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Going nowhere: Proposed ski gondola threatens habitat and treasured landscape at the top of Vermont

The public has been kept in the dark about a proposal to connect Stowe (Vail Resorts) and Smugglers Notch Ski Resort by a new gondola through the (supposedly) protected Mount Mansfield Natural Area. Will the state of Vermont honor its long-term commitment to this special wild place?

The Sandwich mountain range and farm fields in Wonalancet New Hampshire
The above map shows the approximate location of the proposed gondola in relation to the Mt Mansfield Natural Area (cross-hatches) and other sensitive features. (Map created by Standing Trees using information provided by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and obtained by the News and Citizen through records requests.)


On June 1, 2023, Aaron Calvin reported in the News & Citizen that Smugglers’ Notch Resort and Stowe Resort have been in communication with the State of Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources for as long as six years regarding a proposed ~2,600’ gondola linking the two ski areas.


The proposed lift, which would pass through the Mt. Mansfield State Forest, is currently prohibited by the Forest’s 2002 Long Range Management Plan, prepared by the VT Agency of Natural Resources. The area proposed for lift towers is managed as a Highly Sensitive Management Area, the strictest administrative designation afforded by the VT Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation for lands under state management (see Appendix A).


The land in question has several additional safeguards, indicating its long-appreciated importance to the State of Vermont and commitment to permanent protection:

  1. The proposed lift would install five towers and require routine cutting of trees within the Mount Mansfield Natural Area, which is managed according to FPR Policy #7 (see Appendix B). Natural Areas are strictly managed to prohibit development and can only be created or eliminated with approval of the Governor and after holding public hearings. There is no stronger designation under State of VT law for protection of state lands and waters than the Natural Area designation.

  2. The proposed lift passes through a State of VT-designated Fragile Area, which, according to VT statute, “means an area of land or water that has unusual or significant flora, fauna, geological, or similar features of scientific, ecological, or educational interest.”

  3. The proposed lift passes through the Mount Mansfield Natural Area National Natural Landmark, a system of areas tracked by the US Department of Interior’s National Park Service. National Natural Landmarks are “designated by the Secretary of the Interior in recognition that the site contains significant examples of the nation's biological and/or geological features.”

On May 30th, 2023, the Wildlands in New England report was released to the public. This cutting-edge report, a joint effort involving academics, nonprofits, and state and federal agencies, defines and maps permanently-protected “wildlands” across all jurisdictions (public, private, tribally-managed, etc) in the six-state New England region. The State of VT Agency of Natural Resources, a contributor to the report, requested that all lands in Highly Sensitive Management Areas, including the area proposed for this new ski lift, be included on the formal list of permanent wildlands. The connector lift proposal, if approved, would serve to demonstrate that HSMA’s are not deserving of recognition as permanently-protected wildlands, and that the Vermont legislature must strengthen such designations.


A search using the Agency of Natural Resources’ Natural Resource Atlas reveals the following qualities of the land in question:

  • Highest Priority forest block and Highest Priority Connectivity Block.

  • Highest Priority Surface Water and Riparian areas.

  • Areas designated as "Rare" Physical Landscape Diversity.

  • Areas identified with Rare plants.

  • 6+ Priority Habitat Blocks.

  • Highest Priority Natural Communities.

  • Sterling Pond and several streams in the area are designated as Highest Priority Aquatic Habitat.

  • A few Highest Priority wetlands.

  • Rare and Uncommon Species Highest Priority.

As of 2002, when the area’s management plan was last revised, Sterling Pond received an estimated 12,800 annual visitors via the Long Trail.


In addition to going through Act 250 review, approval of this gondola proposal would require - at a minimum - the revision of the Mt Mansfield State Forest Management Plan and an adjustment of the Mount Mansfield Natural Area boundaries.


As of September 14, 2023, the State of Vermont had not responded to a June 5th, 2023, request by Standing Trees for an explanation of the process by which the VT Agency of Natural Resources will make a decision about the proposed lift, including opportunities for public education and input.


The failure of the state to respond to Standing Trees' request for basic information related to decision making is a symptom of a larger problem in state land management. Standing Trees sued the State of Vermont in 2022 because the revision of state land management plans is haphazard and lacks transparency and accountability. By law, the state is required to promulgate rules for state land management, establishing binding standards that protect and support the public's right to oversee state land management and ensure that decisions are made in the public's interest. In response to Standing Trees' petition and lawsuit, the VT Agency of Natural Resources agreed to promulgate rules in the fall of 2022, but has refused to offer a timeline, explanation of process, or any other details in the ten months that have elapsed since their announcement.


On September 1, 2023, a judge dismissed Standing Trees' lawsuit on procedural grounds. Standing Trees is evaluating its legal options and will keep working to protect state lands and the public's right to transparency and accountability.


The proposed Stowe-to-Smuggs connector lift shines a spotlight on the opaque management of Vermont state lands. From Camel's Hump, to Smugglers Notch, to Lake Willoughby, state public lands are an essential part of our identity, not to mention a critical asset in the fight against climate change and extinction.


The public deserves better from those it entrusts with the careful stewardship of public lands.


Standing Trees is prepared to stop this reckless proposal, whatever it takes.


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Appendix A

Mount Mansfield State Forest Long Range Management Plan (2002)


Highly Sensitive Areas (HSA):

Highly Sensitive Areas have uncommon or outstanding biological, ecological, geological, scenic, cultural or historical significance where these values are preserved and protected. Human activities/uses should be minimal and managed to protect these exceptional features. However, within many of these areas, trails already exist. There are only three roads found in or adjacent to the Highly Sensitive Areas, Route 108 through Smugglers Notch, the access road beyond Underhill State Park and the Toll Road, which is the boundary between two use areas. While it will not be possible to eliminate the uses already in existence, negative impacts may be mitigated. Logging will not occur in Highly Sensitive Areas, however, protection of the natural communities in these areas may involve some vegetative management.


On Mt. Mansfield State Forest the Highly Sensitive Areas represent 16,819 acres or 42% of the forest. Of these acres, 3,461 were designated as a Natural Area by the Governor in 1968. An additional 100 acres was designated as a Natural Area in 1995. About ten thousand acres occur on steep slopes with shallow soils that are not suitable for logging. The remaining 3,200 acres are low elevation lands that that are either part of the Vermont Monitoring Cooperative’s minimal management areas or protect the steep, highly erodible slopes to Waterbury Reservoir and Cotton Brook. Most of this land has not been logged since state ownership. Hunting, fishing and many recreational activities are allowed throughout these areas.


Management Goals:

(1) Protect rare, threatened and endangered plants, animals and natural communities. Protect examples of exemplary natural communities.

(2) Protect high elevation areas with steep slopes and fragile soils.

(3) Protect Class A1 waters (those above 2,500 feet elevation) to maintain their natural condition.

(4) Manage Class B1 waters to maintain an almost natural condition showing minimal changes from reference conditions for aquatic macroinvertebrates and fish assemblages.

(5) Protect significant and unique wildlife habitats.

(6) Maintain areas of remoteness, which provide a semi-primitive opportunity for recreation.

(7) Continue to provide dispersed recreational opportunities where appropriate and compatible with other goals.


Highly Sensitive Management Area #6 [(including the entire area proposed for the gondola)]

Protect the high elevation Montane Spruce-Fir and the Montane Yellow Birch-Red Spruce natural communities.

This area was designated a Natural Area by the Vermont Legislature in 1968. It also contains a number of other small natural communities, including Boreal Calcareous Cliffs, Boreal Outcrops, Open Talus, and Subalpine Krummholz. The largest expanse of Bicknell’s thrush nesting habitat on Mt. Mansfield State Forest is found within this area, along with active peregrine falcon nesting sites. Smugglers Notch proper is found within the boundaries of the Natural Area. VT Route 108, which travels through the notch, is designated as a scenic highway. This road is a popular commuting route during the summer and brings many visitors to the area each year. The notch is also a popular area during the winter and has been identified as a premier ice climbing area. There is also one cleared alpine ski trail in the Natural Area (Snuffy’s Run). Snuffy’s Run connects Smugglers Notch Resort in Cambridge with Spruce Peak in Stowe. The Long Trail, three shelters, a tenting area, and a number of side and access trails are located in this area. Sterling Pond is found within the Natural Area. Existing ski development encroaches on the shoreline of Sterling Pond. The area in the Town of Underhill is designated as part of the Vermont Monitoring Cooperative research area. Vermont State Parks operates an information booth in the notch proper as part of the Smugglers Notch State Park.


Implementation:

  1. Human activity in this unit is limited to pedestrian uses, with two exceptions: Vermont Route 108 brings vehicles through Smugglers Notch and will remain in use; and the alpine ski trails are maintained during the ski season with groomers. The groomers are not allowed on Sterling Pond.

  2. The Smugglers Notch Scenic Highway will be managed according to the management plan. Activities planned for the Scenic Highway will require State permits.

  3. Maintain a department staff presence in the notch proper. This may involve continuing to operate and maintain the information booth. The department will reassess this need when the northern and southern gateways on the scenic highway are fully functional. Construct a new composting toilet to replace the existing outhouse facility.

  4. The Long Trail and associated shelters will be maintained. The trail system will be monitored to determine if trail closings or relocations are necessary. The Long Trail north of VT Route 108 will be moved to the Elephants Head Trail to eliminate the VT Route 108 walk for through hikers.

  5. The peregrine falcon nesting sites will be protected. During the nesting season it may be necessary to restrict access to the nesting habitat by closing trails and limiting rock climbing.

  6. Any activity will consider the impact on the Bicknell’s thrush nesting habitat. No activity that will cause further loss or degradation to this habitat will occur.

  7. Within the research area, activities must be coordinated with the VMC. Only non-destructive research will occur in this area.

  8. A plan will be developed with the goal of restoring the riparian zone of Sterling Pond. Thousands of hikers, including anglers, visit this fragile high elevation pond annually and have caused considerable damage. The area will be monitored and evaluated to determine impacts on the resource, including the practice of stocking fish and ski area development.

  9. Rock climbing and bouldering are popular activities in the Notch. These activities will be monitored and action taken to mitigate negative impacts.

  10. A major problem within this area is winter snowboarding and skiing. Many illegal trails already exist. This activity will be monitored to determine its impact on the resource and actions taken to mitigate any negative impact.

Appendix B

Title 10 : Conservation And Development

Chapter 083 : Department Of Forests, Parks And Recreation

Subchapter 001 : General Provisions

(Cite as: 10 V.S.A. § 2607)


§ 2607. Natural areas; designation

(a) The Commissioner, with the approval of the Governor, may designate and set aside areas in the State forests and State parks as natural areas.

(b) “Natural areas” means limited areas of land that have retained their wilderness character, although not necessarily completely natural and undisturbed, or have rare or vanishing species of plant or animal life or similar features of interest that are worthy of preservation for the use of present and future residents of the State and may include unique ecological, geological, scenic, and contemplative recreational areas on State lands.

(c) Land uses and practices in natural areas shall be subject to regulations of the Department to carry out the purposes of this chapter to manage or maintain the areas for the preservation of their natural condition. Areas so designated may be removed from such designation only by approval of the Governor following public notice and hearing. (Added 1977, No. 253 (Adj. Sess.), § 1.)

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