By Gwendolyn Craig
State officials have big plans for improvements to Whiteface Mountain before the World University Games in 2023, but a tree-cutting decision handed down by the state’s highest court earlier this year could cause hiccups.
Michael Pratt, president and CEO of the Olympic Regional Development Authority, gave the Adirondack Park Agency a peek of new plans for Whiteface Mountain. They include new connector ski trails, widening of existing ski trails, a new lift between Bear Den and Legacy Lodge and development of new hiking and mountain biking trails.
The proposed amendments, Pratt said, will go out for public comment on Oct. 27 with hopes to start work on widening the ski racing trails and the new chair lift by next summer.
Whiteface Mountain is part of the state’s constitutionally protected forest preserve, but an amendment passed in 1941 allows for the mountain to have a maximum of 25 miles of ski trails. The mountain’s original management plan passed in 2004 was last amended in 2018. As part of the new 2021 proposal, the plan will give up cutting trees on about 0.32 miles, Pratt said.
For all the projects in the amendment, ORDA had proposed cutting more than 20,000 trees greater than 3-inches in diameter. With the scale-backs in the proposal, the agency plans to cut about 15,000 trees. Add in smaller trees and the number is closer to 28,000 trees.
Pratt and APA board members did not mention the state Court of Appeals decision handed down in May that deemed tree cutting of some snowmobile trails in the forest preserve unconstitutional. The court ruled 4-2 in favor of Protect the Adirondacks, the nonprofit environmental organization that brought the suit. The decision could have wider implications on forest preserve projects that involve cutting trees, which DEC and APA have sparingly acknowledged.
Adirondack Explorer asked ORDA’s press office if the court decision was the reason for cutting fewer trees in its latest proposal.
Jack Moulton, director of communications for ORDA, said in an email that the new plans for increasing the use of Bear Den and Mid Station Legacy Lodges required fewer trees than from concepts before.
Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, said he is still reviewing the latest proposals for Whiteface. He added that the plans “raise serious issues” with the state Constitution, particularly as it concerns tree cutting.
During the APA meeting, Pratt said the amendment proposes 0.25 miles of new ski trails, which leaves Whiteface with 2.65 miles left before reaching its constitutional limit.
The plan includes widening the Upper Thruway Trail, Upper Parkway Trail, Lower Thruway Trail and Burton’s Trail. The new lift, the amendment states, will help transition beginner skiers and snowboarders from the Bear Den Area to the more intermediate trails. All of these are listed under the amendment’s highest priorities. The trail widening, Pratt also explained, is to accommodate the growing number of athletic events and to meet international ski standards.
The hiking and mountain biking network is separate from the ski trails and are listed as low priorities. The plan includes connecting to the neighboring Wilmington Wild Forest trails. The lift access will be from the Bear Den area. According to the proposal, 19.48 miles of single-track mountain bike trails are proposed including about 5 miles of easy trails, 10.5 miles of moderate trails and about 3 miles of difficult trails.
The plan also proposes 4.4 miles of new hiking trails. A new path would lead from the summit of Little Whiteface Mountain to the summit of Whiteface Mountain, along with an extension trail from Bear Den Mountain’s summit. Tahawus Trails assisted ORDA and engineering firm The LA Group with scouting the potential trails. Pratt said the proposed hiking trails are more contoured rather than straight up and will provide easier routes.
The mountain biking and hiking trails would involve cutting more than 8,000 trees, about 830 of which are the habitat of the Bicknell’s Thrush. The bird is considered a species of special concern in New York due to its “small population, limited breeding and wintering ranges, and vulnerability to deforestation in its winter habitat,” according to the DEC.
Pratt said the amendment will be posted in the DEC’s Environmental Notice Bulletin. Public comments may also be sent to https://orda.org/public-comments/. Physical copies will also be available at the Wilmington Town Hall, Whiteface Mountain Administration Offices and the ORDA Administration Office, Pratt said.
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