Over 60% of the Catamount Trail is located on public conserved lands. This includes over 100 miles of trail within the Green Mountain National Forest, Vermont State Forests or Vermont State Parks. We’ve asked a few of the land managers who work closely with the CTA to share their thoughts on nordic and backcountry ski use on the lands they are responsible for. Over the course of the next few months, we’ll be sharing their responses. Stay tuned for responses from other land managers in upcoming newsletters and online.
What is your job title? Can you give a brief description of what you do?
Forester – I work as a member of both the recreation/trails team and the forest management team on the Green Mountain National Forest (GMNF). My work has included aiding in the planning and implementation of both trail and timber related projects.
How long have you been in your position?
Approximately 5 years on the GMNF
The USFS and State of Vermont have been hosting cross-country skiers for decades. Do you think the number of backcountry/cross country users on public lands has increased? Decreased? Stayed the same?
I think skier numbers tend to fluctuate depending on the type of “backcountry” skiing you are talking about. On the Green Mountain National Forest (GMNF), we still see a steady flow of skiers utilizing our winter trail systems for the more traditional type of cross-country skiing; however, we have begun to see an increase in the number of backcountry skiers that are looking for more of an “off trail” backcountry skiing experience. This type of skier may utilize our winter trail systems as a starting point for their tour, but tend to veer off a defined trail in search of more vertical terrain that offers opportunity for some untouched powder. Having said that, statistics from the Forest Service’s National Visitor Use Monitoring Surveys show that GMNF visitors participating in cross country skiing has dropped from 14% in 2001 to 9.5% in 2010.
What trends are you seeing?
We have begun to see a broader diversity in the type of skier utilizing GMNF lands. In addition to traditional cross-country skiing, we are seeing a continually growing trend toward a “backcountry” type experience. Although the term backcountry is very broad, what the GMNF is seeing are skiers utilizing heavier duty equipment (tele and alpine-touring) with climbing skins in search of locations that ultimately offer some vertical lines through the trees. In our discussions with skiers utilizing the Forest, we are hearing that an increasing number are heading to the backcountry because it is a great way to get exercise as well as to experience a level of solitude that cannot be met in lift serviced areas.
How do you measure/gauge change in use?
There are several ways we have been gauging this change. First, our recreation staff conducts regular winter patrols where visitor contacts have been made with backcountry skiers. The conversations we have had with these skiers, as well as the increase in occurrence of these visitor contacts, prompted the GMNF recreation staff to begin discussions with the backcountry ski user group. Through these discussions, we have begun to learn the depth of interest in the sport and the importance to the recreation fabric of Vermont.
An additional, yet unfortunate, way we have been gauging this change is through the occurrence of illegal trail/glade cutting on the GMNF. Forest staff regularly find evidence of cutting and clipping within areas known for backcountry skiing. The frequency at which we find these illegally cut trails/glades has prompted GMNF managers to begin addressing this use to develop ways that it can be managed.
Are you encountering more or different challenges with the technological advances in backcountry equipment?
There is definitely a different set of challenges (and perhaps opportunities) associated with the management of this trend in skiing. I don’t believe that these challenges are completely attributed to the advances in backcountry equipment, but instead are attributed to the availability of the equipment. A vast majority of ski shops within our area now offer backcountry gear. This, in conjunction with the sport’s popularity, has increased the level of use on public land. What makes this trend both challenging and interesting for land managers is the lack of an existing management strategy to work with. The challenge facing the GMNF is to develop a management strategy that will balance the use with the potential resource impacts. Although backcountry skiing is hugely popular throughout the United States (and the world), the impacts we are seeing on the GMNF are somewhat unique to the forests of the Northeast. For example, in the western states, a majority of the backcountry skiing takes place above tree line or within open stands of trees that have little understory vegetation. In Vermont, there is little skiable terrain above tree line and heavy understory brush, thus clipping and cutting of vegetation occurs more frequently in order to make ski lines accessible and enjoyable. Education associated with the sport also differs between regions. Out west, a majority of the education focuses on avalanche safety whereas the occurrence for avalanches in the Northeast (although present) is far less. Some general factors that will need to be addressed in a management plan will include how areas will be designated for this use, potential ways in which our vegetation can be managed sustainably in conjunction with the use, and the development of educational elements that we can present to the public.
