By James M. Odato
The toppling of more than three acres of trees from the Adirondack Forest Preserve by state Olympic authority workers may spark something environmental groups have long called for – a constitutional amendment for any upgrades to the Mount Van Hoevenberg Olympic Sports Complex. Or it may trigger a lawsuit.
The complex, which has grown since its development for bobsled and cross-country skiing events for the 1932 Olympics, is undergoing a multimillion-dollar upgrade. Plans call for building, replacing and improving amenities – from an expanded lodge, new stadiums and greater parking – on town of North Elba property. But it also includes numerous projects on forest preserve land, which is protected and doesn’t allow tree cutting.
A series of meetings between environmental groups and state officials in recent months led to a compromise on the extent of tree cutting on state land and a commitment from the state Olympic Regional Development Authority to explore a constitutional amendment for future work at the Nordic mountain, according to those who attended the meetings.
ORDA stunned environmental leaders this March when it revealed it intended to cut down 3,528 trees of at least three inches in diameter, and an untold number of smaller widths, over 5.04 acres of forest preserve at Mount Van Hoevenberg. This was going to happen despite ORDA’s environmental impact statement for the upgrade project that stated “no tree cutting is proposed for the forest preserve lands.”
Following an outcry from leaders of Protect the Adirondacks, the Adirondack Council and other groups, ORDA agreed to reduce the clearing to 1,523 trees over 3.08 acres, although trees slimmer than 3 inches in diameter are not part of the count.
William Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council, and Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, said that after meetings from early spring to late summer, ORDA said it would cut back on the clearing. It also committed to working toward a first-ever constitutional amendment that would set the ground rules for upgrades and maintenance at Mount Van Hoevenberg. The amendment would alter Article XIV of the state Constitution, approved in 1894 by voters, which set the highest protection to state lands in the Adirondacks and Catskills.
Janeway’s group agreed to the compromise as long as ORDA and the state Department of Environmental Conservation worked toward creating a constitutional amendment for any future development at Mount Van Hoevenberg.
“An amendment is needed not just for any future tree cutting, but to address the legality of making or maintaining improvements for sporting activities and other uses,” Janeway said in a May 15 letter to ORDA President Michael Pratt. He said the amendment must be put before voters before ORDA hosts a major international sporting event at Van Hoevenberg in Feb. 2022. That means the Legislature would have to pass the amendment in 2020 and 2021 and it must be on the ballot in November 2021.
Both Janeway and Bauer said the constitutional amendment is valuable because it could require land swaps – meaning that whenever ORDA disturbed any forest preserve it would be required to acquire an equal or greater amount of new forest preserve to replace the developed region.
“Generally what makes for a successful amendment is when the forest preserve gets much bigger amount of acreage than the amount taken out,” said Bauer. Other amendments have been fashioned for development in the Adirondacks, including one that authorized the former NYCO Minerals to expand its mining operations in Lewis in 2013. Amendments have also passed for the construction of cemeteries and landfills.
Bauer said when he wrote the letter to ORDA in May, the Appellate Decision had not yet reversed a lower court ruling involving cutting forest preserve trees. The appeals court decision arrived July 3 and supports Protect the Adirondack’s position that narrower trees be included in tree clearing counts. If that decision had come out two months earlier, he would have “advocated strenuously” that all trees be counted by ORDA, he said.
His case is pending before the Court of Appeals and will likely be decided next year.
Moreover, DEC defended its position that ORDA’s tree-cutting plan was acceptable. In response to an inquiry from the Explorer, the department’s press office said that all tree removal on the ORDA project “was done pursuant to an approved State Unit Management Plan (UMP) and approved Work Plan” and the work was completed before July 3.
The groups also desire amendments to be put before voters for expansion of other venues operated by ORDA – the alpine skiing centers at Gore Mountain and Whiteface Mountain, Bauer said. ORDA wants to make all of its venues world class with upgrades and also needs to maintain trails in ways that may require development in the forest preserve. However, ORDA’s vision of making the alpine facilities four-season destinations may be too great an obstacle to avoid legal challenges, said Bauer. The facilities were meant to be winter sports complexes only, he said.
Janeway and Bauer said they objected to the extent of cutting for the Mount Van Hoevenberg project once plans were revealed. ORDA may have revised its cutting plan to avoid a lawsuit, Bauer said.
“At this point in time, we do not contemplate legal action over ORDA’s proposal to destroy more than 1,500 trees and undertake other short-term modifications and improvements of the Mt. Van Hoevenberg facility, so long as ORDA pursues a constitutional amendment,” Bauer wrote in a May 21 letter to Pratt. He called for an amendment process that leads to a 2021 ballot referendum as well.
ORDA’s environmental impact statement spells out the 1930s case law that forced the state to build most of the Nordic facility on town of North Elba land to avoid destruction of the forest preserve. It stated that cutting of trees is “permissible when necessary to enable the public to safely use forest preserve lands, so long as such cutting is “immaterial”, i.e., does not detract from the wild forest character of the forest preserve.”
“In other words, the amount of trees that can constitutionally be cut and removed is determined on a case-by-case basis,” it said. Plans for the forest preserve include widening ski trails, installing lighting and hiking trail connections and constructing a wastewater disposal system for a new welcome lodge. Part of a new biathlon stadium is planned on state forest preserve.