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For more than half a century Mad River Glen (MRG) has prided itself on providing not a corporate ski resort – but a true skiers’ mountain. Mad River has stood alone, anchored to the core of the ski experience: a place with lightly managed terrain, narrow trails, utilitarian facilities and an intentionally minuscule lift capacity. MRG has had a magic recipe: stay small, keep costs down, serve up the genuine ski experience with none of the fat. In fact, its model as a co-op has allowed it to do what a corporate model simply can’t: not grow. All in all, simply because of its size (aided by the management guidelines of the Stark Mountain Foundation) Mad River is one of the more sustainable lift-accessed ski areas anywhere. But Mad River Glen has been at a turning point for a number of years.
As a Valley resident, land use planner and in great appreciation for MRG and the many people who have made it a reality from year to year, I’d like to offer the following input.
The Stark Mountain Foundation was formed to "preserve and protect Stark Mountain and its environs.” According to the foundation’s website: “Since its founding in 2000, the Stark Mountain Foundation has received over $1,000,000 in contributions from hundreds of generous donors who recognize the importance of giving back to help support our mission.” Many people have given money to the Stark Mountain Foundation under the promise that their operations will continue to "preserve and protect Stark Mountain and its environs.” But expanded snowmaking on the mountain means either a) blasting a large pond (or more) and filling these with the water from Mill Brook, and/or b) drilling a well (or wells) and extracting groundwater to in turn pump up the mountain as artificial snow. The immediate and long-term impacts of such activities including but not limited to habitat destruction, hydrological systems disruption, flood and erosion increases downstream and huge increases in electrical energy demand make such an approach a basic violation to the operating manual Mad River Glen has prided itself in standing by. Is energy intensive (carbon polluting) “snow” making to counter the effects of climate change not fundamentally hypocritical?
The mountain’s economic viability has much to do with operational expenses. Increasing operational expenses by installing snowmaking equipment increases Mad River Glen’s exposure to energy price increases. Making new significant snowmaking infrastructure at MRG is a huge gamble, at best.
Mad River closed a couple weeks ago, not because of lack of snow but because not enough people were showing up to ski. Spring could be a highlight of the season for the mountain’s revenue stream.
The following are just several solutions that MRG could look into to maintain viability:
A working landscape: Should skiing be the only yield of the hundreds of acres of Stark Mountainside? Stark Mountain is blessed with topnotch hardwoods on its bottom half as well as a prolific stand of high-quality maples. Does the periodic timber harvesting and maple sugaring that adds viability to much of the Vermont landscape not apply to this mountainside? Maple sugar season and corn skiing could not line up more perfectly. Maple sugaring is a tourist draw. Could Mad River not tap into some (or even one) of its many maple stands to derive a perpetual economic yield from both sugar sold on site as well as off site? How many other mountains could boast of a ski in/ski out maple sugar shack/snack stand which also serves up epic local brews and food? MRG also has hundreds of acres of open trail, aka pasture if managed accordingly. In many parts of Europe they’ve already tapped into this resource and graze sheep and cows on their ski trails in the summer. Carefully managed grazing on blue square and green circle terrain, incidentally, makes for an even better snow base foundation as it builds topsoil and sod density – grazing can actually improve the skiing surface for times when there is low snow cover. Such grazing also puts more carbon into the soil than any other management approach aside from reforestation. In other words, grazing of MRG’s slopes actually has the capacity to reverse the negative carbon impact of the mountain’s operations. Managed grazing can also make MRG’s slopes able to absorb more stormwater runoff than they currently are able – positively influencing the Mad River Valley’s risk to flooding. How can ski areas actually enhance the ecosystem functions of the watershed in which they operate? How can ski areas become carbon negative allies of climate stabilization – proactively working against the forces bringing us less snowy winters? No mountain has a better opportunity to model progressive possibilities of diverse rural land use (and rural economic development) than Mad River Glen. More difficult things have been done.
Cut costs: MRG has severely limited expansion options, whether it be “snow” making or parking. The ability to host more people at MRG on weekends and holidays is basically impossible without buying much more land which is highly unlikely, cost wise. Why always run two lifts when few people are at the mountain, as in during most midweek days? I can’t count the number of days us “midweekers” ski the Single all day while the double is empty, and vice versa.
More events: Is Siptemberfest the only possibility of adding mountain visits to the warm season calendar?
Great food: The possibilities here don’t need elaborating, just take a look around The Valley and Vermont – the local food movement has never been hotter or more important for both regional viability and the bottom line of businesses in the state.
The challenges facing Mad River Glen are acute, but they are not as severe as those facing larger, more energy intensive and expensive ski operations. Its size and lightness are Mad River Glen’s assets. Why not leverage them instead of work against them? We’d do well to remember the current context of ski areas and skiing as a whole in the early 21st century. The ski industry in America was born out of the most prosperous and energy-rich period in our nation’s history. Looking forward, it’s clear that (barring some free energy miracle discovery) the conditions that launched the ski industry in the middle of the 20th century are not likely to sustain it. That is, unless the ski industry adapts to future emerging conditions. These include increased prices of energy (and cost of all aspects of business), less reliable winter weather and the dwindling ability of skiers to afford the luxury of lift-access skiing. How will Mad River Glen adapt to this challenging future? So far, MRG has been successful, not because it competes with other ski areas but because it makes its own rules and defines itself as something unique. If MRG can prove that lift-access skiing can remain viable well into the 21st century, it will be from navigating new terrain. I look forward to that process and am confident that if this can be done anywhere, it might just be in the Mad River Valley.
Ben Falk lives in Moretown.