FRANCONIA — District 3 state Sen. Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro was elected chair of the Mount Washington Commission on June 19 at an in-person meeting at Peabody Lodge in Franconia Notch State Park.
The MWC is a 12-member stakeholder group that consults with and advises the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources on the management of the 60.3-acre state park located on the 6,288-foot summit.
Bradley is an enthusiastic who has completed the White Mountains Grid — climbing all 48 of the state’s 4,000-footers in each month of the year.
Walter Graff of Randolph, recently retired from his post as AMC’s senior vice chairman and also stepped down from the MWC.
Director of the Division of Parks and Recreation Phil Bryce thanked Graff for his work as chair.
Bryce recalled that he had worked with Graff on forest and trails issues years ago when he lived in Milan and worked in the Woodlands Division of Brown Company successors.
Ed Bergeron of North Conway, who founded HEB Engineering and in 2015 served as interim executive director of the Mt. Washington Observatory, was elected vice chairman, replacing Cog president Wayne Presby of Littleton, who conducted the election. This was the first time the MWC had met since Aug. 6, 2019.
Bryce was elected secretary-treasurer. He noted that whoever held that post had a highly dependable state employee, Torene Tango-Lowy, serving as MWC clerk.
Chris Thayer of Sugar Hill now represents the AMC, and Howie Wemyss of Randolph will continue to represent the Mt. Washington Auto Road, despite retiring as general manager.
Two locals who represent the public were also on hand: former Rep. Paul Ingersoll of Berlin and Rep. Wayne Moynihan of Dummer.
The public is also represented by former Obs board chair Paul Fitzgerald of Laconia.
Attorney Jack Middleton of Freedom officially represents the Obs, whose executive director Sharon Schilling recently resigned.
Mt. Washington State Park manager Patrick Hummel reported on the recommendations of Underwood Engineers of Concord and Portsmouth. The number of visitors in the Sherman Adams Building has exceeded the estimates made when the sewage treatment plant was designed and installed some 10 years ago, accelerating the wear-and-tear on wastewater treatment plant equipment, specifically chosen because it could operate in very cold temperatures.
Underwood’s estimate for replacing the facility is some $2.4 million, exceeding the project’s capital budget appropriation of $1.87 million by roughly $500,000.
The consultants built a “30% visitor growth factor” into its proposed design, but the project’s “critical review” take place until later this summer.
If everything comes together, construction could begin a year from now in June 2021, Hummel said.
The project’s budget shortfall could be made up from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, that in the Granite State would be spent 60% on local projects and 40% on state parks.
The MWC agreed that a separate meeting — likely on one of the last two Fridays in August — should be held to discuss this hot issue. The engineers must also consider is whether the WMNF/USFS will worried if a larger-capacity plant might discharge additional nutrients onto U.S.-owned property, home to alpine plants, just below the state park’s boundary line.
Presby said he believes it’s important for the MWC to discuss the summit’s capacity head-on, and not just indirectly when discussing the proposed septic system.
Bryce suggested that the two commercial stakeholders — the Auto Road and the Cog — were in the best position to limit the number of visitors arriving at any one time. “Hikers come from all directions,” he said. Bryce emphasized that having no control over the number of people on the summit could not continue. “We’re talking about the long-term future of Mount Washington,” he pointed out.
COVID-19 has highlighted the issue, and Bryce has been deeply involved in dealing with square feet, masks, distancing, and spacing when shopping, buying and eating food as well as when using toilets and hand-washing at sinks. “Bathrooms are chokepoints at state parks; under the guidelines they must be cleaned every two hours,” he said.
The 2019 visitation figures were 5,000 per day for an average of 500 per hour.
“In order to provide for social distancing within the SAB, we would need to cap capacity at 100 people at a time to permit for adequate spacing and for people to move about,” Bryce said, reading from a detailed report. “This assumes that everything is open, including the Obs’ museum. Remember, Park staff is funded by on-site revenue.”
No decision has yet been made as to whether or not the SAB will open this summer. Bryce said that it would likely take two weeks to prepare the building for visitors.
Middleton said that the first time he climbed to the summit back in 1939 or 1940, the summit hotel charged 50 cents to enter. He urged that an admission charge be considered.
Bradley said he knows the MWC role is “advisory in nature” but asked that Bryce keep members informed about the Parks’ decision, especially because of its importance to the North Country’s tourist economy.
DNCR Commissioner Sarah Stewart said that the world had changed since the state’s capital budget was approved. “It’s a very different time,” she said, pointing to an estimated $100 million revenue loss in the General Fund. Some approved projects for which contracts were not yet signed have been delayed or canceled.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” Bradley, adding that there may be additional CARES ACT stimulus funds coming from Washington and that the governor may call a special legislative session to address the budget.
Although the governor has not mandated that masks be worn inside public spaces, Bradley said he did not believe there would be a problem mandating they be worn inside the SAB.
Recalling the recent past, Bryce said that visitors overwhelmed the small staff at Monadnock State park immediately after the governor’s state-of-emergency order in mid-March. “On March 21, 400 cars showed up. For a while office staff was pressed into cleaning pit toilets,” he said.
The state’s computerized campground reservation system has accommodated to making day-and-time-slot reservations at Monadnock, solving the problem. The Department wants to protect and provide safe
working conditions for staff while welcoming and providing safe conditions for visitors. Some other Park facilities now require reservations, including Flume Gorge in Lincoln,
Jericho in Berlin; and Echo Lake Beaches in Franconia and North Conway. Information is on the N.H. State Parks website. The Aerial Tramway is not in operation.
Thayer reported that although the AMC high huts will not open, there will be limited service at Madison Spring and Lakes of the Clouds: bathrooms open, water available outside, and trail information. An AMC caretaker and a volunteer will be on hand.
Some AMC North Country programs — JAG at Berlin High School and Camp Dodge — will also be available, but only 3 to 5 trail crew members will be at work, mostly on grant-funded projects. Usually there are 15 to 20. More information is available on AMC’s website.