Before this semester, my vision of recreational skiing included barreling down a ski resort hill or leisurely cross country skiing on a park trail, but I didn’t understand the concept of backcountry skiing. I had no clue that people wove through natural forests down mountainsides absent of ski lifts and snow machines. When speaking to Ron Konowitz, head of the Adirondack Powder Skier Association (APSA), it became clear that I was not the only one who was unaware of this brand of skiing. “We don’t exist with the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism (ROOST), the DEC doesn’t ever list us as an activity, but there are thousands of us,” Konowitz says. After my interview with Konowitz, I feel I may have found an economically viable, least environmentally impactful form of recreation. Yet, the creation of backcountry ski trails on public lands in the Adirondacks is illegal. I am not a backcountry skier, but I am indignant as an environmentalist and recreator. Konowitz and the APSA are advocating for the creation of more backcountry trails, a proposal that, in my mind should be allowed. The holdup involves a lawsuit against snowmobile trails and a constitutional amendment. Here is the frustrating story.
“Initially we wanted an open woods ski route,” says Konowitz. The route area would be 75 feet in wilderness and wild forests. Do not envision a 75 foot-wide trail cut straight down the mountain like the glades at Whiteface. Instead, envision about four trails in a “sweater weave pattern”, merging together in some areas and meandering apart in others on a naturally open landscape. In order to construct the routes “we cut only branches, some saplings, and blow down. Trees are our friends. If we didn’t have trees, we wouldn’t have naturally open areas,” says Konowitz. The routes are visible only to the skier-trained eye. Do not be concerned about open woods ski routes cropping up in any and every place – there are limiting factors. The slope must be north or east facing and concave to protect from sun and wind, and there must be a large amount of snowfall. Worried about forest regeneration? The Sundown Clause allows DEC officials to check on routes every 3 years to determine if the landscape is still naturally open or if the trail needs to be moved. “If it’s done right, [open woods ski routes] should have more of a wild character than anything that’s already allowed. We want to work with the forest, not against it,” says Konowitz. I was convinced.
Officials in Albany were not. As an alternative to the open woods ski routes, they offered to allow 12-foot wide trails, as that was offered to snowmobilers for connector trails. The plan for backcountry trails was to be publicly announced in November 2016 – until the court granted Protect the Adirondacks, a conservation group, an injunction to halt the creation of snowmobile trails. At the center of the lawsuit lies a question – what is a tree? Currently, the state counts a tree as anything above 3 inches in diameter at breast height (DBH), but Protect argues that smaller trees should count as well. When trees below 3 inches DBH are included, Protect claims that the amount of trees removed to build snowmobile community connector trails violates Article 14 of the NYS constitution, more commonly known as the “forever wild” clause. (To learn more about this issue, read my post Seeing the Forest for the Trees) Unfortunately, Konowitz and the APSA are caught in the middle, and the November announcement was tabled until the lawsuit is over.
The conflict with snowmobilers has also dimmed the voice of environmentalist support for Konowitz and the backcountry skiers. ”It’s not that environmental groups are against us, but they haven’t helped push it over the goal line,” he says. The heads of environmental groups are “running into roadblocks with some of their board members, asking what are you opening the door to?” Konowitz believes their concerns are invalid. “We have no fuel, we are not motorized, and move at a pace conducive to wilderness experience. We wouldn’t fit what others are looking for.”
At this point it appears as though Konowitz and the ASPA must pursue a constitutional amendment in order to expand backcountry skiing in the Adirondacks. “What we’re proposing should not trigger an article 14, which says you can’t cut trees to a material degree. We don’t even want to cut trees,” Konowitz says. In fact, Konowitz is willing to go even lower than the state currently, and consider anything at 2 inches DBH a tree. Yet, it seems Konowitz may need the same amendment that Whiteface, Gore, and the Northway Interstate (I-87) required. At Whiteface there are “snow making machines, lodges, lifts, piping, 100-foot wide trails, and trucks driving up and down the mountain all summer long.” It is astounding that what Konowitz is proposing is placed in the same box.
“It’s not like we’re doing anything new on forest preserve,” says Konowitz. Backcountry skiing dates back to the 1920s and 30s, and trails were created at those times. In the 40s, ski lifts were introduced, and by the time the State Land Master Plan (SLMP) was created in 1973, backcountry skiing had puttered out. As a result, backcountry skiing was excluded from the SLMP. Around 1985 the activity regained popularity, and today, “backcountry skiing is the fastest growing area in skiing right now.”
Due to its growing popularity, Konowitz also believes backcountry skiing could lead to economic growth in the park. “There’s a large group of people in their 20s and 30s that are big on skiing,” says Konowitz. Backcountry skiers are “people that care about this place and want to live in these small towns and raise their families here.” The growth wouldn’t be limited to the high peaks either. “It doesn’t take 4,000 vertical feet, as long as it has good snow,” he says. “It’s hard to be a resort town in the winter, and we’re an answer for that.”
“I think we’re pretty progressive,” says Konowitz. And that’s the problem. They don’t fit cleanly into any legal box. Instead, backcountry skiing is lumped into a category with either snowmobilers or Whiteface resort skiing- despite the fact that its environmental impact is much lower than either. If you want to see if backcountry skiing is successful, look at Vermont. The ASPA was created 4 ½ years ago. According to Konowitz, Vermont caught wind of what they were doing, and “in 2 years, not only did they have regulations changed, but they have a ski track. Not only do we not have any trails, but they’ve done nothing to change regulations.” Konowitz believes “the Adirondacks are the most protected place in the world,” which is something he appreciates, but finds frustrating. “In the past, the [NYS] constitution has slayed some pretty big dragons- we are not one of them.”