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  • Jane Golden

The White Mountain Forest in Winter

“It’s like the sign says, “The Land of Many Uses,” noted Verland Ohlson, District Ranger for the Saco District of the White Mountain National Forest, as he compared the Forest to his tie pin, which like the forest, serves a multitude of purposes. “And its uses are compatible, “ he continued, “so that almost everyone can benefit from the land."

Ohlson was discussing the role of the National Forest in winter. Despite a more commonly held belief that the woods sleep from October to May, winter is hardly an off-season for the forest. In fact, a fair percentage of the 2.5 million persons who visit the White Mountain National Forest annually do so in the winter when the pace is slower and the challenge, more severe.

In possession of one-eighth of all the land in New Hampshire, the White Mountain National Forest is just one of the 154 National Forest and 19 National Grasslands in 41 states and Puerto Rico that make up the National Forest System and 187 million acres it encompasses. Administered by the Forest Service, Dept. of Agriculture, the system pioneered in wilderness preservation when it first set aside lands in 1924. In New Hampshire, the White Mt. National Forest covers ¾ million acres (50,000 of which are located in Maine) and includes almost the entire White Mountains.

Ohlson oversees the Saco Ranger District, one of the five divisions in the White Mountain National Forest. Of the approximately 225.000 acres in the Saco region, which stretches from Saco Lake to Sandwich Notch to Lake of the Clouds and Wildcat to Bald Face and the height of Kancamagus, almost 200,000 acres are public lands. In this area more commonly known as Mt Washington Valley, less than 20% is privately owned. That insures the future of the outdoor experience in the area and at the same time protects the region from unchecked growth.

Winter, like summer, offers an endless source of recreational activities in the National Forest. There’s alpine skiing, snowmobiling, ski touring, camping, hiking, snowshoeing, and of course, sightseeing along the Forest’s endless array of Forest Service snowy landscapes. Although the Forest Service is not in the downhill ski business, two of the Valley’s five ski areas are located either totally or in part in the National Forest. The top half of Attitash Ski Area is on public land, and, as such, is subject to Forest Service safety standards. "They have a “Special Use Permit,'" explained Ohlson. “We inspect at the start of the winter and then periodically throughout the season. Of course, they have to conform to state regulations, too.” The entire Wildcat Ski Area, including the base lodges, is located on National Forest land and must, like Attitash, meet its rigorous standards and receive its approval for rate increases, trail cutting, or other major changes to the terrain. A portion of the receipts from the areas is returned each year to the United States Treasury.

Although the Forest Service at present is not involved in winter maintenance or construction, the hiking trails receive a good deal of use throughout the winter months. A number of the trails are maintained by the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation, which operates under a Special Use Permit, and the Appalachian Mt. Club in Pinkham Notch. The trails provide excellent terrain for touring, and many are closed to Off Road Vehicles (ORV) such as snowmobiles.

The National Forest, nevertheless, fosters cooperation, and some areas and sections of trails are shared by snowshoers, skiers, and snowmobilers. These include trails to Garfield Ridge and Zealand Valley from the north, Evans Notch, Speckled Mt., Slippery Brook Road, and Mountain Pond, Sawyer River Road, Carrigain Notch, Tripoli Road, and Three Ponds. There are a few sections in the Forest - developed cross country and alpine areas, scenic and wilderness regions - that are off-limits to snowmobilers. “Many of these areas are too steep or too treacherous for snowmobilers anyway,” mentioned Ohlson, who added that the machines are better suited for a flat or gradual trail surface. Entire regions are set aside for snowmobiles, however, and these are connected by trail corridors (generally former logging roads) that have been designated for that use. In order to protect soil and vegetation, it’s asked that the snowmobiler make certain there is at least six inches of snow over the entire trail. Check with the local District Ranger station, located at the start of the Kancamagus Highway in Conway for more specific information.

