ORDA seeks input on Whiteface facelift
LAKE PLACID — The state Olympic Regional Development Authority is asking for public comment on a draft Unit Management Plan Amendment for the Whiteface Mountain Ski Center, which proposes an expansion of the New York Ski Educational Foundation building, a new lift and new ski, hiking and biking trails. ORDA will be accepting comments on the UMP until Dec. 8.
ORDA CEO Michael Pratt presented the proposal at an Adirondack Park Agency meeting on Oct. 14.
A Whiteface UMP amendment was approved in 2018, but Pratt said “a lot has changed in the last three to four years” — including the upcoming 2023 World University Games and increased demand for outdoor recreation since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Trail work, new lift
Pratt said that the new plan first prioritizes the widening of ski racing trails, to accommodate the upcoming university games and other national and international events. He said construction “has to happen next summer” to prepare for the games, so he hopes the new UMP will be approved by early next spring.
The next priority would be the installation of a new lift in the Bear Den area to the Mid Station Lodge, which Pratt said would improve learning experiences, accommodate beginner and lower level skiers and spread out skiers on the mountain.
The plan also proposes installing new hiking and downhill mountain biking trails, which would connect to the Wilmington Wild Forest trails. ORDA Director of Communications Jack Moulton said in an email Friday that the new Bear Den lift would service the proposed mountain biking trails during the summer. The plan also calls for the widening of existing connector trails, including the Wildway, 2200 Road, Upper Thruway, Upper Parkway, Lower Thruway, Burton’s, Danny’s Bridge and Brookside trails, and installing three new downhill connector trails to better accommodate lower-level skiers, according to Pratt.
Pratt said he hopes the new lift and trail construction could start next summer.
Article 14 of the state constitution limits the number of trails that Whiteface can have to 25 miles, and the new UMP proposes a quarter of a mile of new ski trails, totaling 22.35 miles of ski trails on the mountain. That leaves 2.65 miles left before the ski trail limit is reached.
The proposed plan would require cutting down more than 27,000 trees, with around 14,700 of those trees being three inches or greater in diameter, according to the UMP.
Pratt acknowledged that tree cutting for the new hiking trails could affect the sensitive Bicknell’s Thrush population, a bird whose status is listed as “special concern” in New York. The new UMP proposes removing 832 trees in the Bicknell’s Thrush habitat, which is usually above an elevation of 2,800 feet. The total Bicknell’s Thrush population is around 50,000, and the bird “is of high conservation priority because of its small population, limited breeding and wintering ranges, and vulnerability to deforestation in its winter habitat,” according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation website.
Protect the Adirondacks Executive Director Peter Bauer said Thursday that he doesn’t see a problem with the new downhill ski trails and trail widening because they’re allotted for in the state’s constitutional amendment for the alpine ski area, but he’s concerned about the amount of tree cutting that goes along with the installation of the lift-serviced hiking and biking trails in high elevation areas.
In addition to allowing downhill ski trails with limited widths, Article 14 accounts for “appurtenances thereto,” or necessary accessories for alpine skiing activities, according to Bauer. He said that in the past, that phrase has authorized the installation of parking lots, buildings, and other accessories related to skiing on the mountain. His concern is that the lift is not a “necessary” appurtenance to alpine skiing. He said that he hasn’t heard from ORDA about whether or not they are making the legal argument that those new accessories are appurtenances.
“That’s the big question,” he said.
He also said he has questions about the type of forests that will be cut for those trails. He said that many of the high elevation, small-diameter trees are not just a part of the Bicknell’s Thrush habitat, they’re also a part of an old-growth krummholz forest. Bauer said the forest is made up of stunted trees that are often tangled due to the extreme weather. The Bicknell’s Thrush make their homes there and in the sub alpine forest, according to Bauer.
To mitigate negative impacts on the Bicknell’s Thrush population, the new UMP proposes prohibiting tree cutting above an elevation of 2,800 feet between May 15 and Aug. 1, when the birds are most active in the area. Bicknell’s Thrush migrates south every winter.
The plan also aims to limit the width of hiking trails in the habitat and to comply with the Operations and Management Considerations established for the Adirondack Sub-Alpine Bird Conservation Area — that includes avoiding construction at Whiteface during the Bicknell’s nesting period, May 15 to Aug. 1, “whenever possible,” according to the plan.
Moulton said that the construction of projects proposed in the UMP would be funded from ORDA’s operational budget, which is $59.8 million for the 2021-2022 fiscal year.
Asked why the project wasn’t being funded via its capital budget — the authority typically draws from capital funds for improvements to its venues — and how much the proposed updates at Whiteface would cost, Moulton did not have an answer by deadline Friday.
North Elba town Supervisor Jay Rand said he was involved in at least two Unit Management Plans when he was manager of Whiteface, and he said the approval process for a UMP can be “involved and expensive.” He said he hasn’t looked at the new draft UMP in-depth, but he said that the new ski lift sounds “excellent,” because a lot of people access the new Mid Station Lodge.
Wilmington town Supervisor Roy Holzer said he’s also “generally supportive” of the new trails, lift and the proposed addition to the NYSEF building outlined in the UMP amendment. He said those advancements are necessary to compete with “neighbors and friends” along the East Coast with similar ski resorts, and he said the new mountain biking trails could help maintain the area’s title as the “biking capital of the Adirondacks.”
Holzer said those improvements could boost a growth in industry that would “trickle down” to the town of Wilmington. He also said there’s a copy of the draft UMP at the town offices, and he invited residents to come by, take a look at the plan and grab a free cup of coffee.
ORDA will be required to submit another draft of the UMP to the APA before approval, and the updated draft will include all public comments.
Comments can be submitted online at orda.org/public-comments or e-mailed to ORDAUMP@orda.org. Public comments can also be sent by mail to ORDA, Attn: Emma Lamy, Sustainability and Environmental Compliance Officer, 2634 Main St., Lake Placid, New York 12946.
People can view the draft UMP online at orda.org/whiteface-draft-2021-umpa. Paper copies of the draft UMP can be viewed at the Whiteface Mountain offices at the ski center in Wilmington and the ORDA Administration Office front desk on the first floor of the Lake Placid Conference Center.