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Backcountry skiing could benefit from modern-day CCC

The Wildcat Mountain Trail was the first completed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933.

new england ski museum/file 1958

The Wildcat Mountain Trail was the first completed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933.

In the depths of the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps put 2.5 million unemployed Americans to work building roads, state parks, and access to remote public lands. Some of the first trails were cut atop the peaks of New England’s highest mountains — yet it would be decades before anyone realized the CCC had planted the infrastructure for recreational skiing in the Northeast.

Ski runs represented only a fraction of the CCC’s nationwide work. But this type of trail blazing was exponentially beneficial to the economies of northern New Hampshire and Vermont, where ski areas such as Cannon, Wildcat, and Stowe grew directly out of the country’s most ambitious public jobs program.

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“The ski industry in the Northeast really owes its origin to the Great Depression,” said David Goodman, a ski historian and author whose Appalachian Mountain Club guidebooks are considered “bibles” among backcountry enthusiasts. “It’s a very unusual link that people might not be aware of. Were it not for the CCC, we would not have what are now the iconic ski areas of the Northeast.”

Eight decades after the Depression the economy is once again in flux, with too many young people unemployed. Sally Jewell, the US Secretary of the Interior, recently floated the idea of launching a modern CCC program aimed at putting 100,000 people to work outdoors.

While no one expects a retooled “New Deal” jobs program to spawn another spike in commercial skiing, the fastest growing segment of the sport — backcountry skiing and Alpine touring — could benefit from a government-backed emphasis on environmental stewardship.

“At this point, no public service needs to go out and cut ski trails for [lift-serviced] skiing,” said Jeff Leich, executive director at the New England Ski Museum. “But what would be awful nice would be some gladed areas that would allow backcountry skiing when there’s snow.”

Goodman agreed that modern CCC backcountry work would never approach the grand scale of Depression era trail cutting, even though the program’s overall message of creating employment and infrastructure hasn’t changed.

“I think that very same mandate that inspired and motivated the CCC in the 1930s is as relevant now as it was then,” Goodman said. “It’s a valuable form of work, and our country certainly needs help with its infrastructure.”

According to the National Ski Areas Association, 121 resorts nationwide operate on land regulated by the US Forest Service, and backcountry skiers are free to access numerous noncommercial trail networks on federal land. This public-private partnership for winter recreation traces to the start of the CCC when, in an effort to launch as quickly as possible, the feds turned decision-making over to local and state officials.

“People saw an opportunity to get something done on the federal dime for their little part of the world, and certainly the ski areas of New England were no different,” said Leich. “They jumped at the chance to get this free labor.”

Few of the transplanted CCC laborers skied — many had never been on a mountain or seen snow — but the New Englanders who directed these crews were winter sportsmen. The Taft Trail atop Cannon Mountain was the first to get federal help, but the Wildcat Mountain Trail was the first the CCC completed in the summer of 1933. Other “Class A” racing trails followed, most notably Nose Dive on Mount Mansfield (later incorporated into Stowe) and Thunderbolt on Mount Greylock (the highest peak in Massachusetts but never developed into a resort).

“The massive amount of hand labor they did is just staggering,” Leich said. “In a lot of cases they’d break rock with sledgehammers. At Cannon, they wouldn’t let them use dynamite, because they were concerned it would dislodge the Old Man of the Mountain.”

By the end of the CCC’s first year, New Hampshire alone had 40 new miles of ski trails. The actual number of public trails cut in New England between 1933 and 1942 is difficult to quantify, because work done by the Works Progress Administration and local ski clubs was often blended into the CCC trail count. Some remote ski trails that didn’t get much use quickly reverted to woods or hiking paths.

“In terms of total mileage, I wouldn’t be surprised if two-thirds of the original ski trails are gone,” said Jeremy Clark, who volunteers for the White Mountain National Forest and maintains the website www.newenglandskihistory.com. “That’s when you realize the really scary number of trails that have been abandoned over the years.”

Goodman said skiers who want a taste of old-school CCC skiing might check out the well-established trail systems in the Mount Mansfield area that “ski as well now, if not better,” than they ever did.

“There’s a whole network of these gems from the past that are still maintained, and they’re gems that still have a lot of luster,” Goodman said. “They’ve become really a magnet for skiers coming from all over the country.”

Clark said CCC trail seekers in New Hampshire might focus on the Jackson area, where the Doublehead and Black Mountain trails are good starting points (his website provides directions and 1940s-era topographical maps).

“They’re roughly beginner-intermediate,” Clark said. “There are some natural challenges, and both of them have cabins that are for rent from the Forest Service.”

Clark said rather than waiting to see if a modern CCC would be mobilized to improve backcountry access, skiers should push for more freedom to take care of trails themselves.

“My recommendation would be to leverage the network of existing trail volunteers by taking away the red tape,” Clark said. “You [already] have extremely qualified trail maintenance organizations, but to do a simple task such as put a footbridge across a brook, it takes years to get the government to sign off.

“To be able to do a simple task such as a slight relocation of a trail, or God forbid a new trail, you have to go through all sorts of levels of bureaucracy and public comment. It’s very difficult right now, especially for those of us who like to volunteer and make a difference.”

Goodman said he does not get a sense that red tape is holding back trail work.

“Trails are being cut all the time,” he said. “It isn’t really that hard to cut trails. I think what’s harder is for ski areas to build hotels.”

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