Mid and high elevation mountain forests east of the Mississippi River are not suited for ski area development without clearing or significant thinning. Even so-called woods lines require some cutting of the understory to be roomy enough for turns, and for continuity down the fall line. But at the same time, trees and other woody plants provide integral functions for skiing and snowboarding. These functions include:
Thus there is a balance between cutting the forest and preserving the snow retention and water quality functions the forest provides. While there is plenty of Science behind forest management, applying it to ski area management involves Art to create and sustain high quality ski and snowboard terrain.
Sun, Soil, and Streams
Tree reproduction and growth have three requirements:
Sunshine is converted to sugars for growth in tree foliage (leaves and needles) through the process of photosynthesis. Water and nutrients are absorbed by trees mainly from the soil.
While the it is obvious that trees need soil, on mountain slopes the root systems of trees and other woody plants are of prime importance to hold these soils in place. The removal of trees from mountainsides thus comes at the risk of loosing soils to erosion and landslides. The sliding of soil downhill is catastrophic for trails because slides opens up rocky holes where little can grow. This actuates a slow downward spiral of skiing/riding quality for the trail as a whole. Usually slides are small, but over time the incremental impact of one slide after another renders a trail rocky, uneven, and hazardous to body and equipment. Snowmaking is a solution, but it comes with its own set of issues.
The loss of soils is also detrimental for water quality. Ski areas are located in upland stream watersheds. Upland streams ecologically sensitive and receive rigorous protection from State regulators. Therefore healthy trees, and forests as a whole, play a leading role in the protection of upland water quality.
Annual Maintenance of Trails
Ski trails are artificial breaks in the forest, which must be maintained or the forest will grow back. Traditionally, annual maintenance activities include mowing of trails to keep vegetation low to the ground, as well as soil erosion control measures such as installation and cleaning of water bars and culverts. The purpose of this work is to keep the trails open and safe for snow sports, in other words to keep forest reproduction in check while stabilizing the soil. This applies to primative woods lines, but on a much smaller scale.
What is missing are management actions that promote tree regeneration in order to foster the benefits listed above for snow retention, water quality, and the ski/ride experience.
Forests are dynamic systems that can never be held in a static state. Change and adaptability is the the strength of ecosystems. Rather than attempting to keep a forest in check - in a static state - ski area forest managers must recognize and focus this bioenergy to create and maintain high quality ski and snowboard terrain on a long-term, sustainable basis.
In sum, the focus of establishing and maintaining ski area trails and woods lines must shift from what is cut, to what is left behind.
This discussion concerns the following mangement goals:
This discussion focuses on the following management activities: