DEC forms group in light of landmark tree cutting decision
By Tim Rowland
Trail building in the Adirondacks, which has been on hold for more than two years, could resume this summer, pending the work of a new task force that will help shape policies governing trail-related tree cutting on state lands.
The Department of Environmental Conservation said this week that it has formed a Trail Stewardship Working Group, which “is undertaking a review of trail construction guidance and policies in light of the (2021) Court of Appeals decision.” That decision struck down proposed snowmobile connector trails on the grounds they violated Article 14 of the New York Constitution. Article 14 protects trees in the state’s Forest Preserve from destruction.
Through the years, courts have ruled that trees can be cut here and there if it’s in the public interest, but that these cuttings cannot be substantial or material. The snowmobile trails would have cut 200 trees per mile, and 925 if seedlings and saplings were included.
Members and nonmembers of the working group acknowledged the devil is in the details, but applauded the DEC for taking the opportunity to involve a wide range of public interests in the new policy and clean up a number of trail-building ambiguities that have developed over the years.
“Broad representation is the best framework,” said Keene Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson, who is not on the panel. “But will they be able to make everyone happy? That’s the rub.” Even so, he said, “The DEC really set this up to be successful, so now it’s up to the people in the room.”
An overhaul in trail policy has been years in the making.
The state was sued by the environmental group Protect the Adirondacks in 2013 after the DEC pushed ahead with plans to build more than 30 miles of snowmobile trails in state forests connecting towns in the central Adirondacks — trails that the towns believe is crucial for their economies.
Town representatives said they were promised these connector trails in exchange for their cooperation in bringing thousands of acres of new forestland under state ownership. The state continues to pay taxes on these lands, but they are no longer open to development.
Jim Rolf, trail coordinator for the New York State Snowmobile association said he believes common ground can be found that is inclusive of everyone. “I’m optimistic despite some others who may have deeply entrenched ideas to remove snowmobiles from the Adirondacks,” he said. “I think we will come to a consensus on a plan that will work best for everybody — residents, visitors, businesses and for environmental protection. Because snowmobilers do believe in environmental protection.”
The DEC placed a moratorium on trail building in July 2019 after the Appellate Division’s Third Department agreed with Protect, and ruled that planned Class II snowmobile trails required the cutting of more trees that was allowed under the state’s Constitution. Then, earlier this year, New York’s highest court affirmed and expanded on the lower court’s position.
The DEC moratorium applied to all trails, even though the court spoke to snowmobiles’ “greater interference with the natural development of the Forest Preserve than is necessary to accommodate hikers.”
Peter Bauer, Protect’s executive director and a member of the trails stewardship group, said that the moratorium seemed to have been imposed “out of spite,” and that as long as Gov. Andrew Cuomo was in office, the DEC seemed disinclined to acknowledge that its trail policies needed to be revamped.
But with the administration of Gov. Kathy Hochul has come a fresh direction, Bauer said. “I’m optimistic that with the change in administration the DEC will get serious about upholding Article 14,” he said.
Jerry Delaney, director of the Adirondack Local Government Review Board and a member of the new panel, said “the court has pretty much dealt a death blow to snowmobiling in state forests,” and said he fears recreation in general is threatened for those who lack perfect mobility.
“The message is, come to the Adirondacks (only) if you’re young, strong and healthy,” he said.
Delaney said he will advocate for recreation, and he welcomes the opportunity for more trails and less litigation. “Hopefully we can find a path forward, but I think it’s a 50-50 shot,” he said.
Along with stopping snowmobile trails, the moratorium delayed the start of some hiking and biking trail projects, and left others that had been partially completed frozen in time. It came at a time when advocates of greater sustainability of forest resources were arguing for new and better trails in order to give increasing numbers of hikers more options and to bypass poorly designed trails prone to wear and erosion.
“Obviously there’s a lot more at stake than just snowmobile trails,” said stewardship group member Josh Wilson, director of the Barkeater Trails Alliance, a group focused on mountain biking and skiing. “I’m optimistic that we can find a way to move forward.”
Wilson said BETA has several mountain-bike trail projects on pause, including projects at Fowler’s Crossing in Saranac Lake and better connections to the Jackrabbit Ski Trail at Old Mountain Road between Keene and North Elba. “The (working group) is encouraging and we’re excited to be involved,” he said.
The group has held its first organizational meeting, and will begin work in earnest after the first of the year, members said. The panel includes 13 members representing town governments, the New York State Snowmobile Association, trail builders and multiple environmental groups.
According to the DEC, the group will provide real-time feedback to staff as potential policies are developed. Final policies will undergo a formal public comment period prior to adoption, with DEC and APA staff engaged in the process.
The DEC said it did not anticipate any new trail construction before May 2022.