Feds and Backcountry Skiers Join Forces to Manage Forests
After years of illegal cuttings, skiers go legit to help with forest management plans
It’s 8:30 A.M. on a sunny Saturday in late February. There are already 30 cars in the Brandon Gap parking lot outside of Goshen, Vermont, and they carry tags from every northeastern state: Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut. A map of the area I printed from the internet shows 20 gladed ski lines in three zones accessible from this parking lot. We buckle boots, press on skins, click into skis, and start shuffling up a well-established and signed track built by local ski bums on federal land in cooperation with regional foresters.
Organized and sanctioned backcountry skiing is a new concept in the east, and this trail network is the result of the first collaboration between skiers seeking hike-to terrain and state and federal foresters who are eager to make public lands accessible for recreation while also managing land for ecological values. The backcountry skiers and government land managers who are participating in this collaborative hope that, together, they can address a pervasive problem in Vermont: the illegal trimming of ski runs on public lands.
“Trimming” is a frequent practice by backcountry skiers to make a ski run more open and thus more fun to ski by removing an occasional branch, or cutting back undergrowth like hobblebush to create an easily carvable line. In most cases, skiers remove only a few branches or brush. But that can have an impact when multiple skiers are “cleaning up” multiple lines in one area. Skiers aren’t usually aware they’re having an impact. But state and federal officials struggle with the practice, which is illegal on public lands.
According to Holly Knox, a U.S. Forest Service employee in the Green Mountain National Forest, at Vermont’s Rochester Ranger District, has eight known sites that appear to have been cut for backcountry skiing. “We continue to monitor these sites, and we recently worked with our law enforcement staff to issue a closure order prohibiting all public access to a site within the Joseph Battell Wilderness, where repeated cutting continues despite education efforts,” Knox says.
In 2007, two northern Vermont men in their 40s illegally cut a 2,000-foot-long by 60-foot-wide swath of state land adjacent to Jay Peak—the most egregious example of illegal cutting in Vermont. They were convicted of a felony. After the illegal tree cuttings on Big Jay Mountain, Vermont officials then closed the area to skiers. That sparked skiers to organize themselves, and for the state and federal officials to consider working with grassroots skiing groups.
“I’ve had requests for backcountry ski access for years,” says Knox, who is credited with spearheading this project. “But the ski community wasn’t organized. We didn’t see a strong partnership. We knew that backcountry skiing was something we wanted to manage for, but we didn’t know how to do it. We needed to start the conversation at square one with, ‘What are the impacts of me trimming, whether I am a solo skier or a state or federal agency?’”
In 2013, a crew of skiers near Knox’s ranger district organized under the name RASTA: the Rochester/Randolph Area Sports Trails Alliance. At the same time, a backcountry skiing Forest Service employee in Knox’s district returned to school for his master's, and agreed to take on the task of sorting out how to work with grassroots groups as part of his studies. Knox engaged with RASTA and pushed them for a vision and how they’d contribute to a management plan.
RASTA organized skiers across the state, many of whom were as frustrated with illegal trimming as government officials were. With a survey from skiers in hand and a stack of maps detailing possible projects, Knox and RASTA began examining locations where they could create new backcountry skiing opportunities. Were the nearby roads plowed? Would gladed skiing fit into the forest management plan? Could tree thinning for skiing improve timber stands, and how would land managers continue to protect flora and fauna habitat? “They knew our restrictions, and avoided areas designated as wilderness and areas where there was heavy ecological restoration,” Knox says.
In summer 2016, RASTA’s new Brandon Gap Backcountry Zone was developed in partnership with the Green Mountain National Forest, Catamount Trail Association, and the Green Mountain Club. Today, the area includes over a dozen downhill backcountry lines. As backcountry skiing grows in popularity, a team of researchers from Dartmouth College is monitoring the impacts of gladed skiing on the flora and fauna in nearby Brandon Gap to better inform public land managers.
“We manage a forest of several hundred thousand acres,” Knox says. “The Rochester project is 210 acres, and the cut area is smaller than that. Within the forest, we have wilderness, remote wildlife habitat, and more. We structured the project to concentrate users in a place we can manage well, in this case an area that had been logged. Clearing for skiing will help us maintain the softwood component, which it’s easy to lose when ferns outcompete trees.”
Amy Kelsey, executive director of the Catamount Trail Association, which is the umbrella organization for Vermont’s backcountry skiers, says the current partnership with the U.S. Forest Service builds on a legacy of volunteers making and managing trails in Vermont. “Grassroots volunteers is what makes this all work,” Kelsey says. “These are baby boomers, not free-riding bros. And what we’re seeing over and over is skiers are approaching state officials with proposals that help the state manage lands, and that create opportunities for backcountry skiers.”
But Kelsey warns that a few instances of illegal cutting could jeopardize the new collaboration. “If people still go renegade and cut their own lines, it makes us all vulnerable,” she says.
As the other skiers and I explore the wooded runs at Brandon Gap, the vibe is refreshing. I’m not worried that someone is going to poach my line, since all the lines are marked on the map. The Rochester trails have become a teaching tool, instructing newer backcountry skiers about where to go.
The success of the initial project has spurred new initiatives. “Now that we’ve done this, we can replicate it in other areas,” says Michael Snyder, Vermont Commissioner of Forest, Parks, and Recreation. “We’re showing people we can do this. It’s not going to happen top down. It’s local engagement in a collaborative process that is the recipe for success.”
In Reedsboro, Vermont, the Dutch Hill Alliance of Skiers and Hikers is working to create new backcountry runs with the Forest Service, which acquired an old ski hill in the area. A new project launched this winter in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom on state and private land. New Hampshire land managers are replicating what they have seen in Vermont. Previously, White Mountains trails in New Hampshire only saw skier traffic in spring, but now people are skiing White Mountain gulches and gullies all the time, which is impacting the area’s ecology. Skiers can look for a new, sanctioned backcountry zone scheduled to open soon that state officials believe will help them engage with and educate skiers.
Among skiers, the new model is a win. “The project has exceeded expectations,” says Angus McCusker, founding member and president of RASTA. “Everybody is blown away by how positive the Rochester project has been for skiers, for the Forest Service, and for ski tourism. We have people coming from as far away as Pennsylvania to participate in pre-season trail days. That’s a whole new level of earning your turns. And, this has opened my eyes and other skiers' eyes to understanding the big picture of our forests.”
Government officials are pleased as well.
“You get great ski lines, new access, and we also got a model that can be replicated while balancing for natural resources, wilderness, cultural and aesthetic values,” Snyder says. “We also showed that it’s possible to get past the lingering hangover of a bad experience.”