On Hold: Vermont Agency of Natural Resources Says No to Smuggs’-Stowe Connector

As summer came to an end in the Green Mountain State, so did plans for the gondola line proposed to connect Smugglers’ Notch Resort and Vail-owned Stowe Mountain Resort. On October 10, both resorts announced they were no longer moving forward with the project. This decision came four months after news of the gondola project leaked. Despite previous statements Smugglers’ Notch made disavowing any such plans for expansion, the project was six years in the making. 

The proposed gondola would have stretched 2,600 feet from Smugglers’ Notch Resort’s Sterling Mountain to Stowe Mountain Resort’s Spruce Peak. With the Notch Road closed in the winter, inter-resort access is currently limited to Snuffy’s: a formerly maintained trail that winds from Stowe’s Spruce Peak to Sterling Pond where there’s a short hike to Rum Runner at Smugglers’ Sterling Lift.

Ted Carrick lays into a turn on Teardrop in the backcountry off of Mt. Mansfield. Grant Wieler

Along Snuffy’s lies a range of backcountry terrain known as the Back Bowls or Birthday Bowls. While this sidecountry is expansive, locals worry about the traffic the gondola’s construction would bring. “I can remember skiing the back bowls [in 1976], when you could go out there weeks after a storm and find fresh lines,” says Mike Timbers, a resident of Underhill, Vermont. “Now, it’s literally like a resort. You go back there and there’s nothing [fresh left]. Of course, everyone deserves the opportunity to earn their turns through a fresh powder stash, Timbers stresses, but “it’s a balance between giving people the opportunity to access nature and at the same time maintaining that natural, pristine habitat.”

In an email sent to Backcountry Magazine, Smugglers’ Notch Resort president Bill Stritlzer acknowledged that “environmental effects can’t be entirely avoided.” The independently owned resort believed that by offering “a total of 152 acres of land with the same characteristics as the Natural area and abutting [the Natural area]” to the state, in exchange for approval of the proposed gondola route, impacts on the natural landscape and local wildlife would be minimized.

The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources did not approve this trade, citing the land designated for the gondola line was not intended for that use. In a memo, forester Brad Greenough of the Barre District Stewardship Team (DST) stated that proposals to connect Smuggler’s Notch Resort and Stowe Mountain Resort had been under review by the DST for the past two years. After dismissing plans for a conventional chairlift to connect the two resorts, the agency unanimously opposed the gondola proposal, saying, “If it does move forward, it will be without the DST’s support and against the strong and unequivocal recommendation of the Barre District Stewardship Team.”

The DST found the proposal in “conflict with the management goals” of the Mount Mansfield Protected Area—the designated natural area the gondola line would cut right through. In this high-elevation zone, natural communities affected by the proposed gondola route include the Montane Spruce-Fir Forest, the Montane Yellow Birch-Red Spruce Forest and the Bicknell’s thrush nesting habitat.

Grant Wieler chows on fresh powder in the Birthday Bowls located between Smuggs’ and Stowe. Maura Wieler

To further complicate matters, the proposed gondola line, or any possible relocation, would consistently cross or run parallel to the Long Trail and be visible from Sterling Pond and audible from the Sterling Pond Trail. In its entirety, the DST states, “The proposed aerial lift would negatively affect the natural aesthetic of Smugglers’ Notch.”

Following the DST’s report, both Smugglers’ Notch Resort and Stowe Mountain Resort revoked their appeal for the agency to approve the proposal. Now, Smugglers’ Notch Resort is in the process of starting a regional study on the gondola’s potential economic effects compared to its already known environmental impacts.

Morristown, Vermont, resident Grant Weiler reflected on both sides of the gondola project, in the wake of this news. These resorts’ distinct identities, central to local ski culture, persist in large part thanks to their separation. “A connector gondola line would be terrific and awful at the same time,” says Weiler. “Yes. Some of that Smuggs’ culture would be compromised. There’s no question about it. If it were to happen, a lot of conversations would have to be had about housing so that Smuggs’ doesn’t turn into Stowe, where it’s just unaffordable for locals.” But he also sees the potential economic lift it would provide to the small resort and nearby town of Cambridge.

While Smugglers’ Notch Resort did not respond to requests for comment, on October 11 Stritzler said in an interview with Vermont television station WCAX that he believed the economic study would be “positive” and, if so, the resort “will bring that story forward for consideration.” If the results are negative, Stritlzer maintains that the resorts will “just have to go back and keep our ‘not now’ approach to the project.”

For the time being, the plan for a connector gondola between the two neighboring ski areas is on hold. The economic impact report is slated to be finished in the next year.

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