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Is Mount Washington’s Peaking Popularity Putting It At Risk?

The peak of Mount Washington. Photo by Annie Ropeik for NHPR

The peak of Mount Washington. Photo by Annie Ropeik for NHPR

A long-running debate is heating up on top of New Hampshire’s highest peak. It’s attracting more visitors every year, but some fear its delicate ecosystems are at risk from proposed development and overuse.

As you near the top of Mount Washington, the trees get shorter and shorter and finally disappear. This is the highest mountain in the Northeastern U.S., crowned with an alpine zone – a bare, windswept slope of yellow-green grass, endangered flowers and fragile lichens.

Naturalist David Govatski rattles off the flora: “I can see some really nice patches of diapensia,” he says, pointing out cushions of tiny white flowers growing between the rocks. “I can see some deer hair sedge, Bigelow’s sedge, there’s some Lapland Rosebay…”

Govatski first climbed this mountain when he was 14. Since then, he’s hiked every foot of the White Mountain National Forest’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.

“That’s actually the area where the hotel would be,” he says. “You can see how close it would be.”

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.

The idea has drawn major opposition since it was first made public. That reignited recently after the Cog cleared a maintenance trail along its tracks.

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