Smugglers' Notch as seen from both Stowe and Smugglers' Notch resorts. Photos courtesy of Stowe and Smugglers' Notch

Smuggs/Stowe Gondola Interconnection Faces Stiff Opposition

We have been provided with copies of documents and communications from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources related to the proposed gondola connecting Stowe to Smugglers’ Notch.  These were the same documents that were provided separately to the News & Citizen last week. Work on this project dates back to at least 2017, and while we were not provided with documents beyond the present year, the communications contained within these documents reveal that there have been several previous proposals that have not received approval from the Barre District Stewardship Team which makes recommendations on such projects in a 3 county area of Vermont under the auspices of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.  They were essentially seeking a variance on protected land which is why it went to this body.

Much of what follows is paraphrased and quoted from the minutes of the Barre District Stewardship Team meeting that occurred on March 13th of this year.

On February 20th Mark Delaney, Smugglers’ Notch Chief of Corporate Matters & Mountain Guest Experience emailed the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and made a request to present a new plan at their March 13th Barre District Stewardship Team meeting, and it was granted. That meeting was attended by Mark Delaney, Bill Stritzler, Owner and Managing Director of Smuggs, and Bobby Murphy, the former VP and General Manager of Stowe.

During that March 13th meeting representatives from Smugglers’ Notch and Stowe presented a new proposal for a gondola instead of a chair lift with a new alignment to avoid some sensitive areas and far less ground disturbance. Instead of needing to clear cut a 50’ wide berth for a chairlift requiring the removal of all trees across the 2,626’ long lift path, they opted for a much more expensive gondola that would only require 5’ of clearance between the trees and the bottom of the gondola allowing it to pass over the top of mostly undisturbed vegetation. Construction would only disturb a 25’x35’ near each tower which they believe could be re-vegetated, and only selective felling of larger trees from a narrow path would need to be removed. The original design had a chairlift passing very near the edge of Sterling Pond with a terminal near the very top of the Sterling lift at Smugglers’ Notch side, but that has been shifted west and downhill in order to better avoid watershed areas. Copies of the design proposed at this meeting do appear with this article. Smugglers’ Notch worked with SE Group, Doppelmayr, and Arrowhead Environmental on the engineering, studies, and proposals.

It is hard to imagine a less impactful lift design on flora and fauna without burrowing a tunnel through the mountain, however it is also hard to imagine an area of Vermont where either the people or nature are more sensitive. This area is part of the Mt. Mansfield State Forest and the lift would pass through the Mt. Mansfield Natural Area which is an special protected area within the state forest. Smugglers’ Notch itself (not the resort) is listed as a National Natural Landmark, and Rt. 108 between the two resorts is a federally designated Scenic By-Way. The lift would traverse part of the Long Trail before veering a bit more west of it, but it would also cross over the Sterling Pond Trail. Although building ski resorts within protected public lands is common, constructing a lift in this vicinity could be one of the most difficult requests any resort could have made to this board. Mt. Mansfield pretty much means to Vermont what the Old Man on the Mountain meant to New Hampshire.  The two resorts are however offering to grant the state 152 acres of pristine high elevation land on Mt. Mansfield and around the Notch in order to provide a net benefit to the environment in this immediate vicinity.

There was discussion about summer operations of this lift, and they were not being considered. This lift was designed with one purpose, and that is to shuttle skiers and riders between the two resorts. A Stewardship Team member did inquire about plowing Rt. 108 through the Notch in winter so that cars could pass through as an alternative, and Mark Delaney said that there had been some discussion of it, but the Vermont Department of Transportation was reportedly not on board, partly because of runoff causing ice on the road among other issues.  It would be a difficult winter drive to say the least and probably impassable for many during storms. Another team member inquired about the use of Snuffy’s Trail which was a previously approved route across Sterling Pond that people could use to go from one resort to the other. Delaney indicated that the trail was still in use by backcountry skiers and that they were working on renewing the license and looking into appropriate trail maintenance. This is clearly not the type of solution they are seeking to connect the two resorts.

After representatives from both Smugglers’ Notch and Stowe left the meeting, team members exchanged some candid views. Because this lift passes through Mt. Mansfield Protected Area, it would require an amendment to the Long-Range Management Plan (LRMP) before anything else could happen. One member indicated that he was not in favor of the project due to the protected nature of this area, another member shared their objection offering that this would “change the view of Mt. Mansfield”, and yet another member felt unequipped to make the decision as it wasn’t clear what the user benefits would be. Other comments included that nothing they heard changed their mind, the fact that this area was designated a National Landmark in 1980, adding “that’s pretty significant”, and that the “gondola just doesn’t fit with [my] vision of a natural area.”

