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  • Karen Cummings

Listening in on Tom Deans*

The White Mountain National Forest is the most heavily used forest in the eastern United States. There are 1200 miles of trails within its boundaries, with 450 of those maintained by 16 co-operating organizations.

Chief among these is the Appalachian Mountain Club. With 23,000 members and an annual budget in excess of 2 million dollars, the AMC is one of the oldest and most active organizations of its kind in the country.

Tom Deans, the group's Executive Director [in 1978], has been with the AMC for 14 years, and spent many of the summers of his youth as a hutman in the White Mountains. After attending the University of Maine and trying a brief interlude of corporate life in NYC, he returned to the North Country, and now heads the influential AMC. In this interview, Tom reviews a little of the AMC's history, and addresses its changing role in managing the mountains.

What makes the AMC such an unusual and successful organization?

"The AMC is unique among citizen groups in a number of ways. First, we're very old, and probably establishment as far as recreation groups go. The AMC is 102 years old, and was started in Boston in an era when the White Mountains were virtually unknown, unmapped, and unnamed. Its first purposes were to explore and make available to the public the enjoyment of the White Mountains as a focal point. Although there was always a larger overview. Our name, Appalachian Mountain Club, not the Presidential or White Mountain Club, signifies this. In any event, our heritage and age really set us apart.

Our group is successful because it is strongly supported by many, many volunteers, and their input is amazing. A lot of people talk about public organizations, but I think the AMC is one of the best examples of a working model. Volunteers and staff have a partnership in this. The staff may develop some of the background material and policies, and take some of the front line responsibilities for the ongoing coordination with the Forest Service, but the policies are set by a governing board of volunteers. The real commitment to the mountains and hands-on involvement with issues is the key thing."

With the development of RARE I and II,and programs like it, much is said about "public input." How effectively is it handled in the WMNF?

"I know I'm biased, but the model used in the WMNF is probably the best one going, and I don't think there's another in the country that has the degree of real public involvement that the WMNF does. They do a superb job in making it meaningful and not just tokenism, and have really humanized the process. I think some public agencies snow people, bury them in details. In the WMNF, issues are presented in simplistic terms, in ways members of the community can understand. The options are developed by the people, and that's the way its supposed to be."

The AMC was a forerunner in education and research. Would you explore that a little and comment on its changing focus?

"There are a lot of roots you can trace in the club. Opening up the mountains for exploration was one of the cornerstones of the club. The AMC supported many of the early botanists and geologists who came up here to study the flora and fauna. Appalachia, the club's journal, is the oldest continuously published mountaineering journal in the country.

But conditions change, and so do the themes of our research. We are not operating in a vacuum. I think if there's an issue that focuses the greatest contrast in where we were 102 years ago, versus where we may be in 1978, it is the whole question of how much use is good for the mountains. We were successful in convincing people that the back country was a great place to go, and we are strong advocates of the use of the outdoors, but are we loving the mountains to death?"

The AMC was founded to promote use of the mountains. With the growing problems of overuse, how has that role changed?

"The big crush on our outdoor areas, which started in the '60s, forced us to look at our role in promoting the backcountry. We were, through our guidebooks, huts, and trail system, encouraging people to come use the mountains. We still want to provide services and make available the outdoor experience, but I think we're much more careful now as to how we do that.

When it comes to the question of use and overuse, I have felt for some time that it is as much a matter of misuse and mismanagement as it is overuse. There are definitely areas that are overused, but we were teaching people techniques before that simply will not work today. Things like cutting firewood at campsites, pitching tents, and generally hacking out a campsite in the wilderness.

If people are taught to do things differently, to practice "low impact camping," much of the backcountry can accommodate use without leaving a mess. So, the AMC has geared up its education program. Instead of keeping people out, we try to provide them with knowledge."

Again, on the question of high use areas. Many of the AMC's huts are located above treeline, an area noted for its ecological sensitivity. The huts, simply by being there, draw a tremendous number of people. Don't they receive a lot of criticism?

"Of course. I think the huts are one of the most emotional issues when it comes to the protection of the backcountry. It is a question of what's best for the wilderness -- to concentrate use, or disperse it. In fragile areas, like Lake of the Clouds, we feel the impact of people can be better treated by a fixed facility. If the hut wasn't there, I honestly don't know if it would be replaced.

But since they do exist, considering the heritage involved, the lives they've saved by being there, the educational, personal and emotional experiences they provide, they are of value. They extend to people an experience they wouldn't otherwise have, in a way that has the least amount of impact on those very fragile areas. But it is an issue that will continue to cause reaction. The purist sees them as a real infringement on their wilderness experience."

Some restrictions on use and access are inevitable. How do people react?

"It has worked out very well. People understand. I believe strongly in the freedom of the hills and the importance of the outdoor experience. It is a guiding principle and we try to preserve it as much as possible. We only take away from creative choice when absolutely necessary. When you show a person why a restriction is necessary -- if you can meet that test -- people don't mind having a particular right taken away. People aren't going to abide by rules that don't make sense."

Do you see a pattern of change in the way people are using the mountains?

"We are definitely seeing use patterns change in the WMNF. Backcountry use has leveled to a certain extent, although at a tremendously high point. The back-to-nature hiker with a knapsack has become more sophisticated. The initial spark to just get outdoors has evolved into a real yearning to learn something. It's a thoughtful approach. People are coming back with deeper questions and feelings about the outdoors than during the initial phase. It is a coming of age, and an important evolution."

*NOTE: Tom Deans was Executive Director of the Appalachian Mountain Club from January 1975 through March 1988. He is currently Senior Vice President of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and President of the Northern New Hampshire Foundation.

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