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Granite Backcountry Alliance gains preliminary approval for glading projects in the White Mountains

On Wednesday, May 25, New Hampshire’s Granite Backcountry Alliance (GBA) announced that it received preliminary federal approval to begin planning for two backcountry skiing-specific clearing projects in the White Mountain National Forest—the first of their kind in the history of the WMNF. This milestone comes on the heels of a similar partnership between state and local backcountry communities in the Green Mountain National Forest of Vermont. The two proposed projects under review are on Bartlett Mountain in New Hampshire and Baldface Mountain on the border of New Hampshire and Maine. We spoke with GBA Granite Chief Tyler Ray to hear about these glading plans and what this means for the New Hampshire and Maine backcountry communities.

GBA Board Member Drew Zimber finds a rare glade in the White Mountain National Forest. [Photo] Courtesy Granite Backcountry Alliance

Backcountry Magazine: What does this Federal approval mean for glading on Baldface and Bartlett Mountains?

Tyler Ray: The biggest point to clarify is that this is not approval for going out to cut tomorrow. We need everyone to understand that. This is the initial approval, and now WMNF officials need to go in and do the environmental review. The Forest Service has vetted this, so it has passed some initial roadblocks, and now the environmentalists and foresters will go out into the field and do a field study. There is also a 30-day comment period that is a part of the NEPA process that has to happen as well. But it is possible that we could get approval to work on trails as early as this fall.

South Baldface is likely up first because it’s a turnkey project. There’s existing parking and skiable terrain and we just have to clean things up a bit and eliminate some of the shwacky stuff that currently requires a hockey mask to ski. There are vast snowfields that we want to connect into below treeline skiing—so it’s really cool terrain, and it fills in differently every year. There’s also a shelter, so now we’re hitting some of the points of our strategic plan, which is to include overnight opportunities as part of the tree-skiing backcountry experience and hopefully this eventually leads to partnering with the AMC and their hut system as well as Maine Huts & Trails—both of which we have been talking with.

The other area—Evans Notch—is unique, because its western neighbors Pinkham Notch, Crawford Notch and Mt. Washington overshadow it, so it doesn’t receive nearly as much traffic. Access to Evans Notch from North Conway is gated during the winter, so it takes more effort for New Hampshire skiers but should be a draw for Mainers. We’re hoping access to this area will diffuse some of the traffic in the more popular areas around North Conway. You are unlikely to do a Pinkham and Evans Notch tour in the same day, so it spreads people out, and this area is also a great place for future expansion. There are over a dozen quality mountains in that area—whether or not they are suitable for tree-skiing is yet to be seen—but the point is that it gets us into this area that diffuses traffic and establishes a presence.

As for Bartlett Mountain, this is another exciting project as we look at the northwest aspect which is just a few miles outside of North Conway. It is a famous zone that has held several iterations of skiing from the 2,000-vertical-foot Maple Villa Ski Trail cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s to the Intervale Ski Slope in the ’40s and ’50s, to the more recent cross-country touring centers around the base area in the ’80s and ’90s.

USFS and WMNF officials reviewing the Maple Villa Glade on Bartlett Mountain. [Photo] Courtesy Granite Backcountry Alliance

The project is fairly complex as it involves federal, state, municipal and conservation land, but not all landowners are impacted in phase one. Phase one will be the gladed revival of Maple Villa, which should include a half-dozen 1,000-foot ski lines coming off the shoulder area of a place we call “Town Hill.” Phase two will get to the summit of Bartlett Mountain and create some nice steep tree skiing options. The area holds snow well and we are really excited to develop this terrain and maintain a true backcountry experience close to the North Conway village.

BCM: Tell me about the process of dealing with the state and how you are hoping to develop the relationship with officials at White Mountain National Forest.

TR: When we formed the GBA, we reached out to officials at the WMNF and met with them in person to establish a working partnership. They immediately recognized why we were there due to the increased traffic and limited terrain options, and they welcomed us into the fold. They were happy to see us, because prior to the GBA, no one had stepped up to the plate and taken on the somewhat overwhelming task of creating new areas for skiers to go.

