The Forest Service described the damage as “significant unauthorized excavation” that “represents a significant threat of damage to the surrounding public lands and resources” from erosion. The trails remain open for hiking and snowshoeing, according to Forest Service spokesman Ethan Ready.
Ready said the trail isn’t part of the Vermont Association of Snowmobile Travelers (VAST) network, and isn’t maintained by the local Deerfield Valley Stump Jumpers.
Forest Service investigator Chris Fors described it as a primitive snowmobile trail used by the Forest Service, although the rough trail was also used by local snowmobilers.
Fors said the damage to the trail appeared to have been caused by someone trying to improve the trail with a tracked excavator. Some areas suffered more damage than others. “Almost two miles of trail were affected,” Fors said. “The damage varies. In some areas it just ran over some vegetation that isn’t particularly valuable. But on the steeper slopes, there were areas with significant excavation, boulders moved, tree stumps removed. It looked like someone was trying to straighten out the trail.”
Fors said the trail alterations that were made don’t meet forest service standards. “There are no water bars, so there’s significant potential for erosion.”
Fors says the damage could have an impact on local residents, as well as forest ecosystems. “Of greatest concern is that portions of the trail pass through areas where there are public drinking water springs on Green Mountain Forest land. If a permit process had been pursued, that’s something that would have been examined thoroughly to make sure we don’t end up with damage to water sources. There are drinking water protection zones in place to protect the integrity of the public water supply.” At this time, however, Fors said there’s no indication that Wilmington’s drinking water has been affected.
A portion of the damage to the ridge trail occurred on property owned by the town of Wilmington known as “glebe” land. Glebe parcels were set aside under towns’ colonial charters as publicly-owned land. Originally, glebe parcels were leased and the proceeds were used to support the local church. In the 1800s, most of the parcels were assigned to the town or school district. For the last few decades, Wilmington has leased their glebe land at the top of Haystack Mountain to the owners of the Haystack Ski Area.
Wilmington Zoning Administrator Alice Herrick said that the damage had been reported to the town just a few days ago. “Someone went in and widened the trail with an excavator,” she said. “In some places it was cleared 20 feet wide.”
Another section of national forest land, just below Haystack Pond and adjacent to a ski trail at Haystack Ski Area, has also been closed after someone cut a new trail in that area on what had been undeveloped land. The trail runs down the slope, and into privately owned land.
Representatives of the Hermitage Club, owners of Haystack Ski Area, declined to comment on the damage.
For local snowmobilers, the bad news is that the trail will likely remain closed for the winter – or longer. “Until the area can be stabilized and restored, the order is in effect,” said Ready.
No suspects have been identified, but Ready said the Forest Service is investigating the damage. If suspects are identified, charges could be forthcoming.
“That’s something that would be up to the US Attorney’s office,” Ready said, “and could range from declination (a decision not to pursue a case) to a civil case, or misdemeanor or felony charges.”
The Forest Service is asking the public for help with the investigation. “If anyone saw something or knows something, their information would be helpful,” Fors said.
Fors can be reached at (802) 747-6797.