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Back on Course: Despite a funding hurdle, Vermont’s Mount Ascutney is successfully conserved

In May 2015, we covered the resurrection of Vermont’s Mount Ascutney Resort, which had previously closed in 2010, in “Ascutney Ascension.” The article touches on efforts of the Trust for Public Land (TPL) and the local Brownsville and West Windsor Communities to breathe life back into a much beloved, defunct community ski area.

In the year following the release of “Ascutney Ascension,” much has happened with the mountain, nestled at the edge of the West Windsor Town Forest. The federal funding anticipated by the TPL and the surrounding communities did not pan out, and so fundraising was kicked into high gear for fall 2015. In a nail-biting experience, the TPL raised enough money by December 2015 to acquire the property just before the closing deadline the previous landowners had set.

To find out more about what went on this past year and what the future holds for Mount Ascutney, we caught up with Kate Wanner, Project Manager for the Trust for Public Land in Vermont.

Here is what she had to say about the trials and successes of 2015 for Mount Ascutney.

A tour of the new tow rope during the February 6, 2016 celebration of the acquisition and conservation of the Mountain. [Photo] Helen Tjader.

A tour of the new towrope during the February 6, 2016 celebration of the acquisition and conservation of the Mountain. [Photo] Helen Tjader.

Backcountry Magazine: How have things progressed in the past year for Mount Ascutney?

Kate Wanner: We successfully closed on December 15 [2015], and back in the original article we had still not heard about the federal Community Forest Program money. I was pretty confident that we would get that, and that [it would] fund half of the acquisition—$340,000—because I thought this was such a compelling project. It had a bit of everything: recreation, community development economic benefits, high biodiversity value; it’s a historical iconic mountain that’s been painted by folks for centuries. So I really thought it was going to be a winner, and it was actually ranked seventh in the nation, which is pretty good, but congress only appropriated enough money in the Community Forest Program to fund the top sixth. So we just missed out of getting that federal grant, which would have made it really easy. We had to scramble and ramp up a private fundraising effort and reach out to a lot more foundations to come up with the remaining funding. We were amazed by the folks that came out of the woodwork to help out.

BCM: What helped you raise the remaining money?

KW: The story got out nationally, and we started getting donations from Telluride and Wyoming, Ohio, Florida—money from across the country. People that had no connection to Ascutney, would never have come ski there, but thought that it was such a compelling story about this little town that wanted to save their ski area and own it as a community that they sent $10, $100 or even $1,000. So out of that we were able to attract a bunch of new family foundations that we had never heard of.

BCM: Were there any community organizations that helped in this process?

KW: It was a tremendous partnership with the town and the Upper Valley Land Trust. I have never before worked with a community that wanted it so badly. They spent a lot of time and effort on the initial acquisition and then transferred all of that that energy over to Ascutney Outdoors and into clearing the trails. Most of the trails were really overgrown, and so they spent a lot of time over the last six months mowing and getting out there with loppers and chopping down the little maples that have grown up [since the close of the resort] to get it skiable again. So thousands of volunteer hours from the community made that happen.

Ascutney Outdoors has done a fantastic job of getting things moving, to get at least a towrope up for the first season. They still have quite a lot of money to raise to be able to afford a ski lift and some sort of base; we have talked about a yurt. There are still some issues around the burnt-down base lodge and I know the town is trying to find several grants to remove it.

More than 150 community members gathered around the base of the new towrope to celebrate the acquisition and conservation of 468 acres, now owned by the Town of West Windsor. [Photo] Ascutney Outdoors

More than 150 community members gathered around the base of the new towrope to celebrate the acquisition and conservation of 468 acres, now owned by the Town of West Windsor. [Photo] Ascutney Outdoors

BCM: What happened at the celebration held at Mount Ascutney in February?

KW: The new towrope was dedicated to the Ely and Howland families at a celebration in February. People from around the country who were connected with the Ely and Howland families came. Those were the folks that originally put in all these trails in the 1950s and managed the mountain for a long time. So the rope tow was dedicated to them and there was a big ceremony, which was very touching.

BCM: What are the primary user groups for Mount Ascutney at this point?

KW: I think that there are definitely backcountry skiers that are [in support of resurrecting Mount Ascutney], but there are also mountain bikers and then just regular people who were scared about the future of the mountain. They were worried about development, clear cuts, and they were really scared about what that might mean. The property is more than backcountry skiing, it is also frontcountry skiing. It was a place where [it is hoped that] everybody can afford to ski there in the future. There were a lot of people who grew up skiing on that mountain and they were not going to have the opportunity to pass that on to their kids and grandkids.

Screenshot of a map of the Ascutney region with designated user group areas.

Screenshot of the Upper Valley Land Trust conservation map of the Ascutney region with designated user group areas.

BCM: How do you hope this will change the economic viability of the surrounding community?

KW: The [community] really wants to see some of the folks that are driving up from New York City and Boston to Kingdom trails—they are driving right past Ascutney—stop for a day or two, or even a whole weekend. They want the area to become a recreation destination.

After our conversation with Kate, she mentioned in an email an important backcountry skiing component to Mount Ascutney:

KW: Lifts at Ascutney are only allowed to go two thirds of the way up the mountain, per the conservation easement. Thus, the top third of the former ski area will be earn-your-turns only. Upper trails will continue to be maintained so they don’t get too shwacky, but will provide a diversity of potential skiing opportunities: open trails without lift service above the community ski area, open trails with lift service and towrope, and plenty of backcountry touring trails and glades for a deeper backcountry experience.

To find out more about the Mount Ascutney project, visit ascutneyoutdoors.org.

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