Vandals Scar Big Jay
By SUSAN SHEA
Editor, Long Trail News
Green Mountain Club
In early July, two vandals illegally cut a ski trail on undeveloped Big Jay, Vermont's twelfth highest peak, in Montgomery and Westfield.
"I had received a report from the operator's of the aerial tram on Jay Peak," notes GMC Stewardship Coordinator Rebecca Washburn. "But I was not prepared for the extent of the cutting. It was visible as soon as we walked out of the tram building onto the Long Trail at the summit of Jay Peak. A huge, awful scar running down the face of the mountain.
The tram operators had heard the sound of chainsaws coming from Big Jay to the west for almost two weeks. When the frequent rain and mist cleared, they saw the terrible scar and could make out stumps with their binoculars. Fortunately, they took the initiative to call the Green Mountain Club, which had conserved 1,573 acres around the 3,800'-foot peak in 1993 and added the tract to the Jay State Forest.
Assessing the Damage
Washburn was out on Jay Peak the day after receiving the call with state foresters Jeremy Goetz and Tony Smith. After viewing the damage, they called the game warden. The Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife responded promptly, and a few days later wardens Brad Mann and Mark Schichtle climbed to the summit of Big Jay, where they discovered a chainsaw and other tools hidden under a green tarp.
Washburn and GMC volunteer Russ Ford, a local backcountry skier familiar with the property, returned a couple of weeks later to document this serious violation of GMC's conservation easement. They hiked up into the cirque between Big Jay and Jay Peak from Route 242 to the base of the scar. "The scar ranged from 20 to 60 feet wide, and was about 2,000 feet long," says Washburn. "They had removed all the woody vegetation, completely denuding the area. There were dozens of stumps everywhere, and slash piles on both sides of the opening. Signs of erosion were already visible as there had been heavy rains earlier that week." Washburn and Ford took photos of the destruction and counted and measured tree stumps. Ford counted the rings on some of the larger trees that had been cut; one was 78 years old, another 93. Between their fieldwork and a later estimate by the state, it was determined that 873 trees had been cut, ranging from stunted krummholz to mature 20-inch spruce and yellow birch. State foresters obtained replacement values for the cut trees from local nurseries, coming up with a total of $47,883. That total is only a partial measure of the aesthetic and environmental damage to the property.
Catching the Perpetrators
Washburn and Ford parted after returning to Route 242. Ford drove up the highway towards the Long Trail crossing at Jay Pass. As he passed an old log landing in the state forest, a dark blue VW Passat pulled off on the side of the road in front of him. Ford parked at the Long Trail parking area, and the Passat appeared two minutes later. Ford walked in to Jay Camp and followed the old route of the Catamount Trail, stopping when he heard voices behind him. The two occupants of the Passat came along the trail towards him wearing backpacks. Ford spoke briefly with them. They were evasive and said they were just out for a walk.
Ford let the pair go by, then sprinted uphill through the woods and made his way to the bottom of the illegal ski trail, where he hid under a bush. Ten minutes later, the pair came by, headed up Big Jay. When they were out of wearshot, he telephoned Warden Mann on his cell phone. Sergeant Mann and Ford met and waited in his car at Jay Pass. The two men came up Route 242 in a second vehicle - a red pick-up truck, which likely had been hidden in the woods near the log landing. One hopped out, and they left separately in the two vehicles, driving east towards Jay.
The warden followed, and a high-speed chase ensued. The men evaded him, but the warden went to their homes and waited for them to arrive. Upon questioning, the men acted nervous and were evasive. The next day they confessed to cutting the trail on Big Jay. Arrested were Paul Poulin, 47, of Derby and Alan Ritter, 46, of North Troy. They were arraigned in the Vermont District Court in Newport September 11, and pleaded not guilty to charges of felony unlawful mischief. A pre-trial conference has been scheduled for January. The men are facing up to $5,000 in fines and five years in jail.