If you are adventurous and seek a true backcountry experience you can go out and find stuff to ski—we have all been there—it’s typically how you get into the sport. But not everyone has an eight- to 12-hour day where you can go out on a tour; some of us have gotten older and have kids or busy jobs. Sometimes people just want to do lunch laps at a local glade or other more accessible options. These options should be part of the fold, part of the backcountry portfolio of opportunities. We are really lucky to have the high alpine in the Presidential Mountains, but we need to have other terrain, and our user base and the folks at the WMNF agree with us.

Past work done by GBA members on the Sherburne Ski Trail on Mt. Washington. [Photo] Courtesy Granite Backcountry Alliance

BCM: How is working with the WMNF a change from what has been done in the past?

TR: People are starting to realize that doing things legally and through a permitted process is important. We’ve recognized a mental shift in our users and, quite frankly, the landowners. It’s also important to recognize that often the folks on the other side of the table want this just as bad as we do—they just have a job to do at the same time. So that’s a big change from the past. There are a lot of parallels with what’s going on now and what was going on with mountain biking 15 or 20 years ago, regarding the transition from building illegal trails to building sanctioned trails. These landscapes need to be protected and treated with respect, and that’s limited the bootleg aspect of mountain bike trails in the area. The Forest Service is intent on creating a similar outcome with backcountry skiing.

BCM: What did the approval process look like?

TR: We started with a national forest tour. We went to the three different districts: the Pemigewasset district where we met with forest rangers and managers; the Androscoggin district; then the Saco district. Our lead internal champion, Brian Johnston, is a Saco ranger. He was incredibly helpful in stewarding our cause with other folks in the Forest Service. He really pushed the envelope in identifying that overcrowding is a real issue; there is a user group, and it’s big and hungry. People want to be in the backcountry. The terrain potential is there, the hardgoods are better than ever and resorts cost a lot of money.

So after our tour of the three districts, we met with Forest Supervisor Tom Wagner, who is all about recognizing the various user groups and treating them fairly and we provided our 50-year vision, pitched several concept projects and openly discussed the restrictions and challenges each faced. To his credit, Tom acknowledge that backcountry skiers don’t have that same recognition as other user groups based on volume of skiers, and that it’s time for backcountry skiers and riders to receive help. Tom was also very clear that the WMNF has incredible staffing restraints and challenges too, so any approval comes as extra and GBA will have to work twice as hard. So we—GBA—are pretty excited to accept this challenge and be working with the Forest Service. These are our pilot projects, and when success is achieved, we’ll look into other new areas to work on.

BCM: Do you think the backcountry community in your area sees these official steps as a good thing?

TR: I think the answer is predominantly yes. By and large, folks are really excited that what has happened in Vermont is now happening in New Hampshire and Maine. And people are excited for new terrain, new powder stashes and new opportunities to get out in the woods. But I do think there is a small faction of backcountry veterans who are worried about the exploitation of secret stashes. And that’s a fair perspective. Change is always hard, and I think over time, folks will start to see that these gladed areas are productive, special, and can hold the goods. One of the first things we learned from the Rochester Area Sport Trails Alliance (RASTA) is that the minute you start handing loppers out and people start cutting collectively together with Forest Service officials at their side, that is the beginning of community, that is the beginning of building loyalty, and that’s the key to maturing as a user base. We want to have areas where there will be powder two or three days after a storm and there will be plenty to go around. We can do that with power in numbers.

BCM: How do you approach maintenance of these areas?

TR: In each area we go to, we approach a local group—either a preexisting group or individuals and locals who are points of contact in that area—and we work together with them. And then we help them through the legal and permitting process as well as the marketing and fundraising. Once that happens we bring people to town, cut the glade and, after, we give the keys back and step away to let the locals manage their glade while we move on to the next community that needs our help. We want to localize our efforts and create local management. In order to build this backcountry community broadly you have to start locally.