Camping too, is a popular pastime, and the Forest Service administers the following campgrounds in the winter: Sugarloaf II, Wildwood, Zealand, Barnes Field, Gold River, Crocker Pond, Hastings, Wild River, Big Rock, Campton Group Area, Oliverian, Waterville, and Passaconway. Permits are not required from November 1 to April 30, but campers must be prepared to take care of themselves since the access roads are not plowed and only a few pumps have water. Campfire permits are not necessary on snow.

Permits are, however, requested for anyone seeking entrance to the 23,100 acre area of the Great Gulf and Presidential-Dry River Wilderness region, which was set up in 1975 as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System created by Congress in 1964. Ohlson explained, “Wilderness areas are those that have remained in their natural state, untouched by man. There was a logging camp in the Dry River area, but that was more than 50 years ago and there hasn’t been any activity there since then. . . It’s more difficult here than say out West to find areas matching that description.” Especially since the White Mt. National Forest, small by national standards, receives the third greatest amount of recreational use in the country and services the sixty-two million people in eastern United States and Canada who live within 500 miles of its boundaries.

These permits, Ohlson noted, serve a double purpose: they assist the Forest Service in obtaining data regarding the use of this wilderness resource and they educate visitors in the proper use and care of these fragile areas. Overnight camping permits, which are limited to 14-day stays in winter, may be obtained at any Forest Service office or the AMC Pinkham Notch Camp or by writing to the Forest Service at any of its regional offices in Conway, Bethlehem, Gorham, or Plymouth, N.H., or Bethel, Maine.

Reservations are necessary for staying in either the Zealand Falls Hut or Carter Hut, both run by the AMC. Bunks and cooking facilities are provided. Several Forest Service and cooperator cabins are available to the public on a limited, first-come, first-served basis.

The Forest Service and their full-time snow rangers, who set up residence in a hut at the base of the Bowl, administer the Tuckerman-Huntington Ravine areas on Mt. Washington. The rangers post snow conditions, and close off certain sections when dangerous ice conditions or avalanches threaten the technical climbers on Huntington or skiers in Tuckerman Ravine.

The AMC operates its Hermit Lake Shelter offering shelter accommodations ($1.75 per person/per night) and tent sites. The Harvard Mountaineering Club, likewise runs its cabin in Huntington Ravine from December 1 to March 31 providing space for up to 16 people at a cost of $2 per person. Tent sites are also available.

As large a part as recreation may play in the National Forest, it is still only one aspect of its complex scheme. Unlike the Park Service of the Dept. of the Interior, the Forest Service duties transcend outdoor enjoyment. As directed by Congress, it’s managed under the principles of Multiple Use and Sustained Yield which translates to mean forest resource conservation and timber production. Ohlson estimates the Forest Service cuts down about 12 million board feet in this region every year, and still they are not cutting the wood as fast as it’s growing. Twenty-five percent of the gross total timber receipts and 12% of net goes directly back to the towns in the form of a Yield Tax, since Federal lands are not responsible for town property taxes. Most of the timber for cutting and timber stand improvement is marked during the winter months.

In this area, the Forest Service is involved with Civilian Law Enforcement (CLE) and works in cooperation with the Carroll County’s Sheriff’s Department in policing the woods and camp grounds. As federal officers, forest rangers issue citations for any infractions committed in the National Forest - considered a federal offense. The Forest Service is also called upon to act as a back-up crew in search and rescue efforts, to monitor fires, research wildlife matters, and govern watershed management.

Most of his time, Ohlson admits, is involved with land use planning. His department, working in conjunction with a number of public interest groups, environmental and outdoor concerns, has just completed a 10-year projection for the Kancamagus area and has now started work planning the future of the Presidential Range. “It’s public input and public involvement,” he said, “that determines the outcome is happy.” It’s seeing that this Land of Many Uses - the White Mountain National Forest - moves into the future at such a pace that its past (and its heritage) remains intact.

Editor's note: Verland Ohlson, who is quoted in this article, was born in 1917 and passed away in 2003. He retired as District Ranger in 1980 after serving in that position for 23 years.

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