According to Jonathan Wood, Commisioner of the Vermont Departnment of Forests, Parks and Recreation, " 'It's an environmental crime that's going to take a long time to heal.' " (Burlington Free Press)
In August, GMC's Stewardship Committee formed a subcommittee, chaired by Ted Vogt, to respond to the Big Jay violation, the most serious in the history of the club's stewardship program. The subcommittee consulted experts on mountain revegetation, including UVM ecologist Rick Paradis. Paradis was concerned about erosion on the steep, now exposed slope with no trees or other vegetation to hold the soil. He opined that unless the scar is closed to skiers and hikers, natural revegetation will not occur. Trees will take a long time to grow back in this harsh mountain environment. Paradis lamented the destruction of Bicknell's thrush habitat; this rare bird breeds in the high-elevation spruce-fir forest of Big Jay.
In September GMC hired environmental consultants Jeff Parsons and Dori Barton to look at the scar and make recommendations for erosion control. Subcommittee members met with Commissioner Wood, Agency of Natural Resources Secretary George Crombie, and Chief Garme Warden Robert Rooks to coordinate GMC and the state's response. On October 14, GMC volunteers and backcountry skiers, under the supervision of Jeff Parsons, created waterbars from brush and piled the remaining brush that had been cut and pushed to the side onto the scar to control erosion. GMC is seeking grants to assist in the costs of restoration and is considering civil litigation to recover additional costs.
The Challenge of Protecting Big Jay
The Green Mountain Club acquired the Big Jay Tract to protect the Long Trail, Jay Loop Trail, and Jay Camp, which are located at the lower elevations off Route 242. The purposes of the conservation easement, co-held with the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, also include protection of the view from the Long Trail, and the preservation of wildlife habitat, forest resources, and the natural, scenic and aesthetic values of Big Jay.
When GMC purchased the land in the early 1990's, there was only a rough herd path along the ridge through the dense spruce and fir between the summits of Jay Peak and Big Jay. A small number of backcountry skiers ventured out onto Big Jay in the winter to ski down through the naturally open glades of the mountain's east face. In the late 1990's Jay Peak Resort, which leases a portion of the Jay State Forest for its operation, illegally widened the herd path to Big Jay by cutting with chainsaws. (This violation was settled when Jay Peak Resort made a public apology, took some remedial measures, and agreed to pay $8,000 to GMC's Stewardship Endowment Fund.) Due to the easy access provided by a tram ride to the summit of Jay Peak and the "trail" to Big Jay, and the increasing popularity of backcountry skiing, use of the area has grown dramatically, along with the problems of vegetation cutting.
As this article goes to press, GMC and the state are wrestling with this management dilemma, and considering measures to manage the Big Jay area this winter to prevent further damage to the ecology of the mountain. GMC is hoping to engage backcountry skiers in a solution. Says skier Eric Scharnberg, "There are a lot of skiers who are ethically appalled at what happened."
Cutting with Handsaws Damages Forest
The recent illegal cutting with chainsaws on Big Jay is an egregious violation. But unauthorized vegetation cutting on state lands and the Green Mountain National Forest by backcountry skiers with handsaws has been a problem on Big Jay and other Vermont mountains for years.
Some woods skiers carry folding handsaws, cutting whips and saplings to "improve" the ski glade. A little cutting by a lot of skiers adds up over the years. When the larger overstory trees die, there are no understory trees to take their place, and eventually openings fragment the forest.
" 'Mountain forests are particularly vulnerable,' " says Chittenden County forester Mike Snyder in his Northern Woodlands article. " 'They grow in harsh conditions at high elevations on steep slopes with thin soils. Glade trees can also be damaged by the sharp edges of skis.' " (From "Are Ski Glades Bad for the Woods?", Northern Woodlands, winter 2004)
Open glades can now be seen on Big Jay to the right of the scar, which were not visible in photos from the early 1990's. Says skier Russ Ford, "As backcountry skiing has gone from the province of a few to a mass-marketed activity, we're loving these places to death. We need to develop a 'Leave No Trace' ethic for backcountry skiing like we've done for hiking and backpacking. If you're not a good enough skier to ski natural glades without cutting, stick to the ski resorts' maintained trails."
From the President
Long Trail News,
"Two men with chainsaws caused damage so severe that it will take decades for the land to recover. This egregious tresspass demonstrates that there is no place which remains sacred, and that there are people who will do anything, at any cost, to exploit nature.
As the stewards of the Long Trail System, it is our job to protect the land against the acts of humans and their machines. We will avenge Big Jay, and we will restore the land to the extent possible. We will rise to the challenge, and we will protect the Long Trail for generations to come."
- Richard Windish,
Green Mountain Club