We want to create glades that circle the White Mountains: Franconia, Lancaster, Randolph, Gorham, Madison. Those are for the locals or for visitors that don’t necessarily have all day or they want terrain that’s a bit gentler, lappable or simply different from what exists now and isn’t on the pay to play program established by resorts. Some people don’t want to ski 50-degree slopes and tomahawk down Tuckerman Ravine. We want to create a better experience for a variety of abilities—and this milestone sets the stage for changing the landscape of skiing in New Hampshire and Maine for generations to come.

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Granite Backcountry Alliance Press Release

Tyler Ray, Granite Chief
Granite Backcountry Alliance
North Conway, NH 03860

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Two Federal Tree-Skiing Projects Approved for Review in White Mountain National Forest

May 25, 2017 (North Conway, NH) – Granite Backcountry Alliance, a nonprofit formed in September 2016, dedicated to advancing the interests of backcountry skiing in New Hampshire and western Maine, has obtained preliminary approval from the White Mountain National Forest (WMNF) for two backcountry tree-skiing projects in the Forest.

In a letter dated April 10, 2017, White Mountain National Forest (WMNF) Supervisor Tom Wagner delivered the message to GBA stating “at this time, I am willing to move forward on evaluating the viability of two of your proposed projects: Bartlett Mountain (Bartlett, New Hampshire) and Baldface (Chatham, NH / Stow, ME).” Wagner added, “I applaud your group’s success in rapidly organizing individual skiers and riders to collectively engage with members of my recreation staff and I look forward to developing that relationship further.”

The initial approval is a major milestone for GBA, the WMNF, and the backcountry skiing community, since thinning of trees for backcountry glade skiing is prohibited without approval in the national forest. To date, WMNF has never approved a glade skiing project in its nearly 100 year history. In just nine months of existence, GBA secured that approval. GBA gained the support of the WMNF by demonstrating the surge in backcountry skiing and riding in the WMNF and the need for expanded terrain options for different user abilities. GBA Granite Chief Tyler Ray said, “We are thrilled the WMNF has taken a pragmatic approach to backcountry skiing initiatives in the WMNF, resurrecting a prominent activity dating back to the 1930s. We are confident that, with formal approval, our user base will rise to the challenge and make these projects a long-lasting success in partnership with the WMNF.”

Although the two projects are subject to environmental review and the scope of the projects may change during the review process, Ray indicated that “the takeaway is that, at its most basic level, the WMNF publicly supports the movement of responsible glading for backcountry skiing on public lands and that’s a big win. Combined with our low-impact and sustainable approach to developing tree-skiing, we anticipate being able to provide safe yet exciting options for a variety of user abilities whether for exploratory day tours or as an alternative to the risk of avalanches or other extreme hazards found in the high alpine.”

Long-time skier and outdoors advocate United States Congresswoman Anne Kuster (NH), who provided critical initial support connecting GBA and WMNF, stated “I am so excited for the opportunities this will bring to the North Country of New Hampshire – more skiers, more terrain, more economic activity. I want to commend the Granite Backcountry Alliance, the White Mountain National Forest, and Tom Wagner and his staff for working together over the past 6 months to develop a path forward to increase the terrain available for backcountry skiing in the White Mountains. This is a growing sport and opening more of our lands for outdoor recreation like low impact backcountry skiing is a great step forward in a very short amount of time. Congratulations!”

PROPOSED BACKCOUNTRY GLADE PROJECTS

Bartlett Mountain – The Bartlett Mountain project delivers on GBA’s strategic intent to revive former Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) ski trails across New Hampshire and Western Maine, of which there were at one time over sixty trails in New Hampshire alone.   The storied Maple Villa Ski Trail, named for a hotel at the end of the original ski trail, was quite popular, according to Jeff Leich, Executive Director of the New England Ski Museum. “Maple Villa was a popular ski trail cut by the CCC in the 1930s that was very close to the Intervale train station, where the Boston snow trains stopped”. The run originally contained an impressive 2,000 foot plus vertical drop in over two and a half miles. Continued Liech “Reviving Maple Villa as glade terrain will be a great test case for GBA’s efforts to reconnect with skiing’s past using modern glade development technique.  This will be a fun project to watch, and then of course, ski!”

