GeneralNewsRegional / LocalCraftsbury Outdoor Center’s Economic ‘Ecosystem’ at Risk

Jason Albert Jason AlbertAugust 3, 2017
Pepa Miloucheva (l), head coach of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, giving biathlete Susan Dunklee some sculling instruction at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center in June 2012. (Photo: Susan Dunklee)

A critical issue looms in Craftsbury, Vt. — home to what nordic skiers know as the Craftsbury Outdoor Center (COC).

The COC runs sculling camps on the adjacent Great Hosmer Pond. Currently, motorboats and scullers share access on the pond. The tippy-sleek sculls are best on glassy water — meaning no wind and restricted speeds for any motor boats. Some homeowners along the pond are frustrated with what they claim is the COC’s monopolization of the pond, insisting their right to pursuits like high-speed boating, water skiing and tubing is restricted.

But before we dive deeper, what’s this have to do with skiing?

“What skiers may not know is that we also have a national reputation for our sculling camps which are a really wonderful place to learn how to row or get better at rowing,” Judy Geer, an owner and director of the nonprofit, said in a phone interview.   

Sheldon Miller, COC communications director, wrote in an email that annually the sculling/rowing camps generate $1.2 million dollars in annual revenues. That revenue, in turn, underwrites many of the COC’s ski programs.

“The Outdoor Center is a non-profit, and it basically it’s sort of like an ecosystem,” Geer said. “The more diverse an ecosystem is, the healthier and more sustainable it is going to be. We need summer activities to balance the winter activities and we need income-generating activities, like the camps, to balance the charitable work that we do.”

Ida Sargent, a Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) skier and U.S. Ski Team member. (Photo: John Lazenby/Lazenbyphoto.com)

COC makes the FasterSkier news cycle when it hosts SuperTour-caliber ski races or its Craftsbury Green Racing Project skiers reach the podium. In recent years, COC has become a literal savior and news peg when it comes to on-snow skiing. The northeast has been hit with repeated low-snow years, and COC’s snowmaking operation has produced a reliable skiing option. What’s less known is the community outreach at the core of COC’s mission. The “charitable work,” Geer referred to.

Remoteness is the Northeast Kingdom’s liability and blessing. The most rural part of a rural state, the region remains postcard Vermont. But as such, local residents, including school-age children, often rely on the COC as their access to wellness.

“Being a rural community, there are not a lot of formal recreational opportunities,” said Dave Snedeker, executive director of the Northeastern Vermont Development Association. “The Outdoor Center provides free membership to community members in Craftsbury and Albany [Vermont]. Residents of those two communities have free access to the outdoor center all year round. It’s a great benefit because most people don’t have the option of joining a gym or have a place to go. So the Outdoor Center provides that.”

That access includes users like the roughly 850 children who visit the COC with their school in winter and have the option of using rental equipment free of charge. According to Miller, financial assistance is generous when it comes to subsidizing youth programs and offering families scholarships for its programs.

“The Center goes out of its way to remove financial barriers to entry into the youth sports it supports — primarily cross-country skiing, biathlon, and mountain biking,” Miller wrote. “For example, Craftsbury Nordic Ski Club annual fees currently amount to $800 for a high school athlete. There are currently 29 skiers in this program, and they have year-round access to three dedicated youth and junior coaches. By comparison, the same level of annual programming costs over $2,000 in central Vermont and over $8,000 in Vail, CO.”

Primed and ready for the day, some of Craftsbury Outdoor Center’s junior skiers toe the line for a fun relay. (Photo: Anna Schultz)

Considering the regional impact, any reduction to that $1.2 million influx from the COC sculling camps could potentially make nordic skiing even more exclusive in a state with a proud inclusive nordic skiing heritage.  

The skiing-rowing bond is tight in Craftsbury, a town with a population of about 1,100 (in 2000). As good as the skiing can be there, the rowing on Great Hosmer Pond is considered world-class. Rowers there are protected by the pond’s geography from intolerable winds. From a programming standpoint, COC could foreseeably run sculls all day on the pond, the water conditions are most often favorable.

Here’s the watered-down version of the Great Hosmer Pond quagmire: Great Hosmer Pond is a long and skinny lake, nearly two miles in length and approximately 175-feet wide at its narrowest. By state law, a “200-foot shoreline safety zone,” exists. That safety zone means no high-speed boating, speeds in excess of 5 mile per hour within 200 feet of shore. Most spots in Great Hosmer Pond don’t meet the legally necessary conditions established in Vermont for high-speed boating.    

But high-speed motoring on the pond, despite the pond’s geometric limitations, was granted an exception in 1995. The stakeholders advocating for higher speeds assumed the “200-foot shoreline safety zone,” was waived, too. Last fall, the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation clarified that the shoreline rule was still in effect.

Either way, formal regulations on the pond are rarely if ever enforced, Greer said.

As it stands, only a few small sections of the pond are suitable for high-speed use. Even in those small areas, Vermont law still restricts a motorized boat to no-wake-speeds within 200 feet of the following: “a person in the water, a canoe, rowboat, or other vessel”.

COC would like the state to enforce the pre-existing laws mandating speeds be limited to 5 mph where and when appropriate. Geer and Miller explained that COC has voluntarily cut back on camp participants and hours of use on the pond. These include self-prescribed restrictions like no camps on holiday weekends, an overall reduction in the number of campers for both week-long and weekend camps, and for 2017, a limit of eight out of 15 weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day during which camps are run.

“We really committed to staying off the lake every afternoon, totally from 1-4 and on Saturday all the way until 7,” Geer said of COC’s commitment to compromise. “We have listened, we have made changes. It hasn’t seemed to help and it hasn’t really been acknowledged, I mean it’s been frustrating. For us, we see as the age old — how do you share a community resource? In our mind, you share it to benefit as many people as you can. And you also take care of that resource so that it is healthy and sustained into the future.”

Stakeholders on both sides of the issue are involved in community organizing and lobbying state officials. FasterSkier reached out to Sarah George, whose family owns a cabin on the pond. (George was also appointed the Chittenden County state’s attorney in January 2017.) George has spoken to the press in the past about boating use on Great Hosmer Pond, but she declined an interview request with FasterSkier. It does appear that the issue for some property owners along the lake is less about the nuances of motorboat use, and more about the idea that a business is monopolizing how the pond is used.

An online petition, titled “Save Great Hosmer Pond”, makes the following claim on behalf of limiting COC’s sculling camps:

“An issue has arisen where the COC and there sculling camps have monopolized much of the usage of the pond during the summer months and left camp owners unable to use their motorboats and fisherman and other users unable to access the pond due to the size constraints of the pond and having 40-50 rowing shells (20′ long) on the water at one time. Despite efforts to resolve differences between the two factions, the State Department of Environmental Conservation Watershed Division has become involved to mediate the dispute and potentially enact rules restricting motorboats and other uses on the pond in favor of this private business entity doing business on land and water that belongs to the people of Vermont!”

The petition was posted online in January, and as of Thursday, it had 20 signatures.

CGRP skier Caitlin Patterson heads out on the water for a rowing workout. (Photo: Heather Mooney)

On one side, the perception is that COC monopolizes. On the other, the reality that even a single speeding boat can monopolize by creating wakes and possibly unsafe situations for scullers.

The Friends of Great Hosmer Pond are one group formally advocating for the state to uphold restrictions on high-speed boating.

Gina Campoli, speaking on behalf of the organization, was concerned for both the COC’s viability and the state regulating non-motorized use on the pond.

“Winter and summer we are really concerned that the state of Vermont would consider diminishing the outdoor center’s ability to function,” Campoli said. “And that is to undercut their rowing program, which as you know underwrite many of the winter programs. Although this is rowing story, it is going to have a direct effect on this really special place.”

A draft proposal to mitigate the conflict was released on July 25. The only new provision was this segment: “Use of racing shells and rowing sculls is prohibited on the Pond between the hours of 1:00 pm and 4:00 pm, and the hours of 7:00 pm and sunrise, from the last Saturday in May through the first Monday in September.”

The COC remains an anchor in the community. Beyond providing cost-effective programming, COC helps maintain the pond’s ecosystem.

“Another thing the Outdoor Center does, there is an invasive aquatic species called milfoil, and the Outdoor Center fully funds its removal,” Snedeker explained. “They fully fund that. If they didn’t do that then that would be on the community taxpayers to bear, assuming they wanted to keep their lake clean.”

Offsetting costs like that to the community is one of many economic benefits the COC provides the region. Snedeker said it remains one the Northeast Kingdom’s largest employers with 60 full-time employees and maintaining 100 staff during the summer season. 

Those wages eventually makes its way into the Northeast Kingdom.

“Those people live in the community and spend money at local businesses,” Miller wrote. “The Center pays all property and state taxes, and its guests infuse tourism dollars into local businesses. Whether people come to Craftsbury for a week-long camp or a two-day ski race, they stop at general stores, local breweries, and other points of interest along the way. Even guests who stay on campus bring money to local providers, as a majority of the food served at the Center is grown locally and local contractors and suppliers are used whenever possible.”

Stay tuned as the decision-making process moves forward.

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Jason Albert

Jason Albert

Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.

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