By Peter Bauer
For The Daily Gazette
The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Adirondack Park Agency (APA) were found this month to have violated the famed “forever wild” clause in New York’s constitution.
Neither agency has been able to muster a meaningful response.
Damaged public Forest Preserve lands need to be restored, official state policies that debased the state constitution must be reformed, and plans for a motorized trail network that violated forever wild need to be rescinded.
Yet neither the DEC or APA have managed a coherent and thoughtful response that acknowledges their violations and takes responsibility for their mismanagement.
In a landmark decision by New York’s highest court, the famed “forever wild” protection, enshrined in the New York constitution since 1894, was affirmed for the 3-million acre public Forest Preserve in the Adirondack Park and Catskill Park.
The Court of Appeals ruled this month in favor of Protect the Adirondacks that cutting over 25,000 trees, and clearing over 27 acres of forestland on the Forest Preserve in the Adirondacks to build 27 miles of wide snowmobile trails known as “Class II Community Connector” trails, violated the state constitution.
Article 14, Section 1 of the constitution safeguards the public Forest Preserve.
In every way, these are the people’s lands.
They belong to everybody and are open to everybody.
The clause states that the Forest Preserve “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands.
“They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.”
Not a single word of it has changed in over 125 years.
The court ruled against the DEC and APA, which had approved plans to build hundreds of miles of wide Class II trails in the Forest Preserve.
These trails are far different than hiking trails.
They cut a swath 9-20 feet wide through the Forest Preserve, are graded with heavy machinery to create a flat corridor, remove all rocks and roots, and cut down nearly 1,000 trees per mile.
Hiking trails are nothing like Class II trails, though many tried to blur the differences.
Hiking trails are a few feet wide when constructed and see the cutting of a few dozen trees per mile.
The courts saw that Class II trails were vastly different from hiking trails.
The state’s highest court saw this distinction, writing “Class II trails require greater interference with the natural development of the Forest Preserve than is necessary to accommodate hikers.”
The court wrote that Class II trails “may not be built like roads for automobiles or trucks, but neither are they constructed as typical hiking trails.”
The court concluded “the door is closed because the planned Class II trails are constitutionally forbidden.”
There are over 10,000 miles of snowmobile trails in New York and over 2,000 miles in the Adirondacks.
This decision only stops this new kind of trail built totally out of harmony with the Forest Preserve.
The forever wild clause is a covenant between the people and the state.
It was included in the constitution because its framers believed that, due to a history of outside influence and corruption, neither the governor, legislators, or state agencies, could be trusted with the power to make major changes to the Forest Preserve.
That power is reserved for the people.
Article 14 has been amended dozens of times to authorize specific actions, but the final step has always been a vote by the people.
The Department of Environmental Conservation and Adirondack Park Agency now face major challenges to reform their management of our public Forest Preserve.
These agencies must work to get back on the right side of forever wild and reform a series of policies and regulations and restore forestlands harmed by illegal Class II trails.
They should do this in an open, transparent manner.
They need to publicly explain how they will uphold our state’s forever wild protections.
Peter Bauer is the executive director of Protect the Adirondacks.