Team member John Austin asked if there was anything that would make this project okay in a natural area, and the meeting summary indicated that “the team discussed at length how this project goes against everything that a natural area is and that they cannot envision proposing an amendment to the LRMP for this type of project.” Austin ended by saying that the team is going to have to carefully respond to every reason as to why we can’t support this project.

It seems that the final decision on this matter is only a formality at this point. We are not sure when that decision might be due, and we are not sure what the next steps may be if any.

Snowology Commentary

This gondola or any lift in this area is pretty clearly not going to happen in the immediate future, but it may take a little while longer for things to work out, and there is a possibility that the Stewardship Team kicks the can back to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources for them to deal with but it would be hard to see a notably more receptive audience within the agency given the circumstances. We don’t know what happened in prior years concerning those plans except that Smuggs and Stowe kept coming back to the table making design changes that reduced the impacts and made the project more expensive, and yet after all of this there was still no indication in the meeting minutes that showed any degree of support. It seems likely that previous proposals with other plans have been rejected one or more times before. This can’t advance to the Act 250 process because the lift would pass through a protected area that requires an amendment to change, and that’s the Stewardship Board’s job to recommend.

There is also both interest and concern regarding Vail Resorts making a bid for Smuggs. Last week Bill Stritzler did address his staff and audio of that meeting was leaked where he indicated that "the future relationship could be anything from a joint effort to make the lift available to guests of both resorts, up to a financial share in the lift, up to a financial interest in Smugglers', but none of that is on the table today." This statement was more detailed than the official statement from both resorts and compatible with that statement, but it seemed to be at odds with comments shared with The Storm Skiing Journal though they’re clearly playing with semantics here and those can be missed when communicated or recorded. There’s a lot of careful language in many of these statements that stops short of confirming a buyout, but indicates clear openness to a business relationship possibly even beyond the lift itself.

It is possible that Vail Resorts has no interest in Smuggs outside of what a connection would bring. Vail Resorts has stated multiple times in their conference calls that they are primarily seeking urban feeders to add to their portfolio in the United States, but combining these two resorts would create a unique opportunity to build a world-class ski area in the heart of the snowiest area of the Northeast with some of the best terrain around. Look no further than Sugarbush for an example of combining two resorts, as well as Park City, Palisades Tahoe, and Whistler-Blackcomb. As LiftBlog summarized in their coverage, a combined resort would span six peaks, 17 lifts and 194 trails with 5.5 miles of distance separating Toll House at Stowe from Morse Highlands at Smuggs. This would create one of the largest ski areas on the East Coast that might only be surpassed in total visitation by Killington.

We surveyed members of our Facebook Group about their feelings on the potential of Vail Resorts buying Smugglers’ Notch, and they were against a possible takeover by a 4:1 ratio, though our membership skews towards frequent skiers and riders and the general skiing public as a whole is likely not as sensitive nor concerned. The most notable concern expressed wasn’t simply selling Smuggs, but selling Smuggs specifically to Vail Resorts. While there are many legitimate complaints about operations and crowding at Vail Resorts’ Northeast properties in the last 2 seasons, Stowe is one of their flagship resorts, relies heavily on natural snow, they are in fact still a top-notch operator, and there were indications that their visitation may have dropped this last season based on public records of vehicle traffic on Rt. 108.

One industry executive also shared with me today that there could be antitrust concerns, and the nature of the relationship might not involve a purchase but could achieve a similar effect by way of putting Smuggs on the Epic Pass and managing the resort for them as opposed to buying them outright. This certainly sounds truthy and could explain the nature of some of the language being used to address the relationship by both parties. While this could still happen sans the lift, clearly the lift was an important first step to creating a long-term relationship between the two resorts since they sought that solution for 6 years without other business arrangements materializing.  There was a new and very strong push again this year though, so they both seem to really want this lift to happen and whatever else.

We did reach out to Smuggs for a comment, and we heard back from them after initially publishing this article.  Bill Stritzer shared that he would like to have this discussion in public with all of the interested parties as a part of a permitting process, and it is likely that they will continue looking for solutions.  He also believed that the net benefits of what they are proposing are being overlooked.  We will make all of the documents we received available to the public in a zip file within the next 48 hours so watch our page for that announcement. These are public records and if we have a right to know then we believe everyone else does too of course.

-- Matt