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December 31, 2014

National forest considers backcountry skiing plan

National forest considers backcountry skiing plan

By Evan Johnson

ROCHESTER — Every winter, skiers and snowboarders venture into the woods and hillsides in search of untracked snow. In the future, skiers in southern Addison County/ northern Rutland County may not have to venture far.

This winter the U.S. Forest Service is considering a proposal to develop four backcountry skiing glades totaling approximately 210 acres on land in the Green Mountain National Forest in the towns of Goshen, Rochester and Chittenden.

The initiative is being spearheaded by the Rochester Area Sport Trails Alliance (RASTA), a group of mountain bikers and backcountry-oriented skiers that has been exploring developing multi-use trails in central Vermont and the Mad River Valley for the past two years.

Angus McCusker, a volunteer with the Rochester group, said the area’s accessibility and variety of terrain make it a good location.

“It’s an area that a number of us have been skiing for years,” he said. “It has good elevation, a northern aspect and a few parking areas.”

The proposed glades in the Green Mountain National Forest are located to the south of Brandon Gap and can be accessed from two parking areas on Route 73 near the top of the gap. The Long Trail, extending south from the gap, can be used to access all four of the glades, which run from the top of Goshen Mountain eastward to the Bear Brook drainage.

Development of the skiing routes, or “lines,” within the four areas would incorporate a braided design, with several lines intersecting within one zone. The number of lines per zone would differ depending on the size of the zone and vegetation. The area includes northern hardwoods such as beech, yellow birch and maple, while the upper elevations include spruce and fir forests. The four zones include beginner to advanced backcountry skier terrain, with drops of 700 vertical feet on some of the easier areas and 1,200 feet on the more advanced terrain.

Lines would be established where conditions are naturally open and glades would retain full canopy coverage. However, where vegetation would be removed, emphasis would be placed on trees that are poorly formed, show signs of insect-infestation or disease, or inhibit restoration objectives in the area.

Forest Service staff and RASTA volunteers using hand tools would manage any pruning and upkeep of the trail system. A similar project occurred in the Braintree area this fall.

“We know there are lots of parties that we’ll need to engage with,” said McCusker. “The important thing now is to take this one step at a time and not rush it.”

FIRST IN THE COUNTRY

While skiing, like other outdoor activities, is deemed a “permitted use” of state and national forests, the cutting or pruning of trees to enhance terrain is not. Chris Mattrick, district ranger for the Forest Service’s Rochester and Middlebury Ranger Districts, said the proposal is well timed as interest in backcountry skiing grows.

“We see this as an emerging recreation use that we haven’t seen in the past,” he said. “In this case we have concerns that increased unmanaged use will have a detrimental affect on the ecosystem. We’re trying to get in front of the issue and provide a managed experience for those that want to pursue the activity.”

The unauthorized cutting of trees in Vermont has ranged from occasional limbing of trees to more significant clear-cuts. One of the most widely known examples was in 2007, when two hikers used chainsaws to clear-cut an empty swath 2,000 feet down the side of Big Jay Mountain. In addition to being against the law, Mattrick said unapproved trimmings could have a negative effect on the health of the forest.

“In some cases the cutting itself may or may not have a detrimental impact,” he said. “The fact is that it’s not approved and hasn’t been analyzed so we don’t know what the eventual impact will be.”

The area around the pilot project has seen some limited cutting. Mattrick said the plan is to provide skiers with adequate terrain and promote responsible development of recreation areas.

“The hope is that if this project does go through and we have a place where we can authorize and manage this activity (developing backcountry ski terrain) with a partner group, we might be able to draw people away from the areas where there is illegal trimming,” he said.

The project now undergoes a 30-day “scoping period,” which includes accepting comments from the public and completing an analysis of resources potentially affected by the development, as mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act.

A decision is expected in the spring. If approved, the development could be the first sanctioned backcountry skiing development on national forest land.

“This is a very Eastern-specific concern,” Mattrick said. “There’s lots of backcountry skiing that goes on in the West, but they don’t have the issue of managing forests to be able to do it because their forests are naturally open. We think this might be the first. We’ve reached out to other national forests and no one seems to have embraced this idea or this activity to date.”

Evan Johnson is a reporter for the Addison Independent, a sister publication to The Mountain Times.

Photo by  Brian Mohn, Ember Photography

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