Winner of tree-cutting suit consults with court
By Gwendolyn Craig
Protect the Adirondacks is angling to get the state to close certain snowmobile trails in the Adirondack Park in the wake of the state Court of Appeals decision that found the trails were illegal.
The organization took the Department of Environmental Conservation back to court on Wednesday for a conference before state Supreme Court Justice Gerald Connolly of Albany County.
Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect, told the Adirondack Explorer that after the conference the parties decided to attempt to settle outside the court system for now.
“If we are unable to accomplish that, then we will have to go back to Judge Connolly,” Bauer said.
In a 4-2 decision that went against the DEC in May, the Court of Appeals decided that snowmobile connector trails—those 9 to 12 feet in width—violated Article 14 of the state Constitution, which protects trees in the forest preserve. The ruling by the state’s highest court was a blow to towns in the heart of the park, which had hoped the connector trail system would bring more visitors and their dollars.
Since that decision, however, state officials have said little about how they will move forward. More than six months later, the state formed a task force focused on trail building in the Adirondacks and Catskills. Bauer is one of its members.
But in the last few weeks, Bauer and his organization reached a tipping point. Members of Protect found that the DEC had opened the Seventh Lake Mountain Trail in the Moose River Plains Wild Forest Area. About 12 miles long, the trail was at the heart of the original lawsuit first filed in 2013, Bauer said.
Bauer took photos of the trail, which had been groomed and had evidence of snowmobile tracks. He did not see any snowmobiles on the trail. Bauer had taken the photos in preparation for the state Legislature’s Feb. 1 environmental conservation budget hearing.
At that hearing, state Assemblyman Steve Englebright, also the chair of the Assembly’s environmental conservation committee, asked DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos about the Court of Appeals decision.
“What is the status of these trails?” Englebright asked. “Are they being restored, as per the logical follow through on the court decision and are they open for use in their modified form?”
Seggos said the DEC had not added any more trails in the Adirondacks and “any of the trails that are being used now are the ones that are historic in nature.”
Bauer called Seggos’s statement “dishonest” and “misleading.” The Seventh Lake Mountain trail, he argued, did not predate the lawsuit. There are additional trails Bauer would like to see closed and restored to forest.
“The commissioner’s misleading testimony spurred us to action,” Bauer said. “It was one thing that we had to sue to get them to obey the constitution, but now, not only are they blowing off the constitution, but they’re blowing off the courts.”
A DEC spokesperson said the department “believes we are fully in compliance with the Court’s decision and is engaged in a public stakeholder process for future trail development.” The spokesperson did not answer questions about the department’s position on the Seventh Lake Mountain Trail.
Dominic Jacangelo, executive director of the NYS Snowmobile Association, said nothing in the Court of Appeals decision said “that the state has to rewind the clock.”
Jacangelo said the Seventh Lake Mountain Trail is an important non-water connection between the Town of Webb and the Town of Indian Lake. Jacangelo guessed most snowmobilers ride across the area’s lakes, but only if they were frozen enough for safe passage.
Protect’s moves to push the DEC to court and then into settlement talks are “extremely upsetting, considering they are part of this working group,” Jacangelo said. “Are you going to participate in the working group, or are you going to engage in activities that are counterproductive to the working group?”
Because of the Court of Appeals decision, Jacangelo, once a legislative aide who worked on environmental matters, doesn’t want to see the state buy land in the Adirondacks again.
“That’s a really hard thing for me to say, since I put in place the means for the state to buy a lot of those lands as a staffer,” Jacangelo said. “How many times are we going to fight the same fight over and over again?”
Adirondack policy, in plain speak.
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