The Roots Of The Conflict Over Snowmobile Connectors

In order to cut a lot more trees on the Forest Preserve for new snowmobile corridors, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Department of Environmental Conservation and the Attorney General’s Office have announced that they will appeal July’s court ruling against the State and in favor of Protect the Adirondacks.

That ruling by a 4-1 court majority declared that the extent of tree cutting for snowmobile trail construction, when considered cumulatively, violated our state’s constitutional limit on destruction of timber on the Forest Preserve “to a material degree” (Article XIV, Section 1, NYS Constitution, and court interpretations).

However, this court (Appellate Division, Third Department) by the same margin did not find sufficient evidence that snowmobile trail construction had violated the wild forest character of the Adirondack Forest Preserve. You can read the Court decision in the Adirondack Almanack, posted in July.

This court ruling has received widespread coverage. What has not are events that led to this ongoing court struggle over snowmobile construction on the Forest Preserve. Many of these decisions were made during the three-term administration of Governor George Pataki, and earlier in the terms of Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

In the late 1990s, during Gov. Pataki’s first term, my colleagues and I were working for the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, a not for profit advocate for the Park’s wilderness founded in 1901. One day, we were invited by Gov. Pataki’s staff – along with many others – to attend a meeting in New York City. During the train ride I certainly did not anticipate seeing the Governor himself.  We walked into the large meeting room high above the bustling city only to see George Pataki seated at the table.

After preliminaries, we were all brought up to speed. Following years of advocacy and efforts by nonprofits like ours, and by NYS DEC, the Governor told those assembled that the State had reached an agreement with Marylou Whitney and Whitney Industries to acquire 15,000 privately owned acres in Long Lake (one-third of Whitney’s holdings) for the Adirondack Forest Preserve, including all of Little Tupper Lake. I could have jumped out of my chair. I think we were all more restrained than that, but joyful. This was great news, from our perspective, and long sought after.  All Whitney lands had been (and remain) a high priority project in the NYS Open Space Conservation Plan, and Governor Mario Cuomo had tried to negotiate for them throughout his terms.  Everyone piped up, thanking Governor Pataki.

Then, the Governor spoke up again and I paraphrase: My actions announced today will be controversial in the Adirondacks, he said. I need your ideas for greater economic activity in the Adirondacks that will make this announcement more acceptable at the local level.

It was clear he wanted some ideas right then and there. Notwithstanding the fact that adding 15,000 fully taxable acres to the Forest Preserve, including a whole lot of new lakes for canoeing and kayaking, was in and of itself a positive economically, at that moment everyone in the room wanted to be helpful. How about more snowmobiling? Whether that idea came from the Governor’s staff or from others, I don’t recall. It came up, and the Governor liked it. He liked it a lot. Here, IMO, was the genesis of the Comprehensive Snowmobile Plan for the Adirondack Park.

Drafting of the Snowmobile Plan seriously began around 2000. A roundtable of stakeholder organizations was pulled together. I sat in many meetings over several years with DEC  and State Parks (OPRHP) staff, with other wild land advocates and with snowmobile advocates and organizers. All of us were motivated to remain at the table to influence the process and outcomes, seek the data, add information. However difficult and time consuming, the meetings were educational in our grappling with snowmobile issues swept under the proverbial rug since the the 1972 Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan.

Furthermore, I enjoyed talking with and debating snowmobile enthusiasts. They do not wear horns, I found out, and they love the Adirondacks as much anyone. I told them I was not there to oppose all snowmobiling. I just wanted it limited and restrained, as required by the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, which has the force and effect of law, and the Constitution.

The Adirondack Master Plan of 1972 (as it has since) authorizes snowmobile trails on Wild Forest classified Forest Preserve lands but, in a silent but firm nod to Article XIV, requires such trails to have the same character as foot trails, and be further constrained and conditioned.

By 1995, those Adirondack Master Plan restraints had become more difficult to comply with because the snowmobile industry had changed dramatically.  Sleds were manufactured and marketed to be wider, heavier and more powerful. Those altered specifications, and the need to maintain the snow pack during milder winters, required a separate motor vehicle to groom the trails on a frequent basis.

New York State created a grant program to help local snowmobile clubs to acquire these expensive snowmobile trail groomers. While not the snowmobile superhighways that had developed in Maine and a few other northern states, the community connector trails proposed in the Draft Comprehensive Snowmobile Plan were authorized to have groomers on them. They would be constructed wider, flatter and straighter. Mechanized technology was driving public policy for the Forest Preserve, and that raised great worry and strong objection.

