When Jim McCulley drove his snowmobile on Old Mountain Road in 2003, he touched off a series of court battles that lasted 15 years. For now, at least, the legal saga appears to have ended.
The New York Department of Environmental Conservation opted not to appeal the latest court decision—which means that Old Mountain Road, a popular ski route that cuts through the Sentinel Range Wilderness, remains a town road in the eyes of the law.
DEC had insisted that the old woods road had fallen into disuse years ago and so was part of the motor-free wilderness area.
To the casual observer, DEC’s position may have seemed like common sense. Old Mountain Road is hardly passable by the family sedan. It’s narrow, rocky, and flooded by beavers.
Last March, however, the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court ruled in a 5-0 decision that Old Mountain Road had never been legally abandoned by the towns of Keene and North Elba. It was just the latest in several court decisions against DEC over the years.
DEC spokeswoman Lori Severino said the department decided not to appeal and “is committed to working with the town to determine appropriate, future uses of the Old Mountain Road.”
Perhaps the primary use is cross-country skiing. The 3.5-mile Old Mountain Road is a popular stretch of the Jackrabbit Ski Trail, which extends 24 miles from Keene to Saranac Lake.
Skiers needn’t be too worried about the route’s legal status. North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi said the town has no intention of opening Old Mountain Road to snowmobiles or other motor vehicles. The town had initiated the latest legal challenge, but only as a matter of principle.
“This was a property-rights issue as far as the town was concerned,” Politi told the Explorer. “It was just the state meddling in our business, and we didn’t like it.”
Likewise, Keene does not allow snowmobiles on its end of Old Mountain Road. It does allow local residents to take ATVs on the road during hunting season, but few have taken advantage of the opportunity.
“Our town board recognizes the value of keeping it as a ski trail,” said Keene Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson. “And we are going to make every effort to preserve that.”
In its decision, the Appellate Division noted that the state could take steps to legally close Old Mountain Road. The Adirondack Council, which sided with DEC in the lawsuit, likes that idea. In a statement to the Explorer, DEC said it agrees that the state “has the legal authority to close town roads and not allow motorized access,” but the department remains committed to cooperating with the towns instead.
McCulley, the president of the Lake Placid Snowmobile Club, and his lawyer, Matt Norfolk, are glad that the long fight seems to be over. “Looking back, it is was well worth it,” McCulley said. “I proved the DEC and the environmental lobby can be beat.”
Look for a story on skiing Old Mountain Road in the January/February issue of the Adirondack Explorer.