Far From Backwoods

Granite Backcountry Alliance cuts trees to grow backcountry skiing in New Hampshire.
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Cartoon of a man trimming trees for backcountry skiing.

Not all heroes wear capes.

In the woods, a summertime crew of 50-odd skiers is handling pole saws and loppers, carefully cutting down trees and smoothing out underbrush for the next season. This isn’t some rogue operation of yahoos defacing northern New England’s dense forests. This is a sanctioned effort of backcountry skiers clearing ski trails for the Granite Backcountry Alliance, a non-profit that’s trying to build backcountry access and a community that goes along with it in the Northeast.

There’s actually a long history of backcountry skiing in New Hampshire. Some of the first ski trails in the country, like the Maple Villa Glade which GBA has revived, were cut by the Civilian Conservation Core in the ’30s. But after the advent of chairlifts, some of those trails were no longer maintained, and unlike in the West, where there’s plenty of public land above tree line which makes for good backcountry skiing, much of New England is dense, second-growth forest on private property. For that reason, there’s also been a history of rogue trail cutting in this area—people wearing ski masks and chopping down trees under the light of headlamps to clear out pathways conducive to backcountry skiing. In short, the backcountry scene in the area was historically not collective, nor was it strictly legal.

GBA wanted to change that by building a locally supported community around backcountry skiing. “Trail work is a connection to the land that brings you back forever,” says Tyler Ray, GBA’s founder. Officially founded in September of 2016, the organization is a response to the lack of available terrain for tree skiing in the area. “The surge of interest in backcountry skiing was the perfect storm of gear, resort ticket prices growth, and the whole return-to-nature ideology,” says Ray. “People just want to be outside and they don’t just want to rip the same run over and over again.”

So GBA works with federal land managers, state entities, and towns, along with land trusts and private landowners, to develop trails and traffic patterns that work for everyone. “GBA is connecting the fragmented backcountry community in a much-needed way,” says Andrew Drummond, who runs Ski the Whites, a backcountry gear shop in Jackson, New Hampshire. “It’s providing a reliable organization that land managers will listen to and want to work with.”

It helps that GBA is shaking up an aging population of conservationists and injecting new energy into land management policy and planning. “Land trusts are suffering from their own aging population, they have trouble infusing youth and they look at us, bringing an old sport back to the mainstream,” Ray says.

Stay on Topic: Newbs in the Backcountry

Since its inception, GBA has gladed trails in five different zones in New Hampshire, and it has projects in the works across New England, working with landowners and state and federal land managers to give skiers access to carefully managed, low-impact backcountry zones. It’s an innovative method for trail building—a look back to New England’s rich ski history, as well as a forward-thinking way to develop a robust local recreation economy and foster connection to the land.

In addition to revising old trails and glading new ones, GBA is starting to work on creating backcountry gates at resorts that would open into land trust acreage. Mountain-to-mountain ski traverses are also in the works, including a proposed traverse starting on Black Mountain in Maine.

At the same time, GBA’s goal is to make the backcountry feel like the backcountry, so they’ve worked with the forest service and scientists to develop sustainable methods to reduce tree density and make unobtrusive pathways up and down mountains. “Essentially, we’re cutting schwack and laying it back down on the soil to lay a flatter surface,” Ray says. “We incorporate islands and braided design to maintain habitat and limit impact. We’re implementing glade lines for skin tracks, where we’ll cut the uptrack sustainably.”

When their teams—comprised of volunteers they call quarry dogs—go into a zone, they have everything flagged out by GPS in advance. There are also certain standards they cut by: They don’t cut trees over three inches in diameter, for instance, and they cut certain types of trees more than others.

Clinic: Mastering the Skin Track Kick-Turn

GBA is not just about the skiing, says Ray. Its goal is also to educate users about low-impact forestry and mountain travel, and all the ways they play into backcountry skiing. “Here in northern New Hampshire, we want to be bringing people to these northern rural communities to drive the economy and bring it all back to the history.” He sees GBA as a holistic way of driving recreational tourism, getting locals outside, and creating a culture around wise use and care in the New England hills. “We call it GIMBY—glade in my backyard,” he says. “Chairlifts are not going away. I don’t see us competing with ski resorts, but we’re pushing the sport.”

Heather Hansman is a displaced New Englander living on the West Coast. When she's not venturing out into the backcountry, she's working on her new book about ski bums. Want to read more of her writing? Check out her book about the Green River.

Originally published in the November 2019 issue of SKI Magazine. Don't miss an issue and SUBSCRIBE NOW.

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