By JAMES M. ODATO
In mid-June, Whiteface Mountain advertised a summer activity—rides aboard big all-terrain vehicles on the ski slopes of the High Peaks landmark. Called the “4×4 Alpine Expedition,” marketing videos showed children and adults enjoying the guided tours.
Callers to the resort’s customer service line were told they could book 60-minute or 90-minute excursions through the fall.
But by July, the rides were abruptly canceled. That came after environmental watchdogs raised concerns to state officials, and after the Adirondack Explorer inquired about the propriety of the rides.
Though now mothballed, the program serves as an example of the attempts by the Olympic Regional Development Authority to improve its finances by attracting more summer visitors. And it provides a signal of ORDA’s efforts to push the limits of state law that constrains activities in the Adirondack Forest Preserve, according to interviews.
Asked in June about the rides, Jon Lundin, a spokesman for ORDA, which runs Whiteface and other state recreation sites, said: “It’s one of our more popular programs. It’s popular with families.”
Still, the alpine adventure, which ORDA once called “4×4 ranger rides,” became a topic of controversy this summer after pushback from some who objected to what they saw in the marketing videos. The films showed youngsters, sans helmets, on what appeared to be unregistered, multi-passenger off-road vehicles on slopes authorized for downhill skiing.
The fallout unearthed some behind-the-scene exercises by state officials that may result in New Yorkers being asked to redo the state constitution and its restrictions on non-winter activities at the publicly owned former Olympic venues.
Neil Woodworth, head of the Adirondack Mountain Club, may have helped put the brakes on the 4×4 rides. He said he contacted a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation official a few months ago and described the Alpine Expeditions as dangerous, improper acts of negligence. The utility vehicles (UTVs) used—large ATVs—are too large and heavy to be licensed and registered in New York, and the rides represent hazards to the public, he said, because the vehicles could tip and cause injuries.
Moreover, he said the rides are not permitted under the constitution, which protects the Adirondack wilderness and only allows for alpine activities in the winter on Whiteface and other ORDA-run mountains.
When the Explorer asked if the state DEC had sanctioned the rides, Lundin responded that the department said they are OK as long as the excursions run on service roads. He told a reporter in June the tours were only happening on existing roads and that he thought safety gear was provided. He rejected a reporter’s request for public records about the program and wouldn’t produce the written approval he said DEC had provided.
After a review, he said helmets were optional but seat belts were required. He added that ORDA did not plan to offer the rides at other downhill facilities, Gore and Belleayre, “at this time,” and added that the authority was planning a zip line at Whiteface as well.
He credited former Whiteface manager Bruce McCulley for coming up with the idea for the excursions.
McCulley, now a pastor at a Saranac Lake church, did not specifically recall the planning process. But he said he has been in touch with his former ORDA colleagues and has heard good reports about customer demand.
“I understand it’s pretty busy,” McCulley said. He said he thinks during his tenure at Whiteface, ORDA did reach out to state environmental agencies, particularly the DEC, before offering the rides in 2012. It’s “always a challenge to try to bring in some revenue in the summer,” he said.
After an appeal of Lundin’s rejection of public records, ORDA released a redacted communication between current Whiteface manager Aaron Kellett and DEC Natural Resources Supervisor Tom Martin. Kellett told Martin in June 2013 that “the 4×4 ranger rides” are only on “maintained service roads and there is no impact to the trail system and no soil disturbance.”
Martin’s response is blacked out. ORDA withheld other correspondence about the program. Asked if DEC cleared these rides or offered guidance, direction or advice, DEC communications officials would not say.
Instead, a month after the inquiry, DEC and Lundin jointly issued a statement: “While the 4×4 Alpine Expedition program is no longer available for the summer, DEC and ORDA are working together to develop other summer season activities that will continue to make Whiteface and Gore an all year round destination.”
Asked if DEC is taking steps to change the state constitution to permit activities such as the 4×4 Expedition, DEC’s communications office stated: “We are exploring a wide variety of options that will strike the right balance between land preservation and tourism in an effort to make Whiteface a year-round global destination.”
Lundin said that ORDA discontinued the ride program just after the Explorer first contacted him about it in June. He said it was pulled because the ATVs used were needed for trail maintenance and snowmaking upgrade projects. He made no mention of such plans in the earlier interview when agents were taking reservations for the rides and he described the program as a way for non-hikers to enjoy Adirondack scenery.
In the follow-up interview, when he disclosed that the program had stopped, he said business had been “OK” before ORDA ended it and took down a marketing video from the Whiteface web page.
Lundin said ORDA was unsure if it will offer the rides again because it is focusing now on its winter offerings. Lundin also said the Whiteface zip line is also no longer in ORDA’s sights.
When a reporter called the Whiteface guest services office in August to see if a reservation for the 4×4 guided tour could be made, an agent said the ride was available for a little while this summer but the Adirondack Park Agency and the DEC “canceled” it. “I don’t think there’s a chance of it returning, no,” the agent said.
In an interview, Kellett said he does not fully understand why the program was cut, but it wasn’t his decision. It was popular and profitable, he said, and allowed him to employ three local workers. They have been put to other work, he said.
The Alpine Expedition program drew concern from Assemblyman Steven Englebright after the Explorer contacted him about it. Englebright, chairman of the Assembly’s environmental conservation committee, had not been aware of the excursions and wrote to DEC demanding an explanation and justification.
In his August 1 letter, Englebright said he is “troubled” by the use of UTVs in the wilderness and that a constitutional amendment was necessary for the Whiteface facility to be built in the first place. Given the environmental impact of using the big all-terrain vehicles, there should not be any authorization for excursions on them, he added.
He said it appeared ORDA was giving rides on the UTVs for commercial purposes and on roads that have become rutted. The UTVs, he said, were not meant for service roads based on manufacturers’ recommendations.
Steve Liss, Englebright’s staff lawyer, said a response had not arrived as of mid-September. He added that in his opinion the ride program was illegal. He said Englebright’s office had been hearing rumors of a proposed constitutional amendment bill to give ORDA more flexibility on uses on the facilities it manages.
John Sheehan, spokesman for the Adirondack Council, and the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Woodworth said they heard from reliable contacts about a proposed constitutional amendment for ORDA.
At the end of the last legislative session, Woodworth said, he was advised by a DEC official that department staff had drafted a bill. Any change in the constitution must first be approved by two separately elected state legislative bodies before being put on the ballot in a statewide referendum. That means that any potential change would be years away.
In its financial statements, ORDA reported an operating loss of $22.6 million in the year ending in March 2018 and a loss of $20.78 million in the 2017 period.
“Eventually, they are going to seek a constitutional amendment,” Woodworth said. “I’ve been told by department staff that they’ve been working on one and clearly ORDA says they can’t do a balance sheet that’s in the black without four-season recreational activities so they feel they need the four-season authorization.”