Blocked snowmobile connectors leave locals feeling swindled
By James M. Odato
Brian E. Wells, Indian Lake’s supervisor, tenses when he talks about what he envisioned after private talks with state officials nine years ago. He thought that the state would help create a system of wildland snowmobile trails connecting Adirondack communities like his.
Asked about local government leaders and their discussions with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation back in 2012, when the DEC planned a major acquisition for the state’s forest preserve, Wells won’t say much—at least not to the Adirondack Explorer.
“That meeting was done in good faith by local government,” he said. “The parties know what was agreed on. I can look at myself in the mirror.”
He suggests others involved in those discussions might not be able to do the same, but he won’t elaborate.
The meeting in question, over the prospect of state ownership and public use of the former Finch, Pruyn & Co. timberlands in the central Adirondacks, led to a plan to create a network of “community connector” trails for snowmobilers riding from town to town. Though the state would go on to buy the land and begin construction, New York’s top court this spring ruled that continuing to build the system would violate the state constitution’s protection of the public forest preserve as “forever wild.”
Wells vents at leaders of environmental groups that he complains get to frame the narratives on land use in the Adirondacks. One such leader, Peter Bauer of Protect the Adirondacks, sued the state over the tree cutting planned for those snowmobile connections. In early May, Protect won its case. So the 69,000 acres that the DEC added to the forest preserve in its purchase of the paper company’s land must be protected and trees won’t be removed for snowmobiling.
The state had sought approval from Wells and elected leaders in other economically beleaguered towns such as Minerva and Newcomb before it paid $48 million to the Nature Conservancy for the land the organization had previously acquired from Finch, Pruyn & Co. State officials wanted the towns to support the purchase, and the dream of community connectors proved persuasive.
“Every town supervisor I spoke to was promised things, which obviously now cannot be fulfilled,” said Dominic Jacangelo, executive director of the New York Snowmobile Association, a 54,000-member organization whose members enjoy some 2,000 miles of trails in the Adirondacks. “Mainly they were promised connecting trails.”
As long as the local governments didn’t “gum up” the purchase plan, Jacangelo said, the state was going to deliver the trail system.
New York paid for the land by withdrawing money from its Environmental Protection Fund. Using that fund to acquire new forest preserve acreage sometimes comes with conditions. Except on lands that lawmakers specifically exempted, it requires the state to give local governments the right to oppose such an acquisition. The towns had that right in this case, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration wanted local support for shielding it from development.
“Those people who were in the room were making promises they couldn’t keep,” said Robin DeLoria, Newcomb’s supervisor since 2018. “Were they broken promises or did nobody realize the potential impact of having someone like Peter Bauer ready to challenge the legality of cutting trees for snowmobile trails?”
DeLoria defers to Wells to speak for the five towns affected by the decision, as Wells is the leader of their coalition and Wells was in the room.
What was said and what was heard in the meeting room isn’t clear. Former DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens, now a Lake Placid-based member of the Adirondack Land Trust’s board, said he and his deputies made no promises but did embrace the concept of the snowmobiling corridors that the town leaders desired. If local officials feel burned now, he said, they should know the state planners did their best.
“I can understand why they would perceive these as promises … but these were objectives that we shared realizing that there was a process that we had to go through and with no guarantee,” Martens said.
He worries that the town leaders will be reluctant to go along with future land purchases.
“I think the ones in the five towns who feel as if they were, whatever their term is—hoodwinked, sold a bill of goods—I think they would be wary of any additional acquisitions to the park.”–Joseph Martens, former NYS DEC commissioner
Martens does not agree with the Court of Appeals decision, and he criticized it as a “lawyer’s nightmare” for not defining what projects beyond the proposed snowmobile trails can and cannot go forward on the forest preserve.
