State ordered to pay Protect the Adirondacks $32,000
By Gwendolyn Craig
An Albany County Supreme Court justice has affirmed an environmental group’s position that some snowmobile trails the state approved and already built for the Adirondack Park forest preserve violate the state constitution. He did not go so far as to order the state to undo the trails.
In the finding that the state’s snowmobile path construction had been illegal, Acting Supreme Court Justice Gerald Connolly ordered the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Adirondack Park Agency (APA), to pay $32,000 to Protect the Adirondacks for appeals costs. Connolly said DEC and APA’s “construction in the forest preserve of Class II community connector trails that were planned and approved as of October 14, 2014” violated the state constitution.
Connolly’s order is silent on whether existing trails must be fixed to align with his ruling, and the DEC and APA did not immediately respond to the Explorer’s request for comment on Thursday.
Protect, which is suing the state on other fronts, also urged the DEC and APA to provide an accounting of the trails already built and maintained. Connolly did not require the state to provide that in his Sept. 29 order.
In a news release, Protect the Adirondacks said the judgment “ends the 10-year-long legal odyssey,” though it added that “future use and maintenance of these unconstitutional class II connector trails may likely require additional litigation.”
“This case has forced major reforms in the state’s management of the forest preserve that will help protect its natural resources and improve public access and use of the forest preserve for decades to come,” said Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect.
Protect the Adirondacks sued the state in 2013 over approximately three dozen miles of class II community connector snowmobile trails that were to be 9- to 12-feet wide on forest preserve. The Adirondack Park is a mix of public and private lands. The approximately 3 million acres of public forest preserve are constitutionally protected under Article 14, which states the acreage “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.”
The case called into question the definition of a tree.
The DEC had accounted for trees starting at 3-inches in diameter at breast height. Using that measurement, the connector trails would have required the removal of over 6,000 trees. Protect the Adironacks argued smaller trees should be counted. By adding in trees 1-inch in diameter at breast height and greater, Protect found the DEC would have to cut more than 25,000 trees.
In May 2021, the state’s highest court ruled 4-2 in favor of Protect the Adirondacks. Judges noted that the proposed preserve trails could only be built with a constitutional amendment. The decision led to the DEC’s new forest preserve work plan policy, which now accounts for trees 1-inch diameter at breast height and larger.
But Protect the Adirondacks brought the DEC and APA back to court again in early 2022, arguing that some of the trails already built should be restored to forest. Though the case had begun in 2013, a stop-work order on community connector trails was not issued until 2016. For example, 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, Bauer told the Explorer in February 2022.
DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos told lawmakers during an environmental conservation budget hearing on Feb. 1, 2022 that “any of the trails that are being used now are the ones that are historic in nature.” The department also issued a statement shortly after that it “believes we are fully in compliance with the Court’s decision.”
Protect continues to disagree. Claudia Braymer, deputy director of Protect the Adirondacks, said “continued operation and maintenance of unconstitutional trails involved in this lawsuit should not be allowed. The public needs a full accounting of how many unconstitutional class II connector trails continue to be managed and maintained on the forest preserve by the DEC and APA.”