For decades, the steep flanks of Vermont's 3,786-foot Big Jay have been cherished by Northeast tree-skiing devotees. Thinned occasionally by their restrained hands and accessed by an hourlong traverse from adjacent Jay Peak Resort, Big Jay offers the best lift-accessed backcountry turns in the region.
It's now at the center of a criminal investigation. On July 23, 2007, Paul Poulin and Alan Ritter, both of Vermont, confessed to clearing a 3,000-foot-long trail down the state-owned land, dropping nearly 900 trees in the process.
Close to 65 feet wide and clearly visible from Jay, the cut has caused an uproar among backcountry skiers and land managers. "This is just a completely different magnitude than what's historically been going on out there, says Rebecca Washburn, stewardship coordinator for the Green Mountain Club, which manages the property. "We don't have a problem with backcountry skiing; the problem is when it violates the 'Leave no trace' principle, and that's exactly what these guys did.
Eric Scharnberg, executive director of the Cross Vermont Trail Association and an avid backcountry skier, agrees. "The ski community doesn't want this to be construed as something that represents the overwhelming majority, he says. Thanks in part to his familiarity with state government and public-lands policy, Scharnberg has become a key figure in the skier response. "There is a lot of energy being directed at remediation.
Poulin and Ritter pleaded not guilty at a September arraignment, but they still face the possibility of as much as five years in prison. As the case works its way through the court system, skiers are left to wonder just how toxic the fallout will be. "Backcountry cutting has always been a total renegade practice, says Scharnberg. "I think we have to ask ourselves just how it evolved to this point.