If you’ve climbed any of the more popular peaks in the White Mountains, you’ve probably seen or spoken to an Alpine Steward or Stewardess. Their job is to educate visitors about the rare plants and grasses found high up on mountains, above treeline, in the alpine zone. These plant communities are extremely fragile and have very short growing seasons, lasting just 2 months of the year, when they’re NOT covered in snow and ice.
The biggest threat to the rare plants of the alpine zone is trampling by hikers visiting the peaks, so the main job of the Alpine Stewards is to educate them about the need to stay on established trails. If you look carefully at the placement of trails above treeline on Mt Lafayette, Mt Washington, or Mt Moosilauke, you’ll see that the scree walls and trails stay on bare rock, and carefully guide hikers away from fragile plant life.
As hikers, the most important thing we can do to protect the plants in thealpine zone is to stay on solid rock above treeline and not venture off established trails in large groups. Frequent trampling kills fragile plants and reduces their tenuous foothold on life.
First developed by the Green Mountain Club in the 1970’s, the Alpine Steward program has since been adopted by the Adirondack Mountain Club, the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Dartmouth Outing Club, and Baxter State Park in partnership with the Nature Conservancy, The Waterman Fund, and the US Forest Service.
In the White Mountains, Stewards are volunteers who receive room and board while they’re working, gear and uniforms, and numerous training opportunities. In addition to climbing the same mountain every day (not a bad job if you can get it), their responsibilities include:
- Demonstrating appropriate alpine zone behavior and Leave No Trace ethics.
- Approaching hikers to provide education on the alpine zone environment, ecology, and Leave No Trace practices.
- Approaching visitors causing a negative impact on the alpine zone to provide education in a friendly, educational manner.
- Providing information to visitors about safety concerns, particularly regarding weather.
- Communicating information concerning Forest Service backcountry camping regulations and Leave No Trace principles, as needed or requested.
If you ever climb Franconia Ridge, chances are good that you’ll encounter a Alpine Steward or Stewardess on the summit of Mt Lafayette or Mount Lincoln and see their work in action. There’s also a series of posters where you can learn more about the Stewardship program posted within the Greenleaf Hut on the Old Bridle Path Trail as you climb Mt Lafayette.
When you meet that Steward or Stewardess, make a point to thank them for their service. Rain or shine, they’re on top of our high peaks protecting and conserving the Alpine Zone so that future generations can enjoy the Wilderness as do we.