Although GBA is reviving the classic run, the methods of thinning the forest will be modernized to reflect the desire for skiers and riders to ski through the trees instead of openly cleared trails. Maple Villa will provide access to Bartlett Mountain for uphill climbing and for skiing out. The purpose is to align the glade cutting with GBA’s low-impact, sustainable, and environmentally-friendly standards. “We will restore the spirit of the trail to the extent possible” says Rick Jenkinson, Board member of GBA and Bartlett Mountain Glade Chief, “but we’ll incorporate methods of professional glade design, habitat awareness, and forestry practices, all to create a true human-powered backcountry experience.”

It’s not about just recreating one glade, said Ray. “We are in phase one of a larger plan where, if successful, Maple Villa will be a stepping stone to connect to other potential glade areas in the Bartlett zone – so we have much broader and bigger plans for skiing and riding enjoyment for these areas assuming they are well-received by the public and WMNF.”

South Baldface – Located almost directly on the state line separating Chatham, New Hampshire and Stow, Maine, South Baldface Mountain has long been an area of desire by skiers due to its tree-less alpine summit. However, due to the dense nature of the woods, the area below tree line is not able to be skied “without a hockey mask” says Baldface Glade Chief and GBA Board Member Steve Dupuis. The initial proposed area of interest is near or around the slippery brook trail which connects into the alpine snowfields. The vertical from the summit snowfields varies upon year, but is generally over 2,000 vertical feet from top to bottom. The trailhead has existing parking and bathrooms so the area is “a turnkey project”, said Dupuis. “GBA is looking forward to creating new and approved terrain in Evans Notch, diffusing congestion in other parts of the Whites, the economic impact it will bring to the local businesses, and mostly the quality of skiing. We’ll be able to take advantage of the area’s alpine conditions and weave that into gladed ski runs creating an incredibly unique user experience. It will be nothing short of spectacular!” 

CONNECTING TO STRATEGIC PLAN

GBA is in phase one of its strategic plan implementing a glade network around the State of New Hampshire and Maine. “The key piece to our strategy is to not focus entirely on the WMNF but also develop complementary options in fringe areas including state, municipal and third party properties”, said Ray. “The underlying rationale is we are digging after something deeper – such as building community roots around outdoor recreation. We think these areas will benefit from hosting this unique terrain.” GBA currently has other smaller but exciting projects in the works, including Gorham, Randolph, Lancaster and Franconia (all in NH), as well as areas in western Maine surrounding Sugarloaf Mountain and the Maine Huts & Trails. But make no mistake,” says Ray, “the WMNF is the mothership to the whole glade network and ties everything together. These federal projects are critical to developing the full enterprise.”

TRAIL WORK WEEKENDS THIS SUMMER

GBA is hosting several trail work weekends this summer to prepare for next winter to create a revitalized landscape of backcountry terrain that is fueled by user/volunteer participation. “The response so far has been enormously positive,” said GBA Board Member and Secretary Casy Calver. “We have an incredible group of passionate skiers that want more terrain to play with. When everyone lends a hand, the process goes a lot faster.”

The public is invited to join GBA this summer individually or in groups for its work weekends including June 24th and 25th in Pinkham Notch, New Hampshire (with after-party at Black Mountain) in partnership with Friends of Tuckerman Ravine; July 29th and 30th on Doublehead Ski Trail in Jackson, NH; and finally on August 26 and 27th in the Randolph Community Forest in Randolph, NH. Each session will focus not only on safe glading practices, but also as social events with raffles, giveaways and other fun benefits in the evening.

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