(Note: On April 25, the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation announced it issued a two-part plan to Telemark Properties and its lender to move forward in securing land access and use of its lodge facilities for Birkie events throughout the year.)
Efforts to create a new trailhead for North America’s largest ski marathon are off the table, at least for now.
Earlier this month, the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF) withdrew its proposal to the Bayfield County Forestry Committee to purchase properties for a backup start, deciding instead to continue negotiations with Telemark Resort in Cable, Wis.
For nearly 40 years, the lodge has been home to the 50-kilometer race, which currently starts at Telemark and meanders south to Hayward, Wis. Land access has been an issue in recent years, with certain private landowners requesting up to $150,000 for race-day use. The Birkie crosses six private properties and also needs ensured access to Telemark’s trails and the adjacent Cable Union Airport, where nearly 10,000 people are expected to start the race next year.
American Birkebeiner Executive Director Ned Zuelsdorff said the foundation is trying to reach an agreement with Telemark that guarantees land and facility access. Since the resort’s heyday in the 1980s, its financial stability has been in question. The lodge closed in May 2010 and reopened in January 2011 with new owners.
Steve Kaufman of Telemark Properties officially took over last June and said the lodge’s historical integrity and nordic roots are a priority. He would have never bought Telemark if he thought the Birkie — one of its “top three” events along with the Chequamegon Fat Tire mountain bike festival — would be held anywhere else.
“We think it’s important for the competitors or the participants of Birkie events, who have built traditions at Telemark, for that to stay,” Kaufman said in a phone interview. “I think moving it would be a mistake after three decades at one place. … I would have never got involved with Telemark if I ever thought for a second that the Birkie and Telemark wouldn’t be synonymous in the same sentence.”
Essentially, the Birkie foundation and its board of directors feel the same way, but as the race approaches its 40th anniversary in 2013, they’re seeking piece of mind. Two years ago, trail access across one private property wasn’t guaranteed until five weeks before the race. The landowner requested upwards of $100,000 dollars and eventually accepted $25,000.
Each year, the uncertainty of costs resurface, which is why the Birkie is working with Telemark now. Last November, the foundation formulated a plan to build about five acres of trails and a new trailhead on 120 acres south of Cable. Telemark joined the conversation and released a proposal of its own in late March.
In a bullet-point letter, Telemark Resort outlined several possible solutions for keeping the race there, which included guaranteed easements to Telemark trails for Birkie events, free year-round access to the Birkie Trail and a heated expo center, which Telemark would construct.
In return, it asked the Birkie to base its races, registration and expo at Telemark and lease the new expo center during its events for a 10-year renewable term.
Zuelsdorff said the ABSF planned to send Telemark its own “comprehensive plan,” written with the help of a lawyer, late last week. On Monday, Kaufman said he had not received it yet, but both parties were confident they’d reach an agreement relatively soon.
“Negotiations are still ongoing of course, and we’re doing our best to address the concerns of the American Birkebeiner foundation and at the same time do what’s in the best interest at Telemark and [its] lending institution,” Kaufman said.
According to Kaufman, Great Southern Bank in Springfield, Mo., has to sign off on any agreement between Telemark Properties and the ABSF. Zuelsdorff said they were still determining how many lien holders might be involved in the decision. Kaufman said Great Southern Bank was the only one.
“Nothing is as simple as it might appear,” Zuelsdorff said, citing costs and fees as the big questions.
Kaufman said Telemark is basically asking the Birkie for a “one-dollar commitment” to access all of Telemark’s property in exchange for basing the race there for certain number of years. He understood the Birkie might have prior commitments to other venues in the area.
At the moment, Zuelsdorff said the Birkie is focused on securing trail access near Telemark and an additional easement to bypass private properties if needed. He also hoped they would be allowed to use the lodge for all of its events.
“I think there’s a reasonable chance that we will be able to work out an agreement relatively soon,” Zuelsdorff said. “If anything were to complicate that, then we would have to go to some reasonable alternatives.”
While the new trailhead proposal was on hold, it certainly wasn’t out of the question.
“By taking it off the table immediately is effectively … just putting it on the back burner,” Zuelsdorff said. “That is an alternative for us. There’s actually a couple of other alternative sites that we could use if we needed to.”
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.