Vermont's News & Citizen is reporting that following a unanimous decision to oppose the project by the members of the Barre District Stewardship Team tasked with issuing recommendations in the ecologically sensitive area around Mt. Mansfield, Smugglers' Notch has pulled their request for this project on behalf of both resorts and placed it on indefinite hold. The project is, for all intents and purposes, dead.
Work on this project dates back to 2017 but was kept secret at the request of the resorts until the News & Citizen successfully challenged the state for a public records request and disclosed the project to the public on June 1, 2023. Skiology subsequently obtained the same records and reported on the deliberations of the Barre District Stewardship Team 5 days later describing the opposition as stiff and saying that the final decision on this matter was only a formality at this point, and that has now happened.
The project was designed to connect the Spruce Peak area of Stowe to the Sterling Peak of Smugglers' Notch with a gondola spanning a half mile distance between the resorts. This area however spans the Mt. Mansfield Natural Area which is an special protected area within the state forest and the Barre District Stewardship Team is tasked with issuing recommendations to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and a variance would have been needed in order proceed through to the permitting process. As the News & Citizen reports, Brad Greenough of the Barre District Stewardship Team in an August memo stated in their findings:
“The members of the Barre District Stewardship Team have reviewed and discussed this proposal thoroughly and with an open mind over the past two years. It is the unanimous decision of this Team that this project does not move forward. If it does move forward, it will be without the Team’s support and against the strong and unequivocal recommendation of the Barre District Stewardship Team.”
Multiple designs and careful study of this sensitive area was conducted on behalf of the resorts and presented to the board. These plans sought to carefully minimize the disruption of the habitat, avoid particularly sensitive areas, and minimize visual impacts in and around the Notch. Nearby high alpine land was also offered by both Stowe and Smuggs to be preserved as a way provide a net benefit to preservation. 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. Smugglers' Notch Owner and President Bill Stritzler was respectful of the decision but disappointed, and provided this quote to the News & Citizen:
“This is the Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation and we see a lot of the F and P and not a lot of the R in their commentary, but that’s also understandable, because the main focus of the team is on the effect on the surrounding environment,” Stritzler said. “I would say we also thought that our proposal for mitigation was a lot stronger and more valuable than they’re willing to give it credit for.”
Is There Still a Future for Stowe and Smuggs?
The gondola itself was only half the story here, and an ends to a means, but not the only possible path forward. There was clearly a working relationship at stake that would combine these two resorts into one massive resort spanning a 5 1/2 mile footprint with close to 200 trails and 800 acres of patrolled terrain in the snowiest area of the Northeast on the world's largest pass. It should go without saying that this would be a big deal, and the future relationship would be in doubt without approval of this project, but not out of the question.
Bill Stritzler in early June indicated to Skiology that "we can't, today, eliminate the possibility of a relationship without the lift". We followed up with Stritzler today in light of their actions and the board's recommendation and he said the following which indicates that while the gondola is off the table for now, there is no change in their interest in working with Stowe and that a potential relationship is still a possibility:
"There has been no change in our Stowe relationship due to our decision to respect the DST views and take a different approach. Very interestingly the community slightly favors the interconnect based on input I received, However, The timing not right at the moment."
Skiology did do our own survey of our broader community of mostly frequent skiers and riders in June asking not about the gondola interconnection, but their feelings on the potential of Vail Resorts buying Smugglers’ Notch and the community was against that by a ratio of 4:1.
Industry insiders have also shared with Skiology that there may be concerns in the State of Vermont concerning Vail Resorts' market share, and combining Smuggs with Stowe would give the corporation control of 4 of Vermont's 8 largest ski areas, which is an industry critical to the Vermont economy. It was believed that an operating agreement was being explored in order to avoid issues with actual ownership as that arrangement would make Vail Resorts the operator of Smugglers' Notch under a long-term contract that would also bring with it access for the Epic Pass, but the resort itself would remain privately owned as it is now. That could still happen, however with the only widely available path between the two resorts being a 45 minute car ride in winter the actual combination of these resorts won't happen.
It's hard to say what the future might bring as the door isn't fully closed on this pairing, but there will be no gondola, and the opportunity to build a mega-resort in the heart of the Green Mountain Spine seems to be off the table.