Court’s ruling leaves towns and trail builders wondering how to proceed
By Gwendolyn Craig
A court ruling blocking tree removal for snowmobile trails created uncertainty for other recreational projects on the Adirondack Forest Preserve.
That uncertainty could result in some trail crews keeping their focus on private lands or on construction and maintenance work that doesn’t require tree cutting, as the Adirondack Mountain Club said it planned.
The Adirondack Explorer repeatedly sent questions to the state Department of Environmental Conservation from the ruling’s release on May 4 through May 24. Questions included what would come of the 19 or so miles of snowmobile trails already built; how the decision would affect other trail work; how the DEC was interpreting what constituted a constitutionally protected tree; whether the DEC would pursue a constitutional amendment specifically to authorize the snowmobile trail; and what guidance the department was providing to trail crews heading into their summer season.
As of this week, the department had not answered those questions.
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A spokesperson wrote back on May 25 to say that “DEC remains committed to thoughtful stewardship of the Forest Preserve for the use and enjoyment of the public and protection of this resource. DEC is carefully and thoroughly analyzing the Court’s decision and determining the implications for DEC’s varied and complex work.”
The Adirondack Park Agency also did not respond to a similar list of questions, except to say that the state attorney general’s office was reviewing the decision.
Ben Brosseau, director of communications for the Adirondack Mountain Club, said last year’s DEC guidance held that trail crews were not allowed to cut trees on the forest preserve while the case was pending. By the Explorer’s press deadline, ADK had not received any updated guidance, but Brosseau said “we expect new guidance for hiking trail work to come out by mid to late summer.”
ADK is continuing trail work in some areas of the park that do not involve tree cutting. Crews continue to work on projects at Avalanche Lake, Phelps Trail past Johns Brook Lodge, and a new project on Mount Jo. The Mount Jo project is on private property, so is not affected by the court decision. Brosseau said ADK will reroute the Long Trail because a large section is eroded into a streambed.
The court’s decision has also confounded local government officials. Bill Farber, chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors, said he has trouble believing the ruling will only block snowmobile trails. Farber wondered if it could halt tree cutting at some DEC campgrounds.
The two dissenters in the 4-2 court decision—Justice Leslie Stein and Chief Justice Janet DiFiore—said the majority’s decision could affect regular maintenance of other recreational trails in the Adirondack Park.
Mark Schachner, a Glens Falls attorney who represented the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages in writing a friend-of-the-court brief for DEC, criticized the decision, in part because it didn’t define what size of tree the constitution protects on the state forest preserve. He told the Explorer that the court was in a position “to provide definition and clarity as to what constitutes ‘timber,’ … yet utterly failed to address this issue.”
“Instead of providing any sort of clear guidance by which to evaluate the constitutionality of future Forest Preserve activities with any measure of predictability or certainty,” he wrote, “we are left in the constitutional morass of not knowing whether any and all vegetative removal is truly prohibited as the Court Decision could be interpreted or future actions are still to be evaluated according to whether proposed removal is ‘substantial enough’ or ‘material enough’ to be prohibited.”
But for Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, the decision is clear and does not affect hiking trails. In a web presentation for the Kelly Adirondack Center on May 27, Bauer discussed clauses in the Court of Appeals decision that parse out hiking trails from the snowmobile trails. For example, the majority stated that the snowmobile trails in question “require greater interference with the natural development of the Forest Preserve than is necessary to accommodate hikers.”
Other environmental advocacy groups, such as Adirondack Wild and the Adirondack Council, agree that the decision does not apply to hiking trails.
Bauer also believes the decision means the state needs to revise a list of policies and plans in the Adirondack Park. Those include: a half dozen management plans for areas such as the Moose River Plains and Saranac Lake Wild Forest; the DEC and APA guidance on snowmobile trails; and the New York State Snowmobile Plan.
Though the DEC did not answer what would become of the 19 miles of snowmobile trails already built before the court ruling, Bauer said the DEC will need to restore them to forest.
Asked if he had heard from the DEC since the court decision, Bauer said he’d heard “nothing of substance.”
“They clearly have a lot of work to do to reform their management and restore damaged areas to comply with this decision,” he added.