APA sends cross-country ski plan out for public comment

A skier heads toward Marcy Dam in the High Peaks Wilderness Area. (Enterprise photo — Justin A. Levine)

RAY BROOK — The state Adirondack Park Agency has approved for public comment a state Department of Environmental Conservation plan that offers guidance on backcountry ski trails.

The APA’s State Land Committee approved the guidance document for comment on Thursday, and the full board approved the public comment period Friday. Due to the holiday season, the board also agreed to a longer public comment period, which will take place from Dec. 14 through Feb. 1.

The document, “Cross Country Ski Trail Design, Construction and Maintenance on Forest Preserve Lands in the Adirondack Park,” was several years in the making and could increase the number of ski-only trails inside the Blue Line.

After the public comment period, the APA board expects to revisit the guidance at its March meeting next year.

The plan creates guidance for the DEC on widths and heights for three types of backcountry ski trails: touring, backcountry and skintrack. The document has no affect on mechanically groomed trails such as those at the state-run Mount Van Hoevenberg (nordic) or Whiteface Mountain (alpine) ski centers.

The guidance would let the DEC construct special trails that would be used only in winter, and therefore have different design features than hiking trails.

Touring trails are traditional cross-country skiing trails. One-way trails would be 6 feet wide, two-way trails would be 8 feet, and sections of trail that have a grade greater than 10 percent could be widened to 12 feet. Examples include the Hayes Brook Trail, the trail to Camp Santanoni and the Jackrabbit Trail.

Backcountry ski trails are for steeper, more advanced skiing, similar to alpine skiing. One-way trails would be 8 feet wide, two-way trails could be 9 feet wide, and the 12-foot width would apply on grades of greater than 10 percent. Examples include the Mr. Van Trail, Avalanche Lake Trail and the Wright Mountain Ski Trail.

Both types of trails would require some terrain manipulation, including vegetation clearing and drainage control, according to the DEC. None of these trails would be groomed; the snow would just be user-maintained. Both types of trails would be cleared to 12 feet high.

Skintrack trails are narrow, one-way trails that provide access to slide skiing. The idea is that skiers go up the skintrack, then ski down the slide or similar area. Skintracks would be allowed to be 4 feet wide and 10 feet high. One skintrack could provide access to a number of areas, so not every slide or open area would have a skintrack right next to it.

Josh Wilson, executive director of Barkeater Trails Alliance — which manages and maintains the Jackrabbit Trail and mountain bike trails — said his group will submit comments on the guidance but is generally supportive.

“We’re psyched on it,” Wilson said. “We like to talk to other groups and see what concerns they may have before we submit our position. But as written, we’re pumped about it.”

The guidance itself does not create new trails — rather, the DEC can designate new ski trails in individual unit management plans — but the guidance would ensure a level of conformity if and when ski trails are built.

Ron Konowitz, president of the Adirondack Powder Skier Association, said his group has been working on this guidance with the DEC since 2012.

“We’re excited; it’s been a long time,” Konowitz said. “We’ve been very patient, and we’re excited to get out there and partner with the DEC to be able to work on these trails. Having a purpose-built trail is huge … a trail just for skiing which can be designed and maintained at very low cost. We have volunteers ready to work under the supervision of the DEC foresters. Without the guidelines, we can’t move forward.”

Konowitz doesn’t expect a whole bunch of trails to suddenly appear, as the guidance doesn’t call for the construction of them. He said any new trails will take some time.

“Once the guidelines are in place, the work plans can hopefully be approved,” he said. “We’ve given them proposals all over the park. There’s a list of places we’d like to see some trails. They’re basically places that get a lot of snow: Some are in wilderness areas; some are in wild forest.

“Being a purpose-built trail requires a certain amount of planning and design work to make it, so it’s not conducive to use in the summer.”

Not for glade skiing

One type of backcountry skiing that the guidance does not address is open-woods or glade skiing, where people ski downhill through wooded areas.

Eric Kasza, public lands access section chief for the DEC, said open woods skiing has some state constitutional issues that need to be addressed before the DEC can move forward on guidance.

“Article 14 protects trees on the Forest Preserve, and to provide an open-woods skiing opportunity, it would require a much larger area of vegetation to be manipulated or vegetation to get cut,” Kasza said. “That’s really the big hang-up.

“Proposals in this guidance have the same standards as, basically, snowmobile trails do. But an open-woods skiing area would need 60, 70 feet (wide), so you’re going from 9 feet to 60 or 70 feet, which would require a lot more vegetation to be manipulated,” he continued.

“So when you start getting out there to those really wide trail widths, you have some constitutionality issues.”

The comment period is shared between the APA and DEC. Comments will be accepted until Jan. 31, 2019. Written comments can be mailed to Kevin Prickett, P.O. Box 99, 1133 NYS Route 86, Ray Brook, NY 12977, or emailed to slmp_comments@apa.ny.gov with “Ski Trail Draft Guidance” in the subject line.