Whose Woods Are These?

If you don’t know whose backcountry you’re skiing in, you may be trespassing.

On the third weekend of January, somewhere in the backcountry glades of Braintree Mountain Forest, shots rang out. It wasn’t a hunter after coyotes but a life-long Vermonter protecting his property from a backcountry skier. Though the land was posted with ‘No Trespassing’ signs, skiers sometimes ignore them as they pick fresh lines down from a trail near the home. When this skier, also a life-long Vermonter, crossed over onto the private land, the landowner had enough and fired a few warning shots.

No one was hurt but the skier filed a police report. “After, the skier was sincerely apologetic about it all,” said Braintree resident Zac Freeman, who along with Angus McCusker founded the Rochester/Randolph Sport Trails Alliance (RASTA), the group that has developed the backcountry trails in Braintree and at Brandon Gap, near Rochester.

RASTA promptly closed the area and began working with the abutting landowner to reroute the trail. “I’ve heard his frustrations before – and hey, I don’t think anyone would want a steady stream of skiers going by their kitchen window,” said Freeman. “But a big stewardship responsibility rests on the shoulders of each trail user.”   

In addition to rerouting the trail and posting signage, RASTA is creating a quiet-zone trailhead at Braintree. “People live right near there and they don’t want to listen to radios blaring and folks partying it up,”  Freeman says. 

While the glades at Brandon Gap were cut on National Forest Land – the first legally-sanctioned glades on National Forest land in the country—Braintree’s glades are cut on New England Forestry Foundation’s land which abut and sometimes cross private property on a town right-of-way. 

Last year, Kingdom Trails – the network of 100 miles of mountain biking trails in the Northeast Kingdom— suffered a blow when three landowners pulled their properties from the heart of the trail system, gutting main connector routes. This may have followed an altercation between mountain bikers and one of the landowners, but it built on village-wide complaints about excess noise, traffic and illegal parking around the trails.  Other trail groups, such as the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers, which manages snowmobile trails and the Catamount Trail Association have also had to negotiate with landowners for permission to cross their properties and handle complaints about trail users. 

This winter, backcountry skiing is seeing some of the same growing pains. “I’ve seen people parking all over the place at trailheads, by the sides of the road and in places they shouldn’t. And I wouldn’t blame towns or landowners at all if they decide to start towing cars,” said Freeman.

Like many mountain bike chapters, RASTA is primarily staffed by volunteers, with two paid director positions and funded by membership and donations. Though the organization does offer online memberships and as well as selling maps at The Gear Shop House in Randolph, Freeman estimates that only 10- to 20-percent of all RASTA trail users contribute to the organization. “We are working to change that,” he says.

At Kingdom Trails, ambassadors were stationed at key areas to monitor trail use last summer, reminding people of trail etiquette and collecting trail fees. “That’s something that the new funds being allocated to outdoor recreation might be able to help us and others do down the road,” says Freeman, referring to the nearly $10 million Gov. Scott proposed in his 2021 budget for supporting community-based outdoor recreation projects and trail building. 

“The silver lining to this is we hope people better realize the importance of knowing where they are, where they’re going and heightening their consciousness as to the impacts they may have on the area they’re recreating in,” Freeman notes.  And, as he reminds us all “Skiing here is a privilege, not a right.”  —Lisa Lynn


Opening photo: Aaron Rice explores state forest land. Photo by Cyril Brunner. 

Lisa Lynn

Editor of VT SKI + RIDE and Vermont Sports.