By Gwendolyn Craig
The Olympic Regional Development Authority’s plan for ski trail widening, new trails and a new lift from Bear Den to Legacy Lodge at Whiteface Mountain got the Adirondack Park Agency’s approval on Friday. New hiking and mountain biking trails were also approved at the Wilmington facility, with the caveat that they comply with tree-cutting guidance the state has yet to draft.
The projects are outlined in an amendment to the Whiteface Mountain Unit Management Plan, a document APA decided complies with its rules and regulations in the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan.
The APA board passed the amendment on Friday unanimously with member Ken Lynch absent.
The approval came despite legal concerns raised by Protect the Adirondacks. The environmental group contends that a wider ski trail exceeds the mountain’s limits set in the state constitution and that mountain biking and hiking trails are also constitutionally questionable.
Chris Cooper, the APA’s counsel, said the agency defers to the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Olympic Regional Development Authority on constitutional issues.
Spokesman for the APA Keith McKeever said DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos must sign off on the board’s recommendation to approve the amendment before ORDA submits their work plans to DEC.
Manager of Whiteface Mountain Aaron Kellet said the alpine ski trails are ORDA’s first priority because Lake Placid hosts the World University Games in 2023.
Protect the Adirondacks and a couple of other commenters were not in favor of ORDA’s five-phase plan to expand existing hiking and mountain biking trails that would connect to the Wilmington Wild Forest. Protect also questioned the amendment’s lack of information on tree cutting. ORDA plans to cut around 10,000 trees 1-inch diameter or greater, but the authority does not say how many it will cut for the biking and hiking trails.
Matt McNamara, a planner with APA, said those trails will be built using the DEC’s trail guidance, which McNamara said will be released later this summer. The DEC has been meeting with local groups on new trail guidelines to address a Court of Appeal’s ruling that some snowmobile trails the DEC was building in the park violated the state constitution because of excessive tree cutting.
A spokesperson for the DEC told the Adirondack Explorer the trail stewardship working group will present its draft policies “to the public through a full and transparent public comment process.”
APA board member Zoe Smith asked McNamara and Cooper if the board was being asked to review ORDA’s plans for compliance under policies that haven’t yet been developed. Cooper said on Thursday that the APA was charged with deciding if the amendment conforms with the master plan. Cooper said language in the amendment notes that ORDA must wait to build biking and hiking trails until the DEC develops trail guidance. The APA will also have to review the draft trail guidance, Cooper said, and ensure it is also in compliance with the master plan.
“So yes, there are two parts here that are happening,” Cooper said, adding he was comfortable with approving the UMP amendment that way.
Smith said on Thursday she was still trying to reconcile the summer trails in the amendment. Molly Breslin, an attorney for the DEC said hiking and mountain biking are traditional activities throughout the forest preserve and ORDA facilities were unique.
McNamara also addressed public comments questioning a lack of plans for uphill skiing in its amendment. ORDA received more than 50 comments about uphill skiing in an earlier review. McNamara said there is no specific requirement in the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan for ORDA to offer uphill skiing.
APA Chairman John Ernst asked if there were special trails for uphill skiing.
“Isn’t it something that can coexist with the facility you’ve got?” Ernst said.
Kellet said 15 to 30 uphill skiers use Whiteface three days a week. Kellet said that currently works “pretty well,” but expressed reluctance to expand opportunities. The same staff that monitor the mountain for regular downhill skiing also monitor the uphill skiing. Their day starts around 5 a.m. and ends around 6 p.m., Kellet said.
“We’re doing our best right now to manage it with the resources we have,” Kellet said. “As we move forward, we’re trying to solicit volunteers that want to support it that need to be ski-patrolled certified. The core of it is how we’re going to rescue someone. The argument is that they (uphill skiers) hardly ever get hurt, but they do get hurt.”