By PHIL BROWN
Despite a court ruling that the construction of community-connector snowmobile trails is illegal, the state Department of Environmental Conservation is moving ahead with some projects that involve tree cutting in the state forest preserve.
In July, the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court agreed with Protect the Adirondacks that the number of trees cut for community connectors is excessive, violating Article 14, the clause of the state constitution mandating that the preserve “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands.”
The court did not specify how many trees can be cut for any given project, but DEC contends it can proceed with projects that benefit public health or safety or that involve “immaterial” tree cutting.
As an example of the former, the department plans to remove 566 trees at the Cranberry Lake State Campground to upgrade an aging water system. As an example of the latter, DEC plans to cut six trees for a lean-to in the Indian Lake State Campground in the Siamese Ponds Wilderness.
Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect, agrees with DEC that the lean-to project involves immaterial tree cutting, but he contends that the number of trees to be cut to replace old water lines at Cranberry Lake would violate the state constitution.
“Article 14 does not contain an exception for health and safety issues,” Bauer said. If DEC wants to go ahead with the project, he added, it should seek a constitutional amendment authorizing the tree cutting, as it has done in other cases.
Most of the trees in the Cranberry Lake project are small—less than 3 inches diameter at breast height (dbh). Historically, DEC has not counted such trees when assessing the impact of projects in the forest preserve. In the Protect lawsuit, however, the court ruled that small trees must be counted.
Counting small trees greatly magnifies the perceived impact of a project. In the lawsuit, DEC said it cut just 162 trees (with at least 3 inches dbh) per mile when building a community-connector trail in the western Adirondacks. Yet Protect contends that the department cuts on average a thousand trees per mile when building such trails. And of the 566 trees targeted in the Cranberry Lake project, 523 are under 3 inches dbh (which works out to 92 percent).
Soon after the court’s 4-1 decision, DEC said it was reassessing projects that involve tree cutting in the preserve. As a result, the Barkeater Trails Alliance postponed plans to build a new section of the Jackrabbit Ski Trail this past summer. But DEC says its reassessment did not entail a moratorium on all tree cutting.
The department intends to fight the Appellate Division decision in the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.
Although the Appellate Division ruled against DEC on the tree-cutting issue, it agreed with the department that community-connector trails do not otherwise violate Article 14. Protect the Adirondacks had argued that the trails, because they are wide and graded, resemble roads more than trails. Protect plans to appeal this aspect of the decision.
Click here to read an Explorer analysis of the tree-cutting issue.