Despite a low-snow winter in New England, skiers and riders in Vermont are lapping new backcountry zones with glee. Two new zones feature uphill skinning trails plus several runs for descents. Located on public and private lands, the projects may be the first of a new, growing trend to meet the demand for backcountry skiing and riding.
Brandon Gap, Vermont
Brandon Gap in Rochester Ranger District is the first designed and designated backcountry zone in Green Mountain National Forest. Connecting to Long National Recreation Trail, the zone has an uphill skin track and four descents of 1,200 vertical feet in Bear Brook Bowl.
“Approving access and having a professional design for the area has made for beautiful ski lines that the public is celebrating,” says Holly Knox, recreation manager who spearheaded the project for Green Mountain National Forest. “[I’m seeing] pure joy from the majority of people I encounter!”
Partnerships between public land managers and recreation groups brought the Brandon Gap backcountry zone to fruition. Green Mountain National Forest faced uneven timber stands that needed restoration. In addition, as public demand for backcountry skiing increased in the past decade, the Forest Service had to combat illegal cutting by skiers creating glades in the thick forest. In an innovative solution, Rochester Ranger District combined interdepartmental forces between recreation, ecology, wildlife biology and silviculture to seek a solution for the timber stand management and illegal cutting.
Brandon Gap backcountry zone features four descending routes and an uphill skin track.
Copyright: Green Mountain National Forest
They involved the community, particularly backcountry skiers. Routes were designed and flagged. Volunteers led by the Forest Service piled brush, cut timber and cleared routes this past fall. By the time the on-the-ground work started, the collaboration efforts included Rochester Area Sports Trail Alliance (RASTA), Dartmouth College, Catamount Trail Association, Vermont Backcountry Alliance, Vermont Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation, New York Department of Environmental Conservation and Adirondack Park Agency.
“I am most proud of the work the Forest Service has done to help develop a community of collaboration around this project and the backcountry recreation community in general,” says Knox.
Perhaps that’s the key to the success of the project. With so many stakeholders, the interest in success is high, and education on forest health and management a natural spinoff.
The project has been deemed such as success that Knox is already working on other potential backcountry zones in the Rochester Ranger District. The Robinson Integrated Resource Project seeks to combine recreation opportunities in tandem with forest management objectives over the next two years. Implementation for that project will begin in 2018.
Braintree Forest, Vermont
A privately owned and managed forest, Braintree Mountain Forest in the Green Mountains now has a new backcountry skiing and riding zone, too. The Skidoo Glades features an uphill skin track and five descending routes of about 1,000 vertical feet located above Bell Gates Cabin, an old logging camp. An enlarged parking lot for 20 vehicles sports a timber-frame information kiosk at the trailhead, where a 1.5-mile hike leads to the base of the zone.
“It’s the first of its kind,” says Zac Freeman, one of the founders of RASTA. “We’re charting some new ground.” Braintree previously has allowed public non-motorized access to cross-country skiers in winter, and Freeman has long used the forest for backcountry skiing. But a designated and cleared backcountry ski zone is new.
“It took off very fast,” adds Freeman. In 2013, RASTA formed, and the owners of Braintree donated about 1,500 acres to the New England Forestry Foundation (NEFF) for conservation. RASTA then worked with NEFF foresters to clear the routes. The organization also raised funds for the trailhead work.
Zac Freeman skis Braintree Forest backcountry area.
Copyright: Cyril Brunner
In collaboration with NEFF, Freeman flagged out routes in fall of 2014. By last winter, skiers skinned up to descend one run. Work parties cut two more runs last spring and two more this fall. One day had 60 volunteers providing the labor. Freeman estimates 1,000 volunteer hours have gone into creating the backcountry zone.
“Energy is spreading,” says Freeman. Future plans entail adding more backcountry routes in Braintree, but some work, like revamping the logging camp, will depend on fund-raising.