ALBANY — A trial began Wednesday in a state Supreme Court case that will determine whether wide "community connector" snowmobile trails the state plans to build in parts of the Adirondack Forest Preserve are legal.
Judge Gerald Connolly heard opening statements at the Albany County Courthouse in a lawsuit the conservation group Protect the Adirondacks has brought against the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Adirondack Park Agency, both of which support the construction of the snowmobile trails.
Protect the Adirondacks contends that the trails -- which are 9- to 12-feet wide, providing enough room to allow two snowmobiles to pass -- are built more like roads than hiking trails, and violate the state constitution's requirement that state-owned forest preserve lands remain "forever wild."
The lawsuit was filed in 2013 and has been going through pre-trial motions and an extended appeal over whether construction of more trails will be halted pending the outcome. The construction is on hold, based on appeals courts decisions.
The state is defending the trails as providing public access without doing significant harm. Trail supporters say they will run near roads, and replace snowmobile trails through the forest interior that have more environmental impact.
The trails have been proposed by DEC in an effort to meet the wishes of snowmobilers and local communities that believe the trails and their use will have a significant economic impact in months when most tourists aren't visiting the Adirondacks. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has encouraged new recreational uses on state lands.
Connolly is hearing the case in a non-jury trial. He heard opening statements and initial testimony on Wednesday, and will hear more testimony on Thursday. Testimony is also scheduled for the week of March 13.
In January, Connolly denied a state motion to dismiss the case, saying there are issues of fact that need to be decided by a trial. About 25 miles of "community connector" trails have already been built, with more planned.
A key question for the judge to decide is the definition of the word "timber," since the 1894 constitutional article says that "timber shall not be sold, removed or destroyed."
Protect the Adirondacks said the trails are requiring removal of as many as 1,000 trees per mile, with the use of heavy equipment to flatten and grade the trails.
The state contends that only applies to trees 3 inches in diameter or more at breast height, a definition under which a few thousand trees would be removed. Protect the Adirondacks contends the term applies to all trees, regardless of size, which would increase the number of trees removed or planned to be removed by nearly 25,000.
In his opening statement, attorney John Caffry of Glens Falls, representing Protect the Adirondacks, said the construction of the trails will have a significant impact, and the trails themselves "an improper use of the forest preserve."
He said testimony will show that under the 1894 understanding of the term "timber constitutes trees of all sizes."
"This cutting of trees is a substantial and significant amount, and therefore unconstitutional," Caffry told the judge.
State Assistant Attorney General Loretta Simon, who is representing the DEC and APA, said the impact of the trails isn't significant.
"The forest preserve is also for the use and enjoyment of the public, and these trails provide access to the public," Simon said. "Timber by forestry standard does not include small, little trees."
She said the trees being cut are disposed of in the forest, where they can serve as wildlife habitat. She also said the design and construction of the trails is taking care to avoid deer yards, wetlands and environmentally sensitive areas.
"The surrounding forest is intact," Simon said. "It has the character of wild forest. These are narrow trails through the wild forest."
The first witness was Philip Terrie, a retired college professor who has written extensively on the political history of the Adirondacks, including the circumstances surrounding the writing of the "forever wild" clause in 1894. He said the article was written in response to concerns about the damage done by commercial logging, which was taking even small trees for use in making pulp paper.
Once the trial concludes, there is no timetable for Connolly to issue a decision.
"We have a very broad definition of timber and the state has a very narrow one. We'll see what the judge thinks," Protect the Adirondacks Executive Director Peter Bauer said on Tuesday.