Snowmobile connector to Lake Harris under construction

One problem was that the only motor vehicle authorized by the Adirondack Master Plan to run on Wild Forest trails were, and are today, snowmobiles. Groomers were and are not authorized on these trails. Around 2001 Governor Pataki and DEC promised all stakeholders that groomers on community connector trails would be subject to public hearings and an amendment of the State Land Master Plan. At least, I told myself, the public would be given a chance to comment at hearings. At least the Adirondack Park Agency would be required to vote to approve or to disapprove such an amendment. Or so the 2004 Draft Snowmobile Plan stated.

By 2006, Pataki’s final year in office, that promise of an amendment to the Adirondack Master Plan was removed from the Final Snowmobile Plan, and the APA has never voted on compliance with the Master Plan. The frequent use of groomers require wider, flatter, straighter, more highly engineered snowmobile corridors, and their regular use are a major reason why so many trees have been cut  ever since. In the Final Snowmobile Plan were 17 wider, groomed snowmobile community connector proposals. Their construction began in the first Andrew Cuomo term. The roots of greater conflict over Forest Preserve snowmobile policy spread quickly.

The seeds of future conflict were planted in the early-mid 1960s. State Conservation Commissioner Harold Wilm encouraged the use of motorized sleds as a recreational outlet and economic benefit to the slow winter economy. The Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks and Adirondack Mountain Club threatened to take Commissioner Wilm to court over the violation of Article XIV of the Constitution, maintaining that gas guzzling, loud machines running wherever they wished across Forest Preserve destroyed the principle and plain meaning of wild forest lands in the NYS Constitution. The commissioner agreed to end the off-trail, cross country use of snowmobiles, and to limit the use to marked, designated trails in what later became the Forest Preserve’s Wild Forest classification (and not in what became Wilderness or Primitive). On that basis, the nonprofits agreed not to sue. That decision was certainly portentous.

In 1970, volunteers for the Adirondack Mountain Club were very concerned about the number of trees being cut on 780 miles of designated snowmobile trail then being developed on the Adirondack Forest Preserve, mostly on hiking trails.  An interim report was submitted by those ADK volunteers in 1971. Documentation in that report showed that on average about 10 trees over 4 inches in diameter were being cut per snowmobile trail mile in 1970. That level of tree cutting greatly concerned the report’s authors as being unconstitutional.

Fifty years on, the July 2019 Court decision in Protect the Adirondacks’s favor reveals the impact of wider snowmobiles, groomers and 12 years of the Adirondack Snowmobile Plan. Figures DEC supplied in the case reveal that since 2012, on average, over 220 trees over 3 inches in diameter have been cut per snowmobile community connector mile. Using Protect’s definition which includes a tree of 3 inches or less, a definition upheld by the court, the number is more than 900 trees per mile.

So, to construct today’s groomed, more leveled, straighter snowmobile connector trails requires, at minimum, 22 times the amount of tree-cutting (defined as 3-4 inches or larger in diameter) per mile than the ungroomed, narrower trails of the early 1970s when the Adirondack State Land Master Plan was approved.

Given July’s court decision preventing DEC from significant new tree cutting for new snowmobile connectors and the dramatic climate changes happening in our region, it behooves Governor Cuomo and DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos to sit down with all stakeholders to significantly revise the Comprehensive Snowmobile Plan for the Adirondack Park.

Article 14, Section 1 New York State Constitution Forever Wild clauseI’ll conclude with our 2006 comments to DEC on the final Adirondack Snowmobile Plan because I feel they’re still relevant today and could be helpful, if and when DEC calls a stakeholder meeting:

Adirondack Snowmobile Plan Comments Submitted to DEC in 2006

The Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks strongly opposes the Adirondack Snowmobile Plan for reasons explained below. We will be asking the next Governor to reject this plan and to consider our recommendations listed at the close of this letter.

The snowmobile plan would, for the first time, authorize widespread use of tracked groomer motor vehicles to groom the narrow trails and natural forest surface of today’s combined snowmobile and foot trails in Wild Forest areas of the Forest Preserve. The State Land Master Plan does not allow the use of motorized groomers on these trails and mandates that snowmobile trails retain the character of a foot trail.

