State officials this week petitioned the federal government to abandon a section of railroad between North Creek and Tahawus, a move that some hope opens the door to a recreation trail from Saratoga Springs into the Adirondacks.
The state’s filing with the national Surface Transportation Board cites the Adirondack’s state constitutional protections and argues the state and local governments should have “the freedom to explore other potential uses” of the rail line, including proposals focused on “boosting ecotourism” in the region.
The state argued that by abandoning the section of rail – effectively dissolving the rail corridor and reverting the land back to its original owners – the area could be used as a public access point to public forests and scenic areas along the Boreas and Hudson rivers.
“The line could represent an unparalleled opportunity to provide public access to some of the Adirondack Park’s most beautiful wild spaces,” the state wrote in its filing. “Abandonment has the very real potential to help New York leverage its conservation activities in the Forest Preserve by boosting ecotourism in the Adirondack region as a whole.”
The rail section in question – 29 miles of rail line running north from North Creek to Tahawus and currently owned by Saratoga and North Creek Railway – has a long and complicated history dating to its use for war purposes during WWII, when the federal government forced its use against the appeals of New York state.
The rail line crosses various privately-owned parcels, but about half of the corridor lies on public lands within the state Forest Preserve. If the federal transportation board authorizes rail abandonment, the state could convert parts of the line into trails or ways to access state land.
A broader effort to develop a multi-use trail from Saratoga Springs to North Creek, which could serve walkers, bikers, cross country skiers and snowmobilers, would mirror a similar effort to convert an old rail line between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid into a “rail trail.” The plan hinges on getting Warren County and state officials to go along with the plan.
Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, said the abandonment filing was a positive step toward developing the corridor as a recreational trail and that his organization would lobby for state money to study a potential recreational corridor.
“I think there is a real opportunity, and we will be lobbying in the next state budget for some feasibility study money to look at creating a public recreation way from North Creek to Saratoga,” Bauer said Wednesday.
But Matt Simpson, a Warren County supervisor who has spearheaded the county’s efforts to seize back control of a 40-mile section of rail line the county owns, opposes the state's effort to end the use of the 29-mile section for rail traffic. The Warren County-owned section runs south from the 29-mile portion and Simpson is concerned it would stymie an effort to re-establish freight use on the rail corridor.
Simpson, the Horicon town supervisor and chairman of the Warren County Public Works Committee, said the Public Works Committee would discuss taking a formal position opposing the abandonment effort. He predicted a majority of the board would also oppose the abandonment request.
He said another rail operator was exploring purchasing the rail line from Saratoga and North Creek and using the line to transport materials from the mine. He said that potential opportunity should be explored before abandonment was pursued.
“It’s quite the opposite of when I would think an abandonment action would be commenced,” Simpson said Wednesday.
Simpson also pointed out the state filing’s references to recreational and “eco-friendly” uses and questioned how Warren County would benefit or be reimbursed for such uses.
“I read the abandonment filing, and it clearly highlights that DEC believes eco-friendly recreational opportunities are a higher priority,” Simpson said. “Unfortunately, Warren County owns 40 miles of track that are impacted by that position; I’m not sure where the funds are going to come from to offset Warren County.”
The county had leased its portion of rail line to Saratoga and North Creek Railway to use for a scenic railroad and, potentially, freight transportation of minerals and other material from the Tahawus mine. But that relationship has fallen apart over the past year as Saratoga and North Creek fell behind on lease payments to the county and started to use the rail corridor to store abandoned rail cars. The storage plan drew condemnation from Warren County, state officials and environmentalists alike, ultimately driving Saratoga and North Creek Railway’s operations entirely out of the region.
In its abandonment filing, the state argued Saratoga and North Creek was unable to establish the rail corridor for freight use and that it was unlikely new rail operators would emerge and reinvigorate the track’s freight potential.
“The public convenience and neccesity permit abandonment here because there is no present or prospective need for freight services on the line,” the state wrote in the filing.