. She performs a mean car concert, boasts a worryingly encyclopedic knowledge of One Direction lyrics and enjoys the rule of threes. She is also a Hufflepuff.
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