For years, backcountry skiers have been illegally cutting trees and brush to open up trails. As the sport grows in popularity, officials with Green Mountain National Forest hope a new pilot program in Vermont could become a model to curb unsanctioned cutting, and expand terrain at the same time.
Usually, the illicit trimming is small-scale. But in October, U.S. Forest Service officials in New Mexico reported that up to 1,000 trees had been cut down in Santa Fe National Forest, allegedly by backcountry skiers.
Closer to home, large amounts of illegal cutting were just discovered on state lands in Middlebury.
But on a recent Saturday, the trail work was fully permitted, as about 20 volunteers gathered for a morning of work on a trail near Brandon Gap.
Hardy Avery, a professional trail designer hired for the project, handed out hard hats and hand tools before bringing the group up to speed.
“Mostly what we’re going to be doing is hauling brush that’s already been cut,” said Avery. “We have two ski lines that are cut to the ridge that you can see with the sun behind it and one skinning line.”
Normally, backcountry skiers and riders clear trails in secret. But for the past several weeks, dozens of backcountry enthusiasts have been carefully thinning trees and brush under the close supervision of National Forest Service personnel.
“How many of you is this your first day?” called out Holly Knox, a district recreational program manager For Green Mountain National Forest. "Wow, that’s great. Welcome!”
Knox says that since backcountry skiing and riding is so popular, it makes sense to encourage and expand it on public lands. But, she admits, the challenge is to ensure it’s done in a controlled and environmentally-sustainable way.
Knox says a 210-acre parcel of national forest straddling the towns of Chittenden, Goshen and Rochester is being used a testing ground.
“We’re looking at both improving recreation opportunities, ensuring the long-term sustainability of our ecological components, but also that reduction in people cutting in areas where they should not be cutting,” says Knox.
All new ski trails will be limited in size to between 15 and 30 feet wide. Softwoods like evergreen and firs are being protected. To enable long-term research on the site, volunteers have been asked not to cut vegetation shorter than a meter.
Trail designer Hardy Avery says it was a complicated process. “I scouted it out for four or five, actually six days. And I laid out five different ski lines, a skin track, a couple access routes and a catch road to catch everybody at the bottom to get everyone out," he says. "I used a color-coded flagging system to mark which trees would be cut and which would not."
As the sound of chain saws echoed over the ridge line, 65-year-old Merle Schloff cleared brush off one of the new trails. The Salisbury resident says people need to realize that the ethos of backcountry skiing hails back to a bunch of people surreptitiously clipping in the woods to carve out their own private runs.
He says the Green Mountain National Forest and especially Holly Knox deserve a lot of credit for spearheading a cooperative effort to change that mindset.
“By green-lighting this, she made it possible for us to operate within the law," says Schloff. "There’s always going to be some people who are going to be bandits. But I think that working like this will go along way to bringing the Wild West of glade farming somewhat under control. A lot under control."
Just up the ridge, Zac Freeman led another group of volunteers through the mud to clear branches and trim flagged limbs.
Freeman is a member of the Rochester Area Sports Trails Alliance, a group that’s created a new trail network in the Braintree Mountain Forest. He says that project on private land, coupled with this work on public land, is putting Vermont on the map with backcountry enthusiasts. And he hopes their work on Brandon Gap can create a useful template for others.
“The efforts that we’ve put in here these last few years have really stirred up a lot of excitement throughout the northeast,” says Freeman. “Over in the White Mountains and in Maine, there’s ski groups that have gotten very excited and organized themselves to propose similar projects in their area.”
Freeman admits every location is unique, so you can’t create a one-size-fits all approach. But he and others believe if all goes well with the Brandon Gap project more will follow.
Green Mountain Forest’s Holly Knox says she’s already gotten calls about the Brandon Gap program from New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, the Adirondack Park Agency and Vermont’s Department of Forest Parks and Recreation.
“A lot of folks are looking at this project as a potential model,” she says, smiling. “It’s really exciting.”