This story by Aaron Calvin first appeared in the News & Citizen on June 1.
A new gondola-style connector lift is being planned for Stowe Mountain Resort’s Spruce Peak and Smugglers’ Notch Resort’s Sterling Mountain, documents provided by the resorts to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources revealed.
If completed as currently planned, the lift would represent a watershed moment in cooperation between the neighboring ski resorts and a new ease of travel between them for their visitors.
The lift would span approximately 2,600 feet and ferry skiers and snowboarders from one mountain to the other, passing over the valley between the two peaks that contains a portion of the Long Trail, Elephants Head Trail and Sterling Pond.
Documents received in a public records request made by the newspaper revealed that discussions around a shared lift between the two resorts have gone on for six years, since shortly after Vail Resorts purchased Stowe Mountain Resort.
Discussions about the project between the state and the two resorts have been ongoing, and communications between the three parties in the aftermath of their most recent meeting concerning the project in March were positive.
Vail spokesperson Courtney DiFiore declined to comment on the plans and indicated that the team at Smugglers’ Notch would handle the response. Multiple requests for comment from Smugglers’ Notch went unreturned.
Smugglers’ Notch executives argued in communications with the state that plans and details for a connector lift should be considered confidential, which would have shielded them from becoming available through public records requests and claimed that keeping the plans secret gave the resort a business advantage that would be compromised by revealing them publicly.
The agency’s lawyers determined that the documents didn’t qualify for a secret designation.
In a statement, Danielle Fitzko, commissioner of the Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation, said that the Barre district stewardship team is still in the process of reviewing the connector lift proposal before eventually making a recommendation on the project to agency secretary Julie Moore.
“We are still in the early stages of the project review process, which takes into account factors such as ecological impact, land management and public accessibility. This careful approach ensures that all aspects are thoroughly evaluated, and any potential benefits are weighed against possible concerns,” she said.
Conversations with the state about a connector lift between the two resorts began in 2017, the same year Vail Resorts — the corporate owner of 37 ski resorts worldwide, three of which are in Vermont — added Stowe Mountain Resort to its stable.
That year, Smugglers’ Notch commissioned a natural resources review of the high mountain region between the two peaks from Arrowwood Environmental with the express purpose of determining how a connector lift would impact the environment. The study ran through 2019.
On March 13, Bill Stritzler, the owner of the privately held Smugglers’ Notch Resort, and his executive, Mark Delaney, met with stewardship forester Brad Greenough, who manages land in the Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation’s Barre district, and other agency representatives. Outgoing Stowe general manager Bobby Murphy was also at the meeting.
According to meeting minutes, the resorts chose to go with a small gondola-style ski lift to minimize the environmental impact of the project, which will be built through a designated “natural area.”
The lift would contain 26 carriers across nine towers with a capacity of 1,200 passengers an hour with the estimated average trip from peak to peak lasting just over five minutes.
The lift would be visible from the top of Mount Mansfield and portions of it would be visible from other shoreline vantage points along Sterling Pond as well as from a portion of Mountain Road in Stowe near the approach to Stowe Mountain Resort.
The environmental analysis commissioned by Smugglers’ Notch identified the extent of the wetlands within the proposed construction area as well as Bicknell’s thrush habitat, which is classified as a vulnerable population by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
The resorts claim they have planned their connector lift so that it avoids wetlands and bird habitat, and construction would span two seasons to accommodate the Bicknell thrush’s nesting and breeding periods. Even so, the connector lift would require about 42,400 square feet of selective tall tree removal.
Smugglers’ Notch also plans to ask the Green Mountain Club, which manages the portion of the Long Trail that runs through the Mt. Mansfield area, to shift less than a mile of the state-spanning trail toward the Elephants Head trail.
Delaney argued at the meeting that due to increasing use from public trails in Smugglers Notch — from which the resort takes its name — the Sterling Pond experience “more closely resembles a dog park than a wilderness setting on many days,” and that Long Trail hikers would be better served by an alternative route.
As part of this proposal, Smugglers’ Notch and Vail Resorts offered up a “benefits package” containing 164 acres of land that would be conserved in exchange for increased development in a currently undeveloped area.
Smugglers’ Notch offered 72 acres of land it’s currently in the process of purchasing from the town of Cambridge for $50,000 that encompasses the northwestern ridge of the mountain range and was acquired by the town decades ago in a tax sale.
Vail Resorts offered 92 acres of land across three separate tracks: an 18-acre portion at the top of the Toll Road, and 74 acres of land directly next to Stowe’s Spruce Peak trails, including “the only area immediately adjacent to Sterling Pond that is still in private hands.”
At one point, Snuffy’s, a formerly official trail, connected the two ski areas.
According to Brian Lindner in a 2013 Stowe magazine story, “There are at least three versions of how Snuffy’s, the trail that leads down the backside of Spruce Peak to the Smugglers’ Notch Ski Area, got its name. Snuffy’s probably came from the nickname of a longtime employee of Stowe Mountain Resort. Freddie White, a regular ole cigar chewer around the resort, was nicknamed “Snuffy.”