On October 16, 2015

National Forest backcountry ski gets OK

By Evan Johnson

GOSHEN/ROCHESTER — A proposed backcountry skiing glade in the Green Mountain National Forest took a step forward early this month when it received approval from U.S. Forest Service officials.

The project, created out of a growing local interest in expanding and preserving backcountry skiing operations in Vermont, was introduced last November and is being spearheaded by partners including the national forest, Vermont Backcountry Alliance, Catamount Trail Association and the association’s backcountry skiing pilot chapter, the Rochester Area Sports Trail Alliance.

The proposed glades in the Green Mountain National Forest are located to the south of Brandon Gap on Forest Service lands in the towns of Rochester, Chittenden and Goshen at the confluence of Addison, Rutland and Windsor counties.

The plan calls for backcountry skiers to access the glades from two parking areas on Route 73 near the top of the Brandon gap. The Long Trail could 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 routes 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.

Routes would be established where conditions are naturally open and glades would retain full canopy coverage. 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.

However, implementation of the project cannot begin yet, pending consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

This past April, the Fish and Wildlife Service included the northern long-eared bat on the list of threatened species, a step below the endangered species list. The bat, which can be found in much of the United States, has suffered in recent years due to white nose syndrome, a fungal infection that has caused populations to decline by up to 99 percent in the Northeast, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Since the backcountry ski trails plan calls for the selective cutting of trees larger than three inches in diameter and biologists were unable to conduct field surveys on bat populations during their summer roosting season, the Forest Service was unable to determine in their decision how the project could affect bat populations.

“The project may affect but is not likely to adversely affect northern long-eared bats,” reads the decision document from the Forest Service.

The project will now undergo additional review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which will either concur with the Forest Service’s ruling or impose additional conditions on how the project is carried out.

Jay Strand, forest planner and environmental coordinator for the Green Mountain National Forest, said a time frame for a decision remains unknown.

“It depends on how much staff they have dedicated to the projects that are coming across their radar screen at any given moment,” he said. “It could be a matter of weeks or it could be a matter of months, we really do not know.”

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.

In the meantime, Holly Knox, district recreation program manager in the Rochester and Middlebury ranger districts in the Green Mountain National Forest, encouraged hopeful backcountry enthusiasts to be patient.

“We’re reminding people to leave their loppers at home until we’re ready,” she said.

Backcountry Forum held Nov. 5

The third annual Vermont Backcountry Forum will be held Thursday, Nov. 5 at Pierce Hall Community Center in Rochester, Vt. Doors open at 6 p.m. There will be a potluck, cash bar and multi-media presentation. Part of the forum, which is scheduled from 7 to 8:30 p.m. will discuss huts in Vermont. A raffle live music and dancing with conclude the event. For more information visit www.catamounttrail.org.

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