By TIM ROWLAND
Both parties to a controversial and consequential forest-use lawsuit have appealed a July 3 court ruling that says construction of a planned network of snowmobile trails in the east-central Adirondacks is illegal because it would mow down too many trees on the forest preserve.
The suit, which now will be heard by New York’s highest court, is seen by both sides as a high-stakes case that will likely cast deep ripples across the breadth of the Adirondack Park. In part, that’s because the judges defined “timber” as all trees, regardless of size. That standard would conceivably raise the bar for any improvements planned on state forestland.
The green group Protect the Adirondacks sued to prohibit the state Department of Environmental Conservation from cutting roughly 30 miles of multi-use trails that would have connected a new recreational hub at North Hudson with four other Adirondack towns to the west.
Third Department Appellate judges largely sided with Protect last month, but not entirely. While agreeing that the state was cutting too many trees, it rejected Protect’s argument that the earthmoving involved in constructing Class II snowmobile trails is a violation of the state’s “forever wild” clause.
The state last week appealed the portion of suit that it lost, and on Monday, Protect did the same.
“The state strongly disagrees with the decision, and will vigorously defend its management of the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserves,” said the DEC in a statement. In court, the DEC had argued that the tree cutting for the trails was insignificant considering the forest as a whole. By the DEC’s count, 6,000 trees would have come down during trail construction.
But in a 4-1 decision, Appellate judges referenced a 1930 case that stopped construction of a bobsled run on the forest preserve in anticipation of the 1932 Olympics because it would have necessitated the cutting of 2,500 trees “large and small.”
Article 14 of the state constitution says that timber in the forest preserve is not to be cut, sold or destroyed. In its decision, the judges defined “timber” not just as large, marketable trees, but as saplings that were part of an intact forest. Under this standard, Protect argued — and the judges agreed — that the trail project would cut not 6,000 trees, but 25,000 trees.
Following the decision, town supervisors said they feared this definition had the potential to prohibit most any sort of recreational development in the forest preserve. The supervisors are counting on recreation and tourism to replace the fading timber industry upon which much of the Adirondacks was built.
To assist the towns, the state over the past year invested $25 million into a new North Hudson tent, RV and equestrian campground called Frontier Town, which is intended to be a base camp of sorts for points west. Campers, under the state’s plan, would have easy access to the campground, which is just off the Northway, and then be able to snowmobile, bicycle or horseback ride for extended distances, to the towns to Minerva, Newcomb, Indian Lake and Long Lake — hopefully spending their tourism dollars along the way.
But Protect’s Executive Director Peter Bauer said the forest preserve was established not as an economic development tool, but as a way of saving wild lands.
As such, the courts have ruled that while smaller projects are allowable, “material or substantial” numbers of trees may not be cleared. Bauer said that even the state’s count of 6,000 trees was substantial, and in excess of the 2,500 trees that the 1930 court said was too many.
By cross-appealing, Bauer said Protect hoped the high court will also give it a victory in its contention that wide, Class II trails are tantamount to roads and should not be allowed in the forest preserve. Bench cuts and boulder removal change the hydrology and biodiversity of the woods, which conflicts with the intention of forever wild, Bauer said.
As it stands now, Bauer said, there is little case law that defines forever wild one way or another.