Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: Responding to concerns about Silver Lake hut

On June 8, the Moosalamoo Association and Vermont Hut Association hosted an informational meeting in Brandon to give people a chance to ask questions and express opinions about a proposed backcountry hut proposed for the Silver Lake Campground area. The details can be found at tinyurl.com/Moosalamoo-hut-info.

In brief, it would be a 1.5-story backcountry primitive hut that will accommodate up to 10 people, year-round, located on the east side of Silver Lake about 315 feet from the shore and not visible from the shoreline during months with tree foliage. Similar huts within the GMNF, also managed by VHA, exist at Chittenden Brook Campground (off Brandon Gap) and Grout Pond (near Stratton Mountain). 

The meeting was well-attended and we heard from both sides of what appears to have become a very contentious issue. We did not expect everybody to support the proposal. But among the voices in opposition we have discerned threads of misinformation, based on comments made at the meeting and in a recent letter to the Addison Independent on June 2, 2022, from Goshen resident Galina Chernaya.

We would like to respond to what we have read and heard and provide some answers and clarity so the public can make informed comments to the USFS as part of the pending 45-day public-comment period which ends on July 11.

• In her letter, Ms. Chernaya strongly infers the hut is located in a Wilderness Area. It is not. It is in an entirely separate federal designation — a National Recreation Area. Wilderness areas are meant to be kept undisturbed. Recreation areas are meant to be developed for certain prescribed recreational uses.

This is why Silver Lake has a campground, roads and concrete toilets. Among the built structures and public amenities around Silver Lake, there are 15 campsites, each with a six-person capacity. There is a host site with power, and offers a vehicle on site. There is a horse camping site. There are power lines running right along the top of the Silver Lake Trail within a few 100 feet of the lake, a man-made dam, a concrete sluice, metal bear canisters for campers to store their food in, two concrete toilets and a wooden outhouse, and picnic tables with metal fire grates near the beach. The trails to the lake are still serviceable logging roads used for Forest Service maintenance purposes.

At any given time during the camping season there could be a handful to up to 90 people at Silver Lake’s existing campsites. The addition of a hut will have no greater impact than adding another campsite with an average of 6.6 people per each stay. But it will provide a way to have more people spending the night there in the winter — a seven-month period when very few overnight in that area anyway. This would allow winter users to spend a winter night near the lake in a cozy hut with friends.

• The hut’s location at Silver Lake Campground is why the project qualifies for a “categorical exclusion,” rather than more extensive environmental review under the USFS approval procedures. Because the site is within an area with existing and historical development and use, the Forest Service is not required to perform an “environmental impact statement.” Nonetheless, the site will undergo review by USFS staff, including an archaeological survey, which will address concerns raised about Abenaki heritage being respected. If it is found that the site infringes on that heritage in any significant way, other sites will be considered.

• It has also been suggested there was some kind of secrecy because the Moosalamoo Board selected the site before seeking any public input. 

In fact, the idea of a hut in the MNRA has been an active MA agenda item for at least a year, but as with all of our projects, there is a lengthy and uncertain period before approval and funding is even a likely possibility. And with two organizations involved (VHA and MA), making the idea into a concrete proposal is even more arduous. It is only when the proposal truly becomes viable does it become a publicized process. Otherwise, there really would not be anything for the public to review and comment on. The timing and sequence with this hut was no different.

Only when the proposal received its Forest Service permit in late May was it ready for public input, and we and the USFS put it out there for all to see. 

• Questions of motive have also been raised. Ms. Chernay infers there is a shady financial motive by the MA to use the hut to fill its coffers and benefit board members. This is wrong. The MA will receive a percentage of the net revenue, which is expected to generate about $7,500 annually. The MA is, fortunately, a very low-budget organization so it won’t take much to cover our minimal annual administrative costs, which we would otherwise cover by membership dues and donations — as we have done for most of the past 20 years. Most of the anticipated hut income will be used to meet our mission, which includes helping the FS manage the 16,000 acres of the MNRA and its 70-plus miles of trails for public use. Board members are not paid — all of their hundreds of hours working to keep the trails in shape and managing these lands are volunteer — and the implication that they would somehow benefit financially is absurd.

• We also have been criticized for touting accessibility as an attribute because some believe the hut will not in fact be accessible to all mobility-impaired persons. This criticism assumes that all such persons have the same abilities, and demeans the unique and amazing abilities of many people who meet such challenges in their everyday lives. In short, there are many in this category of outdoor enthusiasts who are able to navigate the road and trail, and once there, a hut would simply be much more accommodating than a root-strewn campsite. The hut is one-and-a-half stories and bed space is available without climbing stairs. That said, making all facilities universally accessible is also a USFS requirement; not making those accommodations is not an option — and for many good reasons.

• While not expressly stated, some of the outcry against the hut reflects a deep mistrust of the U.S. Forest Service and other institutions, and a profound misunderstanding of how nonprofits function and interact with other stakeholders. Nonprofits (and for-profits) frequently work with federal and state land managers. VHA and MA are just like the Appalachian Mountain Club and Green Mountain Club, among many others, which work with the USFS to add value to public lands.

In sum, we are grateful for all of the attention this proposal is getting. A hut like this will only enhance the MNRA, which we all recognize and appreciate as a treasured local asset, which we are lucky to have in our backyard. And when we want to have an undisturbed and pristine experience in nature we can go just a bit further north and east into the vast and undisturbed Bread Loaf Wilderness Area.

Eben Punderson

Middlebury

on behalf of the Moosalamoo Association board 

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The Addison Independent will be closed on Monday, July 4th. The newspaper will be published on Thursday, as usual.