High court ruled to protect trees on paths
A nearly eight-year legal battle over snowmobile trails planned for the Adirondack Park ended in May when the state’s highest court ruled they were unconstitutional, but it did not end questions on what projects are legal in forest preserve.
The 4-2 New York State Court of Appeals decision favored environmental group Protect the Adirondacks, which sued the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Adirondack Park Agency over trails 9-to-12-feet wide through forest preserve. The decision rested on the state constitutional provision ensuring forest preserve remains “forever wild.” It also overturned a lower court ruling.
Protect challenged the DEC’s building of roughly 27 miles of snowmobile trails connecting North Hudson to Newcomb, Minerva and Indian Lake. Estimates showed the DEC planned to cut more than 6,000 trees, or over 25,000 trees if smaller saplings were counted.
Justice Jenny Rivera said “the cutting and removal of thousands of trees, grading and leveling, and the removal of rocks and other natural components from the Forest Preserve” violated the “forever wild” clause. Rivera said the DEC could pursue a constitutional amendment to build the trails.
In joining Chief Justice Janet DiFiore in dissenting, Justice Leslie Stein said the majority had misread the state constitution.
The ruling was a blow for central Adirondack towns and snowmobile groups, who said the state promised the trails to connect downtowns.
The court case also created a unusual divide among park and environmental organizations. The Adirondack Mountain Club, Nature Conservancy and Open Space Institute sided with the DEC. The Sierra Club, Adirondack Council and Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve sided with Protect.
Despite the final ruling, state officials and contractors are grappling with what it means for trail work, trail maintenance and campground projects. Former DEC Commissioner Joe Martens called the court’s lack of clarity a “lawyer’s nightmare.”
With a task force recently named to help shape DEC’s work going forward, the Adirondack Explorer will continue reporting on the decision’s impact and interpretation in 2022.
— Gwendolyn Craig