Defending Mount Everett

History, Iconic Communities, On the Road
on December 12, 2004

Residents of the town of Mount Washington (pop. 144) have a fierce loyalty for protecting one of Massachusetts’ tallest peaks and its surrounding forests from development.

When a proposal was floated for placing telecommunications equipment on a fire tower atop Mount Everett’s 2,602-foot summit in the late 1990s, townspeople joined together to defend the mountain’s largely undisturbed landscape, where stunted 170-year-old pitch pines brave fierce winter snowstorms and 250-year-old oak and hemlock trees cling to its steep ravines.

“People here are a feisty lot,” says resident Eleanor Tillinghast, a member of the Mount Everett Research and Protection Fund, which successfully opposed the project.

Feistiness has a long history in the community, where few blink an eye at a rattlesnake slithering across town roads as it migrates from its winter den on Mount Everett. The town’s first settlers, Dutch farmers who fled the tenancy bonds of Hudson River patroon Robert Livingston, set a flinty tone in the late 1600s. Thugs sent to Mount Washington by Livingston murdered one of the settlers and burned several homes but failed to intimidate the locals.

Old-timers recall how townspeople in the early 1950s—all 32 of them—demurred when a commercial airline, as a publicity gimmick, offered to fly them all to Miami for dinner, Tillinghast says. About that time, Mount Washingtonians gained notoriety for declining state assistance even though a percentage of the population fell below the poverty line.

Mount Washington is little changed today, perhaps owing to the fact that much of the surrounding land is protected from development in state forests and reserves. The town center consists of a three-way intersection, a nondenominational church and a town hall. Three-acre zoning has kept subdivisions at bay, although trophy homes are making inroads. Because of their small numbers, residents usually serve on at least one town board, with many sitting on two or three.

When a proposal for a conference center on Mount Everett surfaced in the late 1980s, “literally every person in town wrote a post card opposing it,” Tillinghast says. The proposal swiftly disappeared.

So it was no surprise that residents dug deeply into their pockets when the state floated the telecommunications proposal in the late 1990s. In one weekend, Tillinghast recalls, members of the protection fund raised nearly $13,000—donations ranged from $5 to $6,000—to hire a lawyer.

In 1999, the effort got a needed boost when researchers suggested that Mount Everett might harbor old growth forests. Generally, old growth forests are woodlands that have remained largely undisturbed by human activity since before European settlement and whose trees have reached at least half their expected life span. While Everett’s pitch pine community may not have reached an age considered old growth in the pine’s usual, sandy coastal plain habitat, experts say that these trees have reached their maximum age because of harsh winter conditions on the summit.

A stream of scientists visiting the peak in recent years found not only ancient forest communities but also several rare and endangered species, including a potentially new plant species of lichen. More recently, forest ecologist Tom Wessels, author of Reading the Forested Landscape, spent time studying the ancient oak and hemlock forests just off the summit—with some surprising results.

“Everett may end up having the most extensive area of old growth anywhere in the Northeast,” Wessels says. “This is something no one anticipated.”

Last year, the fire tower was removed from the peak, effectively killing the telecommunications proposal. In the final tally, it may have been the feisty persistence of residents that tipped the balance.

“The reason we’ve got all of this wild, open space here isn’t because no one paid attention,” Tillinghast says. “It’s because a lot of people paid a lot of attention.”