Paul Smith’s system opened the woods for skiers
By Gwendolyn Craig
At the northern part of the Adirondack Park, a band of outdoor enthusiasts have created backcountry ski trails, which they hope state officials will use as a model for the forest preserve. Though state staff have visited the site, backcountry skiers will have to wait a bit longer for any policy action.
The project is on Jenkins Mountain at Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center, where there is one uphill skin track and three descending trails weaving through open woods. This winter marked the first time the trails were open to the public, though their builders caution they are meant for intermediate and experienced backcountry skiers.
It is a particularly meaningful project to Ron Konowitz, a Keene Valley resident and well-known winter lover, who has backcountry skied all 46 of the park’s High Peaks. He also leads the Adirondack Powder Skier Association and its approximately 1,000 members. The Jenkins Mountain trail markers asking, “Where’s Ron Kon?,” are even named after Konowitz. (Click here for a short video of him on the Jenkins trail.) His nickname came from a forest ranger, who had trouble with his last name. Konowitz was both tickled and embarrassed to discover the markers in late December when embarking on his own trek up the mountain.
Skiers must purchase a Paul Smith’s College VIC day pass for $15 to use the trails. To learn more, go to https://www.paulsmithsvic.org/jms-ski-zone/.
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The 500-foot vertical climb is not very high, Konowitz said, and does not get to the mountain’s summit.
“But it’s in a place that gets snow,” he said. “It’s incredibly beautiful, and there’s a beaver pond.”
Konowitz has advocated for the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Adirondack Park Agency to create policies for backcountry ski trails on forest preserve lands. The state had been moving toward an official policy in 2019, but litigation halted the progress. Protect the Adirondacks, a nonprofit environmental organization, had sued the state over some snowmobile trails in the park leading to questions about tree cutting and trail width on forest preserve. In mid 2021, the state’s highest court ruled in favor of Protect the Adirondacks, limiting tree clearing, and the DEC has since convened a Trails Stewardship Working Group to determine what’s next when developing trails.
Konowitz, members of the nonprofit environmental organizations Adirondack Wilderness Advocates and Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve and the Paul Smith’s College VIC came together in early 2021 to discuss how Paul Smith’s College land may offer demonstrations for new sustainable visitor uses. One option was acted on: backcountry ski trails on the college’s land developed in harmony with the protections afforded forest preserve.
Adirondack Wilderness Advocates “has taken no position on whether backcountry ski trails should be opened in the forest preserve,” said AWA Vice Chairman William Ingersoll.
Though DEC and APA staff have visited Jenkins Mountain, the DEC said developing backcountry ski trails is not a priority.
“Backcountry ski trails are not currently the focus of DEC’s efforts to create and/or update management guidance for recreational uses on the forest preserve,” a department spokesperson wrote. “DEC is not currently evaluating the character of the Jenkins Mountain ski trails as to their appropriateness in a forest preserve setting.”
A spokesman for the APA said “any future efforts on a backcountry ski trails policy would be informed from the work currently undertaken by the Trails Stewardship Working Group and would include opportunities for public input.” The staff visit, he added, was “to gain valuable experience about the visitor use management framework and associated monitoring plan based on its use at this area.”
Konowitz laughed when he talked about the many years he has pushed for policy, and the thousands of hours he worked on the new trails.
“I hope that people enjoy it,” he said. “I hope it moves the dial.”
Konowitz invited Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, to view the trails. Konowitz said Bauer expressed concern over the trails being 12 feet wide. Bauer spoke with the Explorer and said he thought the trail work “was a pretty light touch.” He was concerned about the width, but reasoned that the trails involved no soil disturbance and he thought the number of trees cut was low. He also felt that the ski trails were not related to the now illegal snowmobile trails. Those snowmobile trails are called Class II community connector trails.
“We thought it was a red herring that the DEC and APA were attempting to entangle the powder ski issue with Class II trails,” Bauer said. “We never thought that was a legitimate position, and we were puzzled as to why the agencies took that position.”
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Bauer was critical of the APA’s comment that the matter would be addressed by the Trails Stewardship Working Group. The group’s original schedule proposed in December 2021 said it was going to wrap up in less than a year, Bauer said. There have been about a half dozen meetings last year, no meeting scheduled as of yet in 2023 and no meeting since October, he added.
“We’re now into our 13th month, and we’ve barely started,” he said. “We haven’t gotten anywhere close to those active discussions or deliberations.”
This work can take place on the Paul Smith’s VIC’s property because it is private land. Scott van Laer, a former DEC forest ranger and the current director of the VIC, said it is already a well-established ski venue filled with Nordic trails. Jenkins Mountain used to be a larger component of the college’s ski offerings in the 1950s, but has since been somewhat forgotten. Former Explorer Editor Phil Brown wrote about skiing there in 2008 highlighting its variety and solitude.
The working group members of the Jenkins Mountain Backcountry Skiing Project are using adaptive and visitor use management. These terms involve collecting baseline data to see a site’s existing conditions before a project is implemented. This allows land managers to monitor after a project, setting benchmarks for acceptable and unacceptable changes. Chad Dawson, a former APA board member and an international expert on natural resource management and now on the board of Adirondack Wild, led the effort.
At Jenkins Mountain, for example, the trails were finished in the winter of 2021-2022, but the VIC kept them closed to the public. Scientists with Paul Smith’s College Adirondack Watershed Institute put up 12 trail cameras to see what kinds of wildlife used the grounds before people were introduced. The same cameras remain up and scientists will monitor how wildlife populations react to the change.
Michale Glennon, senior research scientist and van Laer’s wife, said the institute is also monitoring vegetation to see if there are any impacts.
“This information will help us to determine potential ecological impacts of the project and the degree to which management goals are being met,” Glennon said in an email. “This effort is an example of the kinds of real-world project experiences that Paul Smith’s College can offer to its students.”
The working group kept meticulous track of the number of trees cut, too, documenting their diameter and type.
Konowitz said they cut 60 trees that were more than 1-inch-diameter at breast height. Generally the DEC had used 3-inches-diameter at breast height to define a tree, but following the Protect the Adirondacks court ruling, smaller trees are now counted. Konowitz said they did not cut any trees over 3-inches-diameter at breast height except for eight that were considered “hazard trees.” Those were blown over sideways across a trail corridor. The group left any trees greater than 3-inches-diameter at breast height within the 12-foot ski trail.
Skiers will be asked for feedback about their experience as well, van Laer said. All of the data collected will be delivered in a report to APA and DEC in the summer. Van Laer is surprised that no one has been doing this kind of work sooner, and hopes that the demonstration project could create a stronger relationship between the college, APA and DEC.
“We’re really trying to find out about the experience so we’re managing people and managing the resource,” van Laer said. “We’re going to adapt on what they tell us, and we’re going to adapt on changes that we could see on the trail.”
Konowitz is hopeful, too.
“We’re a very low impact group,” Konowitz said. “We all know this place and care about it. We’re trying to be very patient.”