What are some ways you currently work to manage this recreational use on the lands you manage?
As it stands, skiing is considered an allowable use that can take place anywhere on National Forest system (NFS) lands, meaning it is not regulated to specific trails or management areas (this does not include National Forest System lands utilized by developed, fee required, ski areas that are under a special use permit with the GMNF). The GMNF, in association with multiple partner groups, does maintain winter trail systems (VAST trails, the Catamount Trail, and several ski and snowshoe trail systems) that all provide skiable access into the GMNF; however, management of backcountry skiing is still very young to the GMNF and thus management specific to the use has been minimal up to this point.
To begin addressing the use and resource impacts associated with backcountry skiing, GMNF recreation managers have initiated discussions with the backcountry skiing community in order to gain a broader perspective of what the sport entails and what the user group is looking for from their public lands. These discussions have included input from individual members of the skiing community as well as established groups that include the CTA and a grass-roots trails alliance that is developing in the community of Rochester, Vermont. What the GMNF has heard so far, is that skiers would like to see managed areas that present more opportunity for vertical terrain and where vegetation can be cut to enhance the skiing experience.
One key factor that helps guide how GMNF recreation managers make decisions, and one that will be crucial for the management of this sport, is the involvement of partner groups. In order for the GMNF to add a new managed use to the Forest, it would need to be analyzed through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. One aspect of the NEPA process is to analyze resource impacts that are associated with management actions and to determine the long term sustainability of those actions. In order for a managed recreational use to be considered sustainable, an entity needs to be in place that can partner with the GMNF to aid in management. The management of the Catamount Trail is a great example of how a long standing partnership between the CTA and GMNF has helped to increase the sustainability of that trail.
There are many managed cross-country ski trails on public lands. Generally these are narrow corridors for touring. What do you think of the idea of planned trimming/glading in designated areas of the backcountry?
This idea is something that GMNF recreation managers are open to, but we are still determining how it will be managed. We will be conducting a test case this coming winter to create some gladed runs on the Rochester Ranger District. This test case is being piloted in partnership with the Rochester Area Sport Trails Alliance (RASTA) and will give the GMNF a chance to monitor short term impacts associated with the use that will ultimately help us in developing a long term management strategy; however, there are still a lot of management questions we will need to answer. We need to determine how the GMNF will designate the areas to be managed for backcountry skiing in order to regulate the extent of vegetation manipulation and its associated effects. In addition, any management of vegetation on the GMNF will require input from our Forest specialists (such as botanists, ecologists, biologists, soil scientists) in order to analyze potential impacts. This would also include input from our Forest Silviculturist who would need to prescribe ways in which we can manipulate the vegetation for backcountry skiing, yet retain a healthy and productive forest. We are also exploring ways in which backcountry skiing could co-exist with other forest management practices, such as commercial timber sales, but terrain and slope limitations for logging equipment can significantly reduce this possibility. To manage vegetation in steeper terrain, it would likely need to be conducted by hand crews. Any areas we designate for backcountry skiing will also require yearly maintenance, thus solidifying the importance of partnerships in the development of a management strategy.
Do you think there is economic value in greater promotion of backcountry skiing on public lands in a region dependent on tourism? And could our public lands handle more use for backcountry skiing?
In general, I tend to believe that a diverse range of recreational opportunities on public land is a good thing because it has the ability to attract more visitors to the GMNF and neighboring communities. The promotion of backcountry skiing as a recreational opportunity will increase this diversity. Visitors coming to Vermont to partake in this activity will likely be spending money at hotels, restaurants, ski shops, etc. that, in turn, will help the local economies. With the development of a proper management strategy and effective partnerships, the GMNF could handle more use for backcountry skiing.
