By BRANDON LOOMIS
New York State’s high court on Tuesday gave its blessing to a snowmobile trail near the Hudson River on Chain Lakes Road, rejecting environmentalists’ claims that the state’s wild-and-scenic rivers law prohibited traffic there.
Adirondack Wild and Protect the Adirondacks sued in 2016 to thwart a Department of Environmental Conservation plan to route a snowmobile trail across newly acquired state land between Indian Lake and Newcomb. The Adirondack Park Agency had signed off on the trail on Chain Lakes Road South, which passes within a half-mile of the Hudson River in a mile-long stretch where the river is designated “wild.”
Such a designation typically forbids motorized travel in a river corridor, but DEC relied on an exception that the law makes for existing uses. The road was in private use by forestry workers and select recreationists before Finch, Pruyn & Co. sold the land.
“Opening the road to public snowmobile use will not alter or expand the nature of the existing use; people have used snowmobiles on the land for decades,” Chief Judge Janet DiFiore wrote for the New York Court of Appeals majority in the 4-3 decision.
The state Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers System Act allows continuing uses in river corridors — but not altered or expanded uses. The conservation groups argued that opening a private road to the public altered the use. The court’s majority ruled that because the state will limit public use to fall hunting and winter snowmobiling — and because year-round forestry work has ceased — DEC logically concluded traffic will not increase.
Environmentalists also unsuccessfully argued that the park’s state land plan forbids motorized uses in wild river corridors, which are treated as protected wilderness.
The ruling left Adirondack Wild Managing Partner David Gibson wondering, “What is the value of this law as a legal overlay in the Adirondack Park?” The court may have created an opening to undermine other wild river segments, he said.
“It’s a disappointing decision for the entire Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act,” Gibson said. It furthers the court’s long history of deferring to the state agencies that manage the park’s public lands, he said.
In a dissenting opinion, Associate Judge Eugene Fahey called DEC’s finding that public use won’t expand “bewildering.”
“Reason dictates that to open a closed, private area to public use will result in an ‘expansion’ of the previous use,” Fahey wrote.
DEC answered the Explorer’s request for comment with a written statement praising the ruling as “a critical decision for New York State in clearing one more step toward the development of a community connector between Indian Lake and Minerva.” The court validated the department’s rationale, according to the statement, recognizing that the road was pre-existing and would not alter or expand use.
“DEC conducted an exhaustive review of prior motorized uses when the property was in private ownership,” DEC said, “and determined the limited public motorized usage in the future would not alter or enhance the extensive private motorized traffic experienced in the past when the land was in private ownership.”
APA officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The ruling follows a lower-court stay blocking construction of a bridge for the same trail where it crosses the Cedar River, north of the disputed mile on the Hudson. The groups made similar arguments in suing to block the bridge this year, and Gibson said he expects the judge will decide that case on the law. But he noted that the judge stayed construction pending the high court’s ruling on Chain Lake Road.