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VT S.111 – Criminalizing Backcountry Access From Ski Areas?!

February 26th, 2013 by Jason Duquette-Hoffman

Even the youngest Vermonters can and do enjoy the great terrain and snow of the VT backcountry

Even the youngest Vermonters can and do enjoy the great terrain and snow of the VT backcountry

UPDATE: As reported by Fox 44/ABC 22, this bill has died in committee.

The Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee is considering S.111, a bill to criminalize backcountry access from Vermont’s ski areas. Here is a letter I sent to the Committee tonight. If you feel similarly, please let them and your local reps know.

Dear Senators Sears, Ashe, Benning, Nitka and White,

I would first like to thank you for your hard work on behalf of citizens of our state. I deeply appreciate your work and commitment to the well being of Vermonters. As a lifelong Vermonter, I have been the beneficiary of the advantages of the accessibility and community spirit of our citizen legislators. It is, in part, because of this that I write to you today to express my concerns regarding S.111.

I am a skier. Since I was three years of age, I have been skiing in Vermont’s resorts, public trails and public and private backcountry terrain. For 34 years I have, along with countless others, enjoyed the beauty and wonder that Vermont has to offer those fortunate enough to be willing and able to explore our fields, forests and mountains in what I believe is Vermont’s best season: the winter. I believe that Vermont truly cradles the soul of winter sports. Together with my partner, I am raising my three young children to respect, appreciate and enjoy the beauty, majesty and challenge of the natural environment around us.

Even the youngest Vermonters can and do enjoy the great terrain and snow of the VT backcountry

Entering the backcountry of the Green Mountains has been and will continue to be a family affair in Vermont.

I am fortunate to live close to some of the most beautiful wilderness in the region, the Breadloaf Wilderness of the Green Mountain National Forest. This area, characterized by open hardwoods glades, favorable snow conditions and easy accessibility from the Long Trail and the National Forest road and trail system, is a treasure and a haven for me, my family and my friends in the winter. I have attached some photos of us enjoying this resource to illustrate my point. This area is also accessible from the trails of the Middlebury College Snow Bowl, which is located on private land owned by the College and operated as a ski area. The Long Trail (and the terrain it accesses), runs through this and a number of Vermont’s ski areas.

Inspired by my love for skiing in Vermont, and by this area, I recently started an alpine ski company, along with two friends. We design and market our own semi-custom ski designs focused on backcountry skiing, and contract with an outside production facility to build our products. We are in conversations with another small Vermont winter sports equipment manufacturer to bring our production home to Vermont, and are pleased with the response and the growth we have seen so far. We have marketed ourselves in no small part as connected with the tradition of backcountry and adventure skiing that has characterized the sport in Vermont since it first arrived here. We are thrilled at the connections we have found with the many other enthusiasts who share our love for the sport, and for the backcountry terrain Vermont can offer. Through our efforts, we have introduced many from around the region and beyond to the spectacular experiences available here in our state.

Although they don't have to deal with skins, the little ones still need to change from hike to ski mode

Although they don’t have to deal with skins, the little ones still need to change from hike to ski mode

Backcountry skiing is not a crime. It is the soul of winter sports in our state, with a long, rich, proud and storied tradition. Accessing our backcountry in the winter, from a resort or otherwise, is a thrill, a challenge and a pilgrimage that many in our state have spent years or more developing. Some of us have built businesses, lives and family traditions around this centerpiece of our Vermont culture.

The vast majority of backcountry enthusiasts and users in our state are knowlegable, responsible and respectful of the challenge that winter travel in the backcountry can bring. Criminalizing their behavior is not only counter to a venerable and honorable Vermont tradition, it is counterproductive. This measure will not go any further toward preventing the kind of irresponsible behavior we are seeing from a few folks with limited experience and understanding of the rigors of backcountry travel. This is not a criminal issue, it is an educational issue.

Do we really think that it should be a crime for trained, knowledgeable and well-equipped people who encounter an unexpected circumstance (such as an aggressive moose, failure of a defective piece of equipment or other similar unforeseeable happenstance) to access the services of our public safety system as any others would? I would suggest that I, and those with whom I travel in the backcountry, are generally more prepared for emergencies than many who use our state snowmobile trail system. I always carry gear appropriate to survive several days and nights in the woods, to find my way home, to stabilize injuries and to repair broken equipment. I understand that I must operate in the wilderness under my own recognizance. I am trained as a Wilderness First Responder. My companions have similar training and experience and yet, should the worst occur, we could face criminal charges under this proposed legislation. This, despite the fact that a wholly unprepared, untrained snowmobile operator (far more likely to require such services, if you review the numbers of snowmobile accidents to which the state police have responded in the past week) could access these same services with impunity? Please do not place my 6 year old daughter, already a backcountry enthusiast, in criminal jeopardy should she or I become unexpectedly in need of assistance during legitimate use of our public lands and despite our best precautions and preparations. How would you explain to her that the jewel of our state, its winter wilderness, is inaccessible to her under penalty of law?

She's only 6 years old and already enjoying the wonders of the great Vermont backcountry!

She’s only 6 years old and already enjoying the wonders of the great Vermont backcountry!

I understand the pressures that irresponsible use of Vermont’s natural landscape can place on our busy and dedicated public safety personnel. There exist now, under current law the tools to recover the costs associated with these limited incidents. Other states have faced these concerns, and have found that a reasonable balance between public safety and resource preservation can be struck. I urge the Committee to consider other mechanisms for achieving these educational goals that do not criminalize legitimate use and enjoyment of our state treasure.

I am happy to discuss my thoughts, experiences and perspectives further with the Committee in person, via e-mail or by phone. Please feel free to contact me at this e-mail address or by phone at (802) 989-1618. Thank you once again for the thoughtful, vital and critical work that you do.

Jason M. Duquette-Hoffman, M.S.
Co-Owner, Worth Skis


So, what are your thoughts? ¬†Feel free to leave a comment here, or join our conversation that’s already in progress on our Facebook page.

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