Most snowmobilers are after a certain kind of ride.
“We want some wild scenery” said New York State Snowmobile Association Executive Director Dominic Jacangelo. “We want some nice smooth trails, and at some point we want to get off our machines and get something to eat.”
Such trails are only found at the confluence of unspoiled vistas and well-groomed snow connecting nice little towns, preferably with cafés. There just aren’t that many perfect rides, Jacangelo said, which is why he’s so excited about a new trail set to be built from Indian Lake to Newcomb and Minerva by next season.
Late last year, the Adirondack Park Agency approved a land classification plan for more than 42,000 acres of park. At a snowmobile promotional event in the Tug Hill region Dec. 30, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he intends to sign off on the plan, which classifies the vast majority of recently acquired Finch Pruyn logging land in the Essex Chain of Lakes as motorless wilderness.
It does, however, recommend a wild forest corridor to accommodate a proposed new snowmobile trail from Indian Lake north through the heart of wilderness land to Newcomb.
For Jacangelo and the 62,000 members of his association, the trail is a major victory in the long-running struggle between snowmobilers and park advocates.
“This has been going on basically since the invention of the internal combustion engine,” said Jim Rolf, the group’s trail coordinator, “The environmentalists think we should only be able to access state forest by human power.”
He said advocacy groups battle for and against snowmobile access all across the country, but in New York, the fight is concentrated in the Adirondack Park. Snowmobile groups’ main opposition when lobbying for the new snowmobile corridor came from Protect the Adirondacks, a park advocacy group.
“It’s not this trail we’re worried about,” said Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks. “This sets a precedent.”
Even with Cuomo’s approval, a few legal hurdles stand between Jacangelo and a nice new trail. A bridge will have to be built to carry riders over the Cedar River, which can only happen if the Wild Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act is tweaked.
Bauer said some state Department of Environmental Conservation regulations must also be changed before a trail can run through the heart of wild lands, rather than along the periphery.
“We expect Cuomo to approve the plan, then draft a bill changing the law for the next legislative session,” Bauer said.
Bauer said he worries changing laws designed to keep the park wild will make it easier for more damaging projects to move forward in the future.
Aside from setting a legal precedent, the conflict comes down to some basic disagreements. Snowmobile groups want more trails — wider and well-groomed — through wild scenery.
Not only does Bauer believe there to be enough trails through the park — somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,800 miles on public and private land, according to a DEC tally — he thinks the trails should be narrow.
“Snowmobiling has changed,” he said. “The machines are wider and the drivers want to go faster.”
A wide, smooth snow surface requires massive grooming machines, which Bauer said change the wild character of the park.
Since much of the proposed Essex Chain trail is set to run along recently unused roads left over from logging days, the environmental impact of groomers isn’t of great concern to Bauer, but he said it’s a major problem elsewhere.
Protect The Adirondacks is awaiting a verdict in a lawsuit it filed against the DEC and APA over cutting and grooming practices along the Seventh Lake Mountain Trail, a recently completed route in the Moose River Plains region. Bauer said 2,000 trees were cut down to make way for a wide, fast snowmobile trail and the hefty groomers needed to make the way smooth.
“That’s not forever wild,” he said, “That’s a road.”
He hopes a state Supreme Court judge will order the DEC to only use small, pull-behind snowmobile groomers and allow the trail to be narrower.
As for Bauer’s claim that there are enough trials, Rolf said it’s not so much about miles, as where the trials lead. He said the new Essex Chain trail will make a nice loop from Indian Lake north to Newcomb then back around on an existing more westerly route.
There might be other trials, a total of 10,300 miles across the state, but he said Adirondack trial development is important for the scenery.
Rolf has been riding snowmobiles since he was 3 and his father brought him along on the family sled. He’s ridden all over the country, across the Plains states and in national parks. In places like Yellowstone, he said, snowmobile trails reach all the way up to scenic peaks.
“You can ride to your vista,” he said. “In New York, we’re locked out of the prettiest spots.”
For many locals, trails have more to do with money than access or environmental protection.
“Snowmobile traffic is what allows us to keep a few businesses open over the winter,” said Indian Lake town Supervisor Brian Wells. “This new trail might support a few more.”
He sees snowmobile traffic on the new land as a major economic opportunity for his town. Many communities “inside the blue line,” as the borders of the Adirondack Park are known, rely on tourism dollars. Indian Lake is no exception, but when the water freezes over, business slows.
Snowmobile association staff members teamed with supervisors like Wells from the five Essex Chain area towns. Over the summer, the coalition attended six APA public hearings across the state to influence the agency in favor of motorized access to Finch Pruyn lands.
Throughout, they argued with representatives from advocacy groups like Protect the Adirondacks, but it seems the cause of economic development won out.
On Dec. 30, Cuomo met riders, government officials and media in the Tug Hill region for the launch “I Snowmobile NY,” a $4.5 million winter national tourism ad campaign aimed at bringing more winter sportsmen upstate. Jacangelo was there and said Cuomo mentioned the new trail.
In broader terms, he said Cuomo is a snowmobile-friendly governor. He hopes the recent trail victory is just the start of a new era of greater Adirondack access.