State’s highest court blocks Adirondack snowmobile trails

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ALBANY – In a landmark ruling, the state’s highest court on Tuesday decided that the timber-clearing needed for wide “connector” snowmobile trails in the Adirondack Park violates the state constitution’s “forever wild” clause in the Forest Preserve and must stop.

The 4-2 ruling by the Court of Appeals is the end of an eight-year court fight brought by environmental group Protect the Adirondacks against the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Adirondack Park Agency. The group sued the state in 2013 over plans for the “community connector” snowmobile trails, which could be as much as 10 to 12 feet wide and require thousands of trees to be cut.

The decision came after DEC and the APA appealed a mid-level court’s ruling against them.

The high court found that the trails, if built, “would work a substantial change to the Forest Preserve.”

“The destruction or removal of trees represented a principal threat recognized by the 1894 (Constitutional) Convention delegates, and violation of the prohibition against the destruction of timber is a violation of the ‘forever wild’ clause, because that prohibition was a means to the ultimate objective of protecting the forest as wilderness,” the court majority wrote.

Protect the Adirondacks immediately praised the decision.

“Today’s Court of Appeals decision is a historic victory because the court upheld the constitutional protection of the forever wild Forest Preserve and found that the Cuomo administration and state agencies had engaged in unconstitutional destruction of its trees,” said Peter Bauer, Protect the Adirondacks’ executive director.

DEC officials said only that they are reviewing the decision.

The plan for connector trails was devised more than a decade ago with input from local government leaders looking to boost their economies. The goal was that the Adirondacks could draw more winter visitors to supplement its tourism-dependent economy, mainly geared toward warm weather, if there were better accommodations for snowmobilers.

A spokesman for local governments said they are disappointed and believe it will hurt year-round businesses and cost jobs.

“This is a sad day for residents of the Adirondacks whose winter economy is heavily dependent on the benefits of the winter economic activity produced by snowmobiling,” said former Chester town supervisor Fred Monroe, communications director for the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board.

The issue in the case boiled down to asking the courts to decide what the term “timber” means in the state Constitution. Article 14, the “forever wild” clause, was written to protect state-owned forests in the Adirondacks and Catskills from the rampant lumbering that was prevalent when the document was written. The clause states, in part, “nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.”

“We believe that the term ‘timber’ was understood in 1894 when the ‘forever wild’ clause was added to the Constitution, as it is now, as commercially marketable trees from which dimensional lumber may be sawed, and not as all tiny seedlings and saplings,” Monroe said.

Various groups ranging from the Sierra Club and Nature Conservancy to the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages and the Empire State Products Association have taken an interest in the case and filed briefs.

In 2019, the state’s mid-level Appellate Court, in a 4-1 decision, reversed a lower court and found that construction of 27 miles of Class II snowmobile trails will destroy more timber than allowed under the Constitution’s Article 14 – the “forever wild” amendment protecting state forest lands from development.

State Supreme Court Judge Gerald W. Connolly held a bench trial in Albany in 2017 and ruled in the state’s favor.

The Court of Appeals, which heard arguments in the case in March, came down on the side of those who think the wide cleared trails are too intrusive on the natural landscape. Using the state’s own standard, DEC estimated 25,000 trees would need to be removed to construct the trail system.

“The Class II trails require greater interference with the natural development of the Forest Preserve than is necessary to accommodate hikers. Their construction is based on the travel path and speed of a motorized vehicle used solely during the snow season. The trails may not be built like roads for automobiles or trucks, but neither are they constructed as typical hiking trails,” the court majority said, in a decision written by Judge Jennie Rivera.

If the state wants to allow such trails, it should seek to amend the State Constitution, the ruling concluded.

DEC contended that trees smaller than 3 inches in diameter should not be considered “timber” within the meaning of the Constitution. Based on the lower court ruling, the agency has said even basic hiking trail maintenance could be threatened if it involves removing any vegetation – a position Protect the Adirondacks rejects.

In a dissent, with which Chief Judge Janet DiFiore concurred, Judge Leslie Stein said that there are already hundreds of miles of undisputed snowmobile trails in the Adirondack Park, and the overall plan behind the connector trails would have eliminated trails deeper in the wilderness –– and that other accommodations for the millions of people who visit the Adirondacks annually are allowed.

“The majority misreads our State Constitution to arrive at the mistaken conclusion that the people of this state must undertake the arduous process of constitutional amendment to enable a long-standing public use of the Preserve to continue in a manner that is both safe for, and designed to protect, the Preserve’s most sensitive resources,” Stein wrote.

Adirondack Wild was among the groups that submitted a friend of the court brief, and its managing partner, David Gibson, praised the decision, pointing out its parallel with rejected plans for a bobsled run to be built ahead of the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.

“This Court of Appeals agreed that construction of snowmobile connectors involving grading and widening of trails and extensive tree cutting required constitutes an artificial alteration of the Forest Preserve, in the same way that construction of the bobsled run near Lake Placid would have altered the Forest Preserve back in 1930,” Gibson said. “In both cases, the state’s highest court has ruled that the state was improperly attempting to construct high-speed artificial environments completely out of character with the Forest Preserve.”

Some of the trails at issue have already been built, but DEC’s plans called for hundreds of other miles of trail that would be wide “community connectors,” running more or less parallel to existing highways.

Monroe said local governments were given assurances that if they didn’t oppose the state acquiring former commercial forest lands from Finch Pruyn in 2007, the state would help the local economies with measures like the new snowmobile trails. “It’s just extreme disappointment that the things that were promised now can’t happen,” he said.

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