New rules result from state’s snowmobile trail litigation loss
By Gwendolyn Craig
More than two years after the New York State Court of Appeals ruled some snowmobile trails planned for in the Adirondack Park violated the state constitution, officials released this week a new policy that will count smaller trees when working on forest preserve, among other changes.
The Forest Preserve Work Plan Policy, also called the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Commissioner Policy 78, affects tree-cutting in the forest preserve going forward. It includes a suite of new assessments staff will account for in project construction and maintenance. The goal, according to the DEC, is “to include a more holistic analysis of all potential impacts to the forest preserve, with an emphasis on identifying ways to avoid, minimize, and mitigate such impacts.” It will be applied to both the Adirondack and Catskill forest preserves.
DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said both forest preserves “continue to experience significant numbers of visitors and this new policy, finalized with input from New Yorkers, stakeholders, and other key partners, will provide DEC with the proper guidance when evaluating potential projects and any environmental impacts.”
Required in work plans:
- Description of desired conditions
- Description of project specifications including drawings, maps and lists of materials to be used
- Description of measures to avoid, minimize or mitigate impacts to natural resources including:
- The number of trees removed that are 1 inch diameter at breast height or larger
- Modifications proposed to terrain
- Impacts to water bodies
- Impacts to rare, threatened or endangered species
- Description of any impacts outside the project site
- Analysis of project location and design alternatives
- Description of any motorized vehicle use for construction
- Description of applicable standards for accessibility by people with disabilities
To read the full policy go to: https://www.dec.ny.gov/regulations/111617.html.
The policy is the result of more than a decade-long lawsuit by the environmental group Protect the Adirondacks over approximately 27 miles of snowmobile trails that were to be 9- to 12-feet wide.
The group argued that the DEC’s policy of counting trees 3 inches in diameter at breast height or larger was insufficient. It contended that the state should count smaller trees, starting at 1 inch diameter at breast height. Using the DEC’s measurement, the state would have removed over 6,000 trees, but counting smaller trees, the estimate increased to more than 25,000 trees.
In a 4-2 decision, the state’s highest court ruled in favor of Protect the Adirondacks. Should the public wish to build these trails on forest preserve, Justice Jenny Rivera wrote in May 2021, there would have to be a constitutional amendment to Article 14. Article 14 stipulates that the forest preserve will be “forever wild.” “Until they say otherwise, however, the door is closed because the planned Class II trails are constitutionally forbidden,” she wrote.
Following the state’s loss, the DEC organized a Trail Stewardship Working Group, which included local government, environmental, trail builder and Adirondack Park Agency representatives. The group helped create the new policy. The DEC released the policy in January for public comment.
Various Adirondack Park groups are lukewarm about the policy changes, though most were glad for the DEC’s efforts to increase transparency. Draft work plans are now posted online and available for public comment before adoption.
Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, said he would have preferred forest preserve management plans written into the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan. That is the leading policy document governing lands in the approximately 6-million-acre park. Bauer said a commissioner’s policy lacks the same weight.
“It’s an effort to at least comply with the realities of the Protect decision and to comply first and foremost with Article 14 in a much more publicly transparent and accountable way,” Bauer added. “It is a pretty strong recognition by the DEC that they have to get serious about upholding Article 14 and that’s been a long time coming.”
David Gibson, managing partner of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, said the policy released this week did not look very different from the one the DEC released in January.
The Adirondack Mountain Club, which contracts with the DEC for some trail work, felt the new policy was “a significant step forward.” Executive Director Michael Barrett said the policy’s new requirement to describe the desired conditions of projects, was particularly noteworthy. He would like to see “revisions to the review process to avoid slowdowns during work planning and stronger measures for evaluating trail construction.”
The Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, which represents the interests and communities in the park, was particularly frustrated by the Protect the Adirondacks court decision back in 2021. The late Fred Monroe, who was communications director of the group at the time of the ruling, had called it “a sad day for residents of the Adirondacks whose winter economy is heavily dependent on the benefits of the winter activity produced by snowmobiling.” Gerald Delaney, executive director, has been a part of the Trail Stewardship Working Group and said the new policy is “a valiant effort by DEC.”
Delaney said the work plans will give the public a better understanding of what is being proposed.
Adirondack policy, in plain speak.
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