  • The State Land Master Plan permits snowmobiles on snowmobile trails, and only snowmobiles. Further, the Master Plan defines “sno cats” (synonymous with tracked groomers) as a motor vehicle, which are not authorized on snowmobile trails.
  • Snowmobile trails must have the “character of a foot trail” according to the state land plan. Because of their width, maneuverability and weight, tracked groomers require the use of heavy machinery to level the forest floor, remove rocks and boulders and otherwise create highways in the woods. The Association believes these maintenance practices and machines equate to violations of the spirit and letter of the Master Plan and the Constitution.

While we support the Governor’s goals of moving more snowmobile trails off the Forest Preserve and onto private and conservation easement lands, that is not what this plan actually does. What the plan proposes is faster snowmobiling on wide, flat forest highways. These wild forest trails would become, in effect, new highways through the Forest Preserve. Those, as you know, are illegal and unconstitutional.

The Governor promised the snowmobile focus group in 2000 that such changes would only be contemplated through a Master Plan amendment. However, the authors of this plan removed a statement from the prior draft plan released in 2004 which clearly stated that the snowmobile plan implementation would require an amendment to the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan which contains guidelines for the use of the Forest Preserve that have the force and effect of law. The newly released final plan contains no such statement. By removing this crucial statement, the DEC implies that approval and implementation of this plan is merely an administrative matter. We strongly disagree and we are confident that the next Governor will agree with us. It is, instead, a matter for every voter and citizen in New York State at public hearings.

The Association also notes the following weaknesses in the snowmobile plan:

  • The Plan sets an inappropriately low standard for describing and assessing the environmental quality, public health, safety and other impacts of tens of thousands of registered snowmobiles on air, snowmelt, water, wildlife, noise and quality of life in Adirondack Park communities. The plan’s environmental analysis is improved, but only slightly improved from the 2004 draft plan. The plan fails to seriously note or analyze localized environmental impacts or more cumulative regional impacts on air, water and wildlife, nor does it make any recommendations for undertaking Adirondack specific studies and measurements.
  • The 2004 draft and 2006 final plans fail to integrate snowmobile trails on public and private lands in the Park, particularly private lands where conservation easements permit snowmobiling. There are no maps that describe the snowmobile trail system on private and municipal lands despite the plan’s statement that almost 1200 miles of such trails exist. Although it is frequently stated as a goal, the plan fails to offer specific incentives or targets for moving snowmobile routes off the Forest Preserve onto private lands. For example, snowmobile trail private land easements could include term-easements or term leases.
  • The Forest Preserve snowmobile trail mileage cited in the plan has been so frequently altered over the last six months that the public has every reason to be skeptical about its accuracy.
  • 14 of the 17 proposed community connector snowmobile routes already exist with at least one route that presently connects these communities. This information was provided at a meeting of the snowmobile focus group in May, 2006, but is not mapped, described or integrated into the plan.
  • The authorization of motor vehicle groomers will require that thousands of trees be cut on the Forest Preserve so that trails can be widened to nine feet (from the current eight foot guideline) as well as flattened by the removal of protruding rocks. The plans offers no estimate of the number of trees to be cut in order to create the 9-foot trails, but the Association estimates it would be in the tens of thousands. Article 14 of the NYS Constitution only authorizes immaterial tree-cutting on the Forest Preserve. Furthermore, the Court of Appeals ruled in 1930 (McDonald v. Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks) that the Forest Preserve was not to be used for artificial, high speed mechanized uses. The plan is unconstitutional not strictly because a large number of trees would be cut but because a large number of trees would be cut in order to create small roads through the Forest Preserve for the purpose of recreational snowmobiling. The McDonald v. Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks Appellate decision of 1930, upheld by the Court of Appeals, tells us that it is the type of use or recreation proposed that determines constitutionality, not solely the number of trees. It tells us that high speed recreation in a man-made setting is unconstitutional, yet this is what the plan proposes.  Even if the Department believes otherwise, the Plan lacks even the minimum step of asking the Attorney General’s office for an opinion on constitutionality.
  • The Plan does not adequately address the major question of how to prevent All-Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) from using the proposed 9-foot routes. This illegal, damaging use is widespread throughout the Park. This Plan must be guided by a clear state policy on use of ATVs in the Adirondack Park. After four-years of work, that draft policy has not been finalized and put into practice.
  • There is inadequate economic analysis in this plan about the significant costs involved with proposed Class 3 trail planning, building, maintenance and enforcement.
  • With respect to maintenance costs of the Class 3 routes, despite the accepted assertion that wider snowmobile routes will make two-way riding safer, we disagree and suspect that high speeds on wide but unstable snow/ice surfaces will result in more