Small Town Triumph: Ascutney Mountain

Ascutney_Image_1Sixty-four year old Laura Farrell is a firecracker. If she were to write a resume, it would include the bullets: Founder and Director of Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports, Founder of the Vermont 100 Ultrarun and Vermont 50 Ride and Run, Coach, Mom, Ultrarunner, Skier, Hiker, and lover of animals. She’s spent her career removing barriers—both physical and financial–to recreation. Farrell would likely be too humble to add brilliant fundraiser, visionary and woman of boundless energy and passion to that list. The bullet reading “2015 to Present” would say Executive Director of Ascutney Outdoors, the non-profit Farrell helped found last fall.

She wasn’t looking for another job, but when the economy of West Windsor, Vermont tanked following foreclosure on Ascutney Resort, the ski mountain that was the lifeblood of the town, Farrell stepped up to help solve the problem. With Farrell at the helm, the town of 1100 residents joined forces to buy back the resort to save their town.

It was a bold move, and the only solution the board saw to halting the town’s precipitous economic plunge. In the six years the ski area was closed, property values dropped 45%. Restaurants, Bed & Breakfasts and general stores shuttered their doors and the general mood was despair.

“We knew we had a recreational diamond in the rough here,” recalls soft-spoken Glen Seward, retired contractor, former Ascutney Mountain Ops manager, board member, and one of the main drivers of the project. “We believed we could get a community ski area up and running, which would also let us protect and grow the summer use trails.” Seward rolled up his sleeves and got to work with herculean effort and monk-like patience, personally putting in 40 hours a week for years to close the deal.

With support from the Trust for Public Land, STAB, the local bike club, Ascutney Outdoors and the community, the proposal came to a vote in a standing-room-only meeting at West Windsor Town Hall.

Ascutney_1“It was an extreme step, but we felt it was the only way to go,” said Seward. “And the community agreed.” An overwhelming majority of West Windsor’s residents voted yea to the purchase.

“The people of West Windsor had a vision and hope for the future: to make their town a four-season recreation destination, and to make their community whole again,” says Kate Wanner, who negotiated and managed the project for Trust for Public Land and who has spearheaded similar projects across Vermont and the Northeast. “On the conservation/value scale, Ascutney had everything: existing trails at risk, and a unique location at the confluence of the Northern and Mid-Atlantic forests on steep slopes that will provide refuge for flora and fauna as they deal with climate change. Plus, Ascutney provides at home recreation. When recreation is that close, it becomes a daily part of life of the community. It gets kids outside and connects them to nature.”

“When we lost the ski area, we lost our town spirit; now you can see it coming back,” says impish 60-plus year old Jim Lyall, who has personally raked, benched and armored more than 50 miles of public and private trails on and around Ascutney over the past decade.

I run into Lyall, macleod in hand, in the middle of a switch backing new trail that snakes down the face of the mountain. He’s battling Lyme disease, but can’t bear to leave his new baby flagged and not benched. There are 35 miles of legal trails here, built and maintained with thousands of hours of labor by Lyall and other volunteers. “Until this thing went through, we could have been kicked off more than half the Ascutney trails with a month’s notice,” says Lyall. Now that the land is protected, Lyall and Stab are working on a trail to connect Ascutney State Park, on another flank of the monadnock, with the STAB trails. And come winter, Ascutney Outdoors plans to have a ski lift to serve both skiers and fat bikers.Ascutney_3

Recreation in West Windsor is having a renaissance, and bikers and skiers are coming back. “We’re getting kids and families outside from West Windsor and beyond,” says Farrell. “It’s reenergizing to the community. People are saying ‘the mountain is alive again.’”

Many communities have bet on recreation to save their mountain towns and won. Ascutney is showing promise they’ll join that list of success stories. Real estate prices are recovering, and the community now has a mission. It’s uniting businesses and residents and bringing people out in droves to build, repair and help out.

On a misty fall morning in Southern Vermont, I pedal my fat tire Yeti through heavy dew, climbing on a winding forested trail where the leaves are starting to glisten red and gleam yellow, from the old Ascutney Mountain Base Lodge to a scenic meadow called Mile Long Field. Thanks to Farrell, Seward, Lyall, Wanner and the community of West Windsor, we can all enjoy these trails for years to come.