Vt. ski areas adding snowmaking

Published: 7/7/2019 9:49:19 PM

WOODFORD — It was the weekend of the winter carnival at Prospect Mountain ski area, a key event for the top collegiate Nordic skiers in the Northeast, when the weather changed and the snow started to disappear.

“We lost half of our course overnight because of the big thaw,” said David Dethier, a geology professor at Williams College in Massachusetts and the organizer of the event in February 2018. “Boy did we scramble, with lots of people shoveling everywhere.”

To forestall such emergencies in the future, tiny Prospect, in Woodford, Vt., is doing the paperwork necessary to start the state permitting process for adding snowmaking on some of its 18 miles of ski trails. Climate change makes snowmaking increasingly vital if college and high school ski teams from Vermont and Massachusetts are to continue using Prospect for training and competition, said Dethier, a board member of the area’s nonprofit ownership group.

That’s a common view these days, and this summer, many of the ski areas in southern Vermont are shoring up their snowmaking.

“If they’re not actively working to increase their snowmaking capabilities, they’re working on the efficiency of them,” said Adam White, a spokesperson for the Vermont Ski Areas Association, of Vermont ski areas. “Nowadays with the uncertainty of climate change, with the inconsistencies in annual snowfall that we’ve seen in the last 10 to 15 years, it has become more important than ever.”

Prospect claims the highest base lodge elevation of any Vermont ski area, at 2,200 feet, and has operated since the 1960s using natural snow. So it has been able to put off snowmaking while the new nonprofit got its finances in order.

“The fluctuations we’ve been seeing in the weather for the last decade or longer are the sort of things that with natural snow, no matter what we do with grooming, we can’t seem to overcome,” Dethier said. “The same forces that decades ago caused other areas to put in snowmaking are operating here.”

Forty miles north of Prospect, Magic Mountain, in Londonderry, in June received an Act 250 land use permit to double the size of its snowmaking pond.

“Expanding Magic’s snowmaking capability is critical to the long-term success of our ski area,” said Geoff Hatheway, who bought Magic’s 700 acres in 2016 with more than a dozen other investors.

Hatheway said Magic will invest $2 million on increasing the snowmaking and on the installation of a Poma fixed-grip quad lift that the ownership group purchased from Stratton Mountain Resort last year. The snowmaking pond and stream work is expected to double Magic’s snowmaking coverage to 60% of the trails.

Killington/Pico, the state’s largest ski area, has also applied to upgrade the snowmaking equipment it uses to take water from the Ottauquechee River.

Mount Snow, in Sunderland, last year obtained an Act 250 permit to increase its snowmaking to 100% coverage by next winter. White said Mount Snow will be the only ski area in Vermont with full coverage.

Mount Snow has 510 acres, with about 73% covered by snowmaking now, said Erik Barnes, the vice president and general manager of the resort, which is owned by Peak Resorts in St. Louis.

Mount Snow sees between 400,000 and 500,000 visits a season from skiers, Barnes said.

“With the weather we have in New England, you definitely have to have snowmaking,” Barnes said. “It’s imperative to your business, because you can’t rely on Mother Nature.”

Prospect has a long permitting road ahead. The nonprofit has applied for a wetlands permit, a critical first step, and expects to hear back on that next month. Dethier said Prospect will spend about $100,000 on paperwork and on fixing up an old snowmaking pond that was built and never used.

Dethier said members of the Prospect Mountain Association are getting advice from Mike Hussey, director of the Rikert Nordic center and Middlebury Snow Bowl, which is also expanding its snowmaking capabilities.

Under Act 250, Vermont’s 50-year-old land use and development law, new commercial projects of a certain size must meet criteria related to impacts such as air and water quality, natural resources, and aesthetics. All of the proposed snowmaking expansions are in southern Vermont, which didn’t receive the heavy late-season snowfall that kept northern ski areas open into late spring.

Donna Barlow Casey, the executive director of the Natural Resources Board, said there are no snowmaking permit applications in northern counties like Chittenden and Lamoille. There are no ski areas in Franklin and Addison counties, and there have been no applications in two years at the two Northeast Kingdom ski areas, Jay Peak and Burke Mountain, she said.

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