Vermont Conservation Organizations Obtain Felony Conviction for Conservation Easement Violation
In what may be the first felony conviction in America for violating a conservation easement and cutting trees on state-owned land, two Vermont men received suspended sentences for illegally cutting a backcountry ski trail measuring 20- to 60-feet wide and more than 2,000-feet long on Big Jay mountain in Vermont. The damage provoked outrage in the backcountry skiing and hiking community after the two men were caught with chainsaws on the Jay State Forest. The two pleaded no contest to felony unlawful mischief on the morning of their trial last month.
The men received a suspended 18-36 month sentence but will serve 60 days with a pre-approved furlough community restitution program, to begin immediately. A restitution hearing will take place within the next 30 days. The two are also barred from the Big Jay property. The plea agreement brings an end to the state’s case against the men, who illegally cut nearly 1000 trees along a 20 to 60-foot-wide swath that extends more than 2,000 feet from the top of Big Jay, Vermont’s twelfth-highest peak. State officials estimate the cost of damage is nearly $50,000.
"It is good to see a felony conviction in this case," said Secretary Jonathan Wood at the Agency of Natural Resources. "This was one of the most serious cases of damage to public lands we have seen. We appreciate the diligent work of the Orleans State Attorney’s office in aggressively pursuing this case. "We hope that this sends a message to anyone else that cutting ski chutes will not be tolerated," Wood added.
In July 2007, state foresters and Green Mountain Club personnel investigated the cut after reports of chainsaws being heard on Big Jay. Several weeks later, the men signed a confession and were later arraigned on charges of unlawful mischief greater than $1,000, a felony.
Big Jay is owned by the state and is managed as part of Jay State Forest by the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. The Green Mountain Club acquired 1573 acres including Big Jay in 1993 as part of its Long Trail Protection Program. GMC transferred the land to the state, retaining a conservation easement co-held with the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board which restricts development and vegetation cutting. See more. The Long Trail, the nation’s oldest long-distance hiking trail, crosses the property and climbs Jay Peak, from which there are spectacular views of Big Jay.
Ted Vogt of the Green Mountain Club’s Stewardship Committee said "We appreciate the efforts of prosecutor Joe Malgieri in handling the criminal case. The Green Mountain Club’s ongoing concern is doing what it can to facilitate the restoration of this beautiful place that has been seriously damaged."
The Green Mountain Club has been working over the last two years with the state, the adjacent Jay Peak Ski Resort and skiers to revegetate the cut area and to prevent skiing on the cut land. Once the young trees start to crest the snow pack in winter, they are especially susceptible to damage from skiers. Management of the area over the next ten years will be critical to restoring the area and erasing the scar from the mountain
Officials at Jay Peak ski area worked collaboratively with the Agency of Natural Resources and Green Mountain Club, said owner and president Bill Stenger. The two men were not in any way affiliated with the ski area, the state, or the easement holders.
"I am pleased that the people responsible will have to pay restitution," Stenger said.
Photos by Rebecca Washburn