Some environmental leaders had warned the DEC that the law was not on their side. “Joe was very much along the lines of the governor and the supervisors, putting recreational issues ahead of ecological issues,” said David Gibson, a leader of Adirondack Wild. He said he and others emphasized that the connecting trails weren’t permitted, but he recalls Martens telling leaders of environmental groups that the state was going forward for snowmobiling purposes, with an emphasis on completing a connector from Indian Lake to Newcomb.
Robert Stegemann, the now-retired regional director for the DEC during the negotiations, said it is up to higher-ups to discuss what was said to local leaders. But he said the intention was to engage all sides to create a deal that all would applaud.
“That whole process was an effort to pull people together to make something good happen,” he said. “It was a pretty extraordinary effort all around.”
Town officials, he said, were invited into meetings with the DEC, but Stegemann wasn’t directly involved. “I certainly understand they’re disappointed,” he said.
The court’s ruling, he said, “raises questions that, to me, are broader than snowmobile trails.”
A DEC spokeswoman would not say what the department had promised in talks with local governments. But the contract signed by the state in August 2012 spelled out the state’s aspirations early in the 172-page document: “WHEREAS, conservation at this scale contributes to the overall ecological and human health of the region by keeping ecosystems and fisheries intact, allowing forests to contribute to clean air and clean water, and supporting the tourism-based economy of many communities where the Property is located by providing public recreational opportunities for hunting, hiking, fishing, paddling and other uses, including critical new snowmobile linkages.”
The DEC spokeswoman said the department will continue to work within its management plan for the vast territory to produce “recreation development and community connections” within the bounds defined in the Court of Appeals decision in Protect the Adirondacks! Inc. v. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
In the 4-2 decision by the state’s top court, the majority ruled that the trail plan is “constitutionally forbidden” and ruled that unless an amendment is approved by the Legislature and voters, the amount of clearing needed for nine- to 12-foot-wide snowmobile trails isn’t allowed.
“I think two of the judges had it absolutely right,” Jacangelo said. He prefers the dissenting view that the plan laid out by the state, allowing for 27 miles of community connector trails, struck a “reasoned balance between protecting the Forest Preserve and allowing year-round access.”
As a result of the bruised feelings, Jacangelo said, local government leaders are less eager to go along with new proposals for the state to acquire forest preserve acreage in their towns.
More on the tree-cutting lawsuit
Check out some of our coverage on this issue:
- Court of Appeals: Clearing trees for snowmobile trails unconstitutional
- Adirondack advocates clash over lawsuit’s possible effects on trail work
- Tree-cutting ruling keeps trail, parking projects in limbo
Photo by Mike Lynch
The Court of Appeals decision, at most, impacts 50 miles of planned trail “out of the couple of thousand that are in the park on public and private land,” Jacangelo said. But he speculated that “it also ensures that whatever support there was for public land acquisition in the park is now diminished.”
Big tracts the state may still want to acquire during Cuomo’s tenure include the Whitney estate, with some 36,000 acres now for sale (with the seller preferring to keep it in private hands), and Follensby Pond, another 14,000 acres. Both are exempt from the “local veto” under the terms of the Environmental Protection Fund, although the Cuomo administration has tended to seek local consent regardless, Bauer said.
“They are part of the crown jewels in the park,” the Protect leader said. Several smaller tracts might become available for purchase as well, he said, and they would benefit the forest preserve by providing better public access. Some could be suitable for conservation easements. Bauer said local leaders may think twice about opposing such deals.
“Land acquisition may be politically unpopular among local government leaders, but what we always found is that individual land acquisition is usually very popular within a local community even when a supervisor is outspoken against land acquisition,” Bauer said.
Jacangelo said snowmobile enthusiasts may see trails expand on haul roads and private land. But he and some leaders in the Adirondacks, such as William Farber, chairman of the Hamilton County supervisors, wonder whether the court decision means the state won’t be able to clear areas for campgrounds or hiking trails and other projects.
“Right now, there’s probably more unknown than known,” Farber said, and some projects are in a holding pattern until he can figure out what can and cannot be done on state land.