For the fourth time in 20 years the lease of the ski area at Mount Sunapee State Park*(MSSP) is proposed to be conveyed to new corporate owners. The ski lease on Mount Sunapee, which encumbers 1,135 acres of the 2,962 acre state park in Newbury and Goshen through 2028, provides revenue to the State, which supports the capital expenses of the State’s other ski area, Cannon Mountain in Franconia Notch State Park. The Forest Society first acquired land on Mount Sunapee in 1911 to protect ecologically distinctive forests growing on the mountain.
The owners and operators of the ski lease at Mount Sunapee State Park notified state officials on June 4 that they were announcing a proposed sale of the lease interest to Vail Resorts. They propose completing this complex transaction this fall, well before the next ski season. The transaction includes the purchase by Vail Resorts of the MSSP lease and two other ski areas --- Okemo Mountain in Vermont and Crested Butte in Colorado. The transaction will also include the conveyance to Vail Resorts of some 600 plus acres of land in Goshen, NH privately owned by Tim and Diane Mueller. The Mueller’s Goshen land shares a common boundary with the ski lease area within MSSP. This land is in part the location of an expansion plan for the ski area known as the “West Bowl Expansion”, approved by the State in 2016 but yet to be built.
Sarah Stewart, the new Commissioner of the NH Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (DNCR), which includes the NH Division of Parks and Recreation, started her job on June 4. Both she and Governor Chris Sununu received calls early that morning advising them of the impending announcement of the sale. Attorney General Gordon MacDonald and Commissioner Stewart sent a joint letter to Governor Sununu and the Executive Council on June 15 explaining the complex transaction, including their view that the proposed transaction as it relates to the Sunapee lease must be reviewed and approved by the State before it is executed. They also announced a public review process that will include at least one public information meeting at Mount Sunapee State Park before the State decides whether or not to approve the transaction.
The Forest Society first started acquiring land on Mount Sunapee in 1911 to protect the ecologically significant forest communities on the mountain. In the late 1940’s the Forest Society conveyed its ownership of 1100 acres through a friendly condemnation by the state to create the state park, which was to include a state owned ski area. The state operated the ski area until 1998, when the Legislature mandated that the Division of Parks and Recreation solicit bids from private enterprises interested in operating the ski area under a lease agreement with the State.
When the lessees expressed a desire to expand the existing ski area, the State initiated scientific research by its Natural Heritage Bureau, which then informed state decision-making on potential expansion of ski operations, to better understand the ecological significance of existing forested communities on the mountain. This research identified ecologically significant forest communities in the so-called “East Bowl” area of the state park in 2003, which eliminated consideration of an expansion of the then leased area by the lessee into East Bowl. In 2004 the lessee began to acquire private land to the west of the MSSP and leased ski area boundary, with the goal of expanding ski operations into the West Bowl area of Mount Sunapee. This led to a contentious decade of debate, culminating in a complicated compromise agreement between the State and the lessee to allow expansion of ski operations within the West Bowl under certain restrictions.
The Forest Society has significant concerns with any expansion of ski facilities within MSSP that may adversely impact the exemplary natural communities of forest growth identified by the NH Natural Heritage Bureau within the 2,962 acre state park. The best outcome for these exemplary forests on Mount Sunapee is if the ski operations are confined to what is now on the ground within the existing leased area.