Are you aware of good models or examples in other parts of the country or world that we might employ here in Vermont to better manage backcountry skiing on public lands?
This is something that GMNF recreation managers are still researching. In discussions with other National Forests (primarily those in the western states) we are learning that the issues they face with backcountry skiing are different than those we are facing in the Northeast. This is partially due to the differing terrain and vegetation types between the two regions; however, the GMNF has developed some ideas from these discussions on how we might designate areas for backcountry glades and how we can develop educational materials associated with the use.
What are the ecological impacts of the “trimming” backcountry skiers sometimes engage in to enhance their ski experience?
This is all dependent on the extent of the use and cutting that is occurring. The incidental cutting of a beech sapling or the trimming of a branch probably isn’t going to have a negative impact over the long-term; however, a lot of this incidental cutting over time compiles and can have significant impacts. A majority of the vegetation we are seeing cut primarily exists within the forest understory. This may include some understory shrubs, such as hobblebush, but it also includes young saplings which are the next generation of forest. In very popular backcountry areas, cutting can be extensive as new lines are developed by skiers as a way to create a new private powder stash. This reduction of forest understory, over time, decreases forest structure and creates an even-aged stand where only the older, larger, trees are left standing. As forest structure is reduced, these even aged stands can become highly susceptible to wind throw, insect and disease affliction, and other events that can dramatically affect the forest. Eventually, as the older trees die off, the stand is left with no new trees to take their place. This reduction of vegetation, in conjunction with the steep terrain considered desirable for the sport, can lead to significant erosion and soil loss. This reduction of vegetation can also impact wildlife, as nesting and cover habitats are reduced and sediment clogs streams following an erosion event. Although the forest will likely regenerate, the impacts up until that point can be costly.With proper management and regulations on cutting, it is possible that these impacts can be balanced with the use and an enjoyable backcountry experience skiing can be created.
We generally think of backcountry travel on skis, snowshoes, or snowboards as a very low impact activity, given the ground is frozen and covered in snow. Are there other ecological impacts of non-motorized snow travel backcountry users should be aware of?
I think the above answer might cover it, but I would stress that those skiing in the backcountry should always practice “Leave No Trace” ethics as a way to reduce their human footprint and should leave their pruning tools at home.
What would you like all winter backcountry skiers to know/do?
If you are new to backcountry skiing (or thinking about becoming a backcountry skier) the main take away should be to educate yourself on the safety elements associated with the sport. For the northeast, this is similar knowledge one might have for traveling in the woods in winter; however, there are some specific elements you should adhere to:
- Know and learn the country you will be skiing in and bring a good map and compass with you on your trip. This also means familiarizing yourself with maps of the area and developing some map and compass skills before going into the woods. DO NOT rely on a GPS and smartphone. Batteries wear down and cell phone reception can be very spotty in Vermont. Having some map and compass skills will help you get out of the woods if you were to get lost.
- Make sure you have the proper equipment for backcountry skiing. There are different options for backcountry equipment, but you need to make sure that your equipment is matched with the terrain you will be skiing in. This also means dressing appropriately for the activity.
- Know your skiing ability and fitness level and don’t ski beyond it. Backcountry skiing can be a difficult and arduous sport. If you don’t have the skiing skills, proper fitness, and proper equipment you can land yourself in a bad situation.
- Know the conditions. Skiing in the east can be difficult due to ice and lack or snow. Although not common, avalanches can occur in the east so familiarize yourself with the indicators for avalanche conditions.
- Before leaving, get a detailed weather forecast. Weather in Vermont is variable and conditions can change quickly.
- Never ski alone and always let someone else know where you will be skiing. This means identifying someone you will be in contact with and setting up specific check in times with that individual. Don’t assume that someone will just come looking for you.
- Bring plenty of water, dry clothes, extra food, and something you can start a fire with. If you end up getting lost, these elements will help you get through the night.
- Plan the timing of your backcountry trip. Days are shorter in the winter and if you are not planning on spending the night in the woods, make sure you plan accordingly so you are not trying to ski out in the dark.