By PHIL BROWN
The Barkeater Trails Alliance (BETA) hoped to start building a new section of the Jackrabbit Ski Trail this summer and finish it by winter. Those plans are now in jeopardy because of a moratorium on cutting trees for forest preserve trails.
The new trail, extending about three-quarters of a mile, would enable skiers to travel through the woods instead of slogging along the lower part of Mountain Lane in the town of North Elba.
Josh Wilson, BETA’s executive director, said he is disappointed that the project may be put on hold. “BETA has been pushing for this trail for over a decade,” he remarked.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation instituted the tree-cutting moratorium in response to a recent court decision in a lawsuit brought by Protect the Adirondacks. Other projects might also be affected.
In a July 3 decision, the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court ruled 4-1 that the number of trees cut for “community connector” snowmobile trails violated Article 14, the part of the state constitution that protects the forest preserve.
The court broke new legal ground by finding that the cutting of very small trees—those under three inches diameter at breast height (DBH)—should be taken into account when assessing the impact of projects in the preserve. Hitherto, DEC has counted only trees with a DBH of three inches or greater. When small trees are counted as well, the ecological impact of cutting a trail seems substantially larger—perhaps to the point of violating the law.
“Some forest trees measuring less than three inches DBH can be more than 100 years old, and smaller mature trees play an important role in the continuing ecology of the forest,” the court said.
DEC has until mid-August to file a notice of appeal. Meantime, it has put a hold on projects that involve tree cutting in the forest preserve.
Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect, said the court’s decision does not mean the state cannot build any new trails in the preserve. “It would be foolish of the DEC to conclude that the Protect decision prohibits tree cutting of any kind.” he said. “Our decision affirmed past precedent … that tree cutting on the forest preserve must not be either substantial or material.”
What remains unclear, though, are how many trees can be lawfully cut over a given distance and whether all trees—big and small—are to be considered equal.
It’s unknown how long the moratorium will last or how many trail projects might be affected.
BETA finished a new mountain-bike trail in the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest in June, just before the court decision, and has preliminary authorization to build more than two dozen more miles of bike trails on the Saranac Lake tract. Wilson said BETA hopes to build four to five miles of new trail a year.
“If the judges’ decision stands, we’re committed to figuring out how to work within the new system,” he said.
So far, the moratorium has not affected the trail work of the Adirondack Mountain Club, according to Wes Lampman, the club’s chief operating officer. “We have lucked out with projects involving mostly reconstruction like rock steps, water bars, etc. For projects that require brushing out, I’ve heard that DEC foresters are counting every stem, regardless of diameter.”
DEC has retained a private company to build a new trail up Cascade Mountain from the Mount Van Hoevenberg cross-country-ski complex. One aim of the project is to reduce the number of cars parked on Route 73, where the current Cascade trail starts. It could not be learned whether the moratorium will delay the construction of the new trail.
In 2016, the Adirondack Explorer published an in-depth examination of the tree-cutting issues raised by the Protect lawsuit. You can read that story here.