A Nonprofit Push for Outdoor Access in the Northeast

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On a weekday morning in January in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest, the base of the gladed Maple Villa backcountry ski zone could have been mistaken for a Walmart parking lot on Black Friday. Some skiers sat anxiously in their cars, waiting for a spot to open up, while others parked at the nearby Ledge Brewing Company and walked the mile up the road with their skis slung over their shoulders. After a slow start to the season in New England, there was finally enough snowpack to abandon the groomers for backcountry terrain. 

It wasn’t always like this. Unlike the West, backcountry skiing on the East Coast has distinct challenges. The amount of private property in the region is staggering—only 4 percent of land east of Mississippi is public, compared with 47 percent in the West—and access to it is hindered by a complex web of private landowners, trusts, and federal and public managers, not to mention dense new-growth forests. “Historically, because of the East Coast’s tree-density issues, backcountry skiers would either venture to natural alpine areas or were commonly found cutting unapproved lines,” said Tyler Ray, founder of the Granite Backcountry Alliance (GBA), a nonprofit organization based in North Conway, New Hampshire, with nearly a thousand members that advocates for increased access to the sport. “You would often see these egregious cuts in the forest, and in some cases, people had to serve jail time. We’ve been able to bridge the gap of opening access to new terrain and educating skiers.” 

But starting in 2016, Maple Villa and a handful of other glades in the vicinity—including Baldface in Evan’s Notch, on the Maine–New Hampshire state line, and Crescent Ridge, part of the 10,000-acre Randolph Community Forest—have been among the few skiable backcountry zones in a region where they’re incredibly limited. These areas of the White Mountains are a result of five years of advocacy and planning work by the GBA. Prior to their development, out-of-bounds skiing was only possible in above-tree-line terrain, a few natural drainages and old avalanche paths, and a handful of former ski trails built by the Civilian Conservation Corps nearly a century ago. Since launching five years ago, the GBA has been working with landowners and land managers to obtain approval for public access and to create gladed ski areas, adding significant acreage to the few less-developed local ski spots, like the Gulf of Slides and John Sherburne ski trails, that existed prior to its inception. 

To secure these sites, GBA members spend countless hours building relationships and trust with landowners and managers, educating them on the benefits these zones will have on their communities and addressing their concerns. Once access is approved, the U.S. Forest Service collaborates with the GBA on what trees should and shouldn’t be cut, how to minimize the risk of erosion, and other above-ground vegetation management measures that ensure any cutting is being done in a sustainable way. The organization then hosts “glade days,” where up to 75 volunteers come out to help cut the outdoor space they’ll eventually end up skiing. In five years, the group has successfully built eight glades in New Hampshire and western Maine, for a cumulative total of 8,100 vertical feet of skiable terrain, and more are in the works, potentially in the Pemigewasset and Androscoggin districts of White Mountain National Forest. 

Mont Lafayette enneigé (photo6)
(Photo: Pierre-Olivier Valiquette/iStock)

Rural communities, like those near the GBA’s glades, benefit greatly from the development of outdoor recreational venues, a fact that can easily convince private landowners to sign on. A recent economic analysis of Maple Villa, Crescent Ridge, and Baldface revealed that nearly $1 million in revenue was generated within the local community during the 2018–19 ski season alone, according to Ray. 

The main concern for most landowners, Ray says, is liability. But in New Hampshire and Maine, historical liability laws protect landowners who allow people to recreate on their property. In New Hampshire, these laws ensure that landowners won’t be held accountable for any injuries or damages that occur on their land, provided they don’t charge visitors a fee for access and don’t do anything obviously negligent that results in injury, such as suddenly building a fence across an already established ski zone without proper signage. 

Maine has similar protection laws, but landowners are permitted to charge fees for recreational use. It is understood that users of these zones are doing so at their own risk, and that they will be held responsible if they are injured while on someone’s property. If that does occur, local and state organizations, like the Mountain Rescue Service, are typically notified by the injured party or another person who is around to help. 

While the GBA is the newest organization of this kind, it isn’t the first one working to expand opportunities for recreation on the East Coast. In Vermont, the Rochester/Randolph Sports Trail Alliance (RASTA) was founded after Hurricane Irene’s devastating toll on small communities in 2013. “It was really a way to rebuild these communities that were hit by this storm,” said Zac Freeman, a founding member of the alliance. “We hoped it would give folks something to look forward to and would help some of the struggling businesses. But at the core of it, we’re doing it because we want to create more opportunities to recreate in these small towns.” 

RASTA helped grow Vermont’s backcountry ski network significantly. Along with liaising with private landowners, it also worked with the Forest Service to create the Brandon Gap Backcountry in 2017, one of the first actively managed backcountry ski zones on Forest Service land in the country. The project initially encompassed four separate areas, but today it offers more than 28,000 combined vertical feet across six separate gladed zones around the state, all managed by RASTA.

Before the GBA or RASTA, there was the Kingdom Trails Association. Founded in 1994 in East Burke, Vermont, the KTA was one of the first organizations to begin working with private landowners to create outdoor access. After 25 years, it had secured a network of more than 100 miles of cross-country and downhill trails and is now considered one of New England’s premier singletrack mountain-biking destinations. These arrangements between the association and the more than 100 private landowners currently signed on were based primarily on the promise that the trails would benefit the community—landowners receive no financial compensation for allowing public access. Fulfilling that promise, it is estimated that the trail network generated $10 million for the surrounding communities during the 2019 fiscal year.

Autumn in the Northeast Kingdom
(Photo: DenisTangneyJr/iStock)

But these contracts, which rely on trust, are nonbinding, and landowners always have the option to revoke their access. In fact, in December 2019, a few landowners informed the KTA that they would no longer permit mountain bikers on their property (although they did continue to allow other forms of recreation, like snowshoeing and trail running), resulting in the loss of nearly 12 miles of trails to cyclists. While the landowners haven’t publicly stated their reasoning and couldn’t be reached for comment, the association speculated that they felt their land wasn’t being respected by mountain bikers, a concern that may have been amplified by an extreme increase in trail use in recent years.

Elise Lawson, a KTA landowner with property just north of those who revoked access, and a member of the KTA’s board of directors, has noticed an increase in users and trail congestion since purchasing her property in 2003. And while her experience with mountain bikers has been overwhelmingly positive, she did note that there are occasional exceptions.

“I feel that some people who come might not be aware that Kingdom Trails is composed of private landowners,” said Lawson. “I think some people may have been getting a sense of entitlement rather than gratitude.”

For the KTA, the landowners’ decision served as a wake-up call.

“We recognize that we should have been more effectively communicating with our landowners,” said Abby Long, Kingdom Trails’ executive director. “But we also needed to be educating our trail users on proper etiquette.”

To keep this from happening again, the organization has been soliciting ideas and feedback from landowners and community members. It has also been investing in research and communication through a USDA-funded capacity study that addresses and promotes sustainable growth and a new advisory committee that allows landowners to become more involved in planning, as well as user engagement and education through an expanded ambassador program and “Ride with Gratitude” campaign, which is a code of ethics directed at the mountain-biking community that was created by the Northern Forest Center’s Mountain Bike Collaborative

“It’s our responsibility to ensure that we protect the privilege to recreate on private lands,” said RASTA’s Freeman. “Because it isn’t a right. And it’s our job, as GBA, RASTA, and the New England Mountain Bike Association, to promote responsibility, trail ethics, and landowner stewardship.”

In late January, RASTA dealt with a similar issue. A police report filed by a skier on January 25 stated that two gunshots were heard after the skier accidentally crossed onto an abutting property, followed by a third approximately 15 minutes later. The organization was notified, and it immediately closed the trail network in an attempt to resolve the issue. RASTA couldn’t confirm the source of the shots, but as a precaution, volunteers helped reroute the trail farther away from the property and add signage to create a quiet zone. The trail reopened a few weeks later and hasn’t seen any incidents since. 

“It’s our responsibility to ensure that we protect the privilege to recreate on private lands,” said RASTA’s Freeman. “Because it isn’t a right. And it’s our job, as GBA, RASTA, and the New England Mountain Bike Association, to promote responsibility, trail ethics, and landowner stewardship.” 

To help educate its users, the GBA, in collaboration with Winter Wildlands Alliance, a national nonprofit representing backcountry skiers on public lands, recently introduced Ski Kind, a code of conduct that they will share at their sites moving forward, which involves simple yet effective measures such as respecting closures and packing out garbage. 

In a similar effort, over a thousand businesses, organizations, and influential individuals formed the Recreate Responsibly Coalition last fall, which was born during an uptick in general outdoor recreation during COVID-19 to promote responsible ways to get outside.

Despite the challenges and hurdles to create and bolster these recreational spaces in the Northeast, the GBA’s Ray is optimistic. “This outdoor economy is taking over,” he said. “And these organizations are showing that it can be sustainable and support small towns. It’s really a way of life.”

While the organizations have largely been successful, their continued growth depends on the respect and awareness of the visitors who recreate on these lands. “I feel that every trail user represents the organization,” said Freeman. “Because you never know who you’re gonna pass on the trail. It could be the landowner that allowed you to ski on their land.”