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Fighting for the Backcountry

  • Ron Konowitz approaches the summit of Mt. Marcy, the tallest peak in New York at 5,344 feet. Courtesy photo

  • A pause on the approach to Mt. Marcy through Panther Gorge. Courtesy photo

  • All downhill from here. Ron Konowitz takes in the view from the top of Saddleback Mountain. Photo by Rachel Wood

  • Fresh tracks in the Back in the Saddle Slide on Saddleback Mountain. Photo by Rachel Wood

Grassroots groups in New York and Vermont establish backcountry ski trails on public lands.

It’s September 2013, and Ron Konowitz hikes through birch and maple trees showing fall colors on 4,961-foot Mount Haystack in New York’s Adirondack Park. He’s explored these mountains for more than 40 years, usually with skis on his feet emblazoned with his identifier: Ron Kon. But today, Konowitz flags and reflags branches, brush and blowdown along a half-mile stretch, carefully avoiding flagging live trees. This section of forest drops about 800 vertical feet at a pitch approaching 30 degrees. With the deadfall gone Konowitz envisions five open lines of quality tree skiing here.

The Haystack zone is a demonstration site for the Adirondack Powder Skier Association, which Konowitz founded with lawyer Dean Schneller. The APSA seeks to establish and maintain ski-specific trails in the Adirondacks and to improve access for skiers at minimal environmental cost. Elsewhere, grassroots backcountry skiing organizations like California’s Snowlands Network, Washington’s Inland Northwest Backcountry Alliance, and the Montana Backcountry Alliance have similar agendas. Over Lake Champlain in the Green Mountain State, the Vermont Backcountry Alliance is building a network of backcountry skiers and environmental groups to manage new ski terrain and preserve existing ones.

The payoff of all this type of work? In the Adirondacks, more backcountry skiing means a much needed ecotourism boom. It also means engaged citizens who will care for the land in the future. As the Winter Wildlands Alliance, a national nonprofit that works with grassroots organizations, puts it: “The human-powered outdoor recreation community has a direct and intensely personal interest in the conservation of our public lands.”

To sell officials on East Coast backcountry skiing, the APSA brought representatives from Adirondack regulatory bodies and state environmental offices to the demonstration site on Mount Haystack. The officials were impressed, but to succeed, the APSA needs to amend the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan—which allows for hiking trails, but not the clearing of dead wood for skiing. “I admire how well they’ve protected this place,” Konowitz says. “But backcountry skiers didn’t have a voice when the conservation language was drafted in the ’70s.” Of the roughly 1.2 million acres of Adirondack parklands, there are close to 900 miles of hiking trails and 70 miles of horse trails, but only 9.5 miles of backcountry ski trails.

The APSA has two goals: Get ski touring recognized as an approved use in the master plan—cross-country skiing’s already in—and get approval for open-woods ski trail maintenance. The idea is to clear branches, brush and blowdown—no live trees—for uphill and downhill ski routes. Critical to point out, say Konowitz and Schneller, is how these trails differ from the “glades” found on-piste. Rather than clear-cut shots that would resemble a trail at New York’s Whiteface ski area, the APSA envisions descents through open trees that would be recognizable only to a skier who’s looking for them. “From an environmental standpoint, we have zero impact,” says Konowitz. He points out that hiking trails clear land, while open-woods ski trails work with existing terrain. The snowpack protects the forest.

Following a public comment period in which the Adirondack Park Agency received more than 800 letters in support of the APSA, Konowitz and Schneller are pushing to get their agenda on the docket for master-plan amendments this spring. If they succeed, public hearings and a vote will follow. If not, Konowitz fears it could take years. And in spite of the letters and support from various environmentalists and politicians, Konowitz and Schneller say the APSA faces resistance primarily from people who don’t ski and haven’t seen the demonstration site. Their qualms have made an amendment necessary and now threaten to push even that process back.

But the APSA is looking ahead. Schneller sees a European model where skiers could tour from town to town. “We feel this could have a huge impact on us,” says Randy Douglas, who’s held the office of Town Supervisor in Jay, NY for 11 years. “Backcountry skiing improves the economy by bringing desperately needed tourism back to these small communities.”

“The APSA and the Vermont Backcountry Alliance could play a huge role in conserving what we love,” says VTBC coordinator Brian Mohr. “Skiing is coming full circle with its roots here in the Northeast.” —Matt McDonald

Please visit adkpowderskier.com for more information.

5 Responses to “Fighting for the Backcountry”

  1. Daniel McSwiggan

    Great plan!!. I would travel ,often, to the ADK region for this. Easier than getting to Tuckerman

  2. John Sullivan

    This is not a question of “access.” Everybody has access to the Adirondacks public lands. This is about a few people who want to fix things up to suit themselves. The point of the Forest Preserve is to prevent people from fixing things up to suit themselves. Sometimes that may mean building a dam. So nuts to them. Leave it alone.

    • drew

      You mean like what all the hikers/horseback riders/paddlers/cyclists/users of the preserve have been doing for years?

  3. William Edwards

    Sounds great! I am just getting into split boarding and this is exactly what I’d love to do in the ADKs.


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