mt stirling 008
Mt Buller from Mt Stirling

The mountains of the eastern seaboard of the USA have some similarities with those in south eastern Australia. They are mostly forested, with only limited terrain above tree line, meaning that much of the steep snow country is not easily or safely ridden. Alpine resorts get around this by cutting runs, with sometimes very significant environmental impacts. Mt Buller would stand out as the worst case in Australia, with much of the mountain having been massively impacted by the footprint of the resort: the roads, the village, the runs and associated infrastructure, and waste treatment plants, etc.

Backcountry skiers and boarders tend to look to the higher terrain, and while many areas of tree covered terrain in the Australian mountains do offer some great options, the vast majority of the riding hours that are clocked up each winter are on naturally open slopes above tree line.

Image: APSA
Image: APSA

In the Adirondack mountains of New York state, there is a growing movement to create backcountry runs through ‘glade clearing’, small scale clearing of saplings to create safe corridors through the forests to allow skiing access.

The Adirondack Powder Skier Association (APSA) was formed to negotiate the right to cut these trails from state authorities in the Adirondack Park, which covers about 2.5 million hectares of wild land. Although avalanche slide paths are formed each year, skiers currently have few options when it comes to safely touring the backcountry mountain sides in the park. The APSA is seeking to gain an amendment to legislation that covers the park management plan so that they can create a series of skier-specific trails. The APSA argues that these would have less environmental impact than formed walking trails. Ron Konowitz, the president of the APSA, says “we’d manage the undergrowth by clipping horizontal stems and minimal undergrowth. On hiking trails they remove the top soil down to a hard surface. What we’re proposing is so much less invasive than that.”

Essentially they would seek to carefully remove a handful of trees on each ‘run’ or glade to create a more open area through birch forests which will be far safer than attempting to ski through regrowth forest. At this point, this type of management for backcountry skiing is not recognised in the Park management plans. Back country skiing and boarding is growing in North America, as it is here. The APSA argues that opening up back country runs would bring economic benefit to local towns, as it would attract more people to a wider area of the Adirondacks, as well as bringing many more opportunity for low impact out-of-resort skiing.

Of course, such land management intervention for a particular user group on public land is potentially fraught. It can be a foot in the door to more intrusive developments. The APSA seems to be mindful of this risk: it is seeking a change only to allow glade management, and is going to considerable lengths to bring all groups concerned about the mountains along with this proposal. It is set up as a not-for-profit corporation formed to “study, protect, promote, and enhance low-impact human powered snow sports on public lands in the Adirondack Mountains” and is working with state and local land managers, plus the local towns, conservation groups, and other stakeholders, to “define then develop appropriate management regulations” for managing the runs. If successful in gaining permission for the runs, they would trial them on a number of mountains.

For further details on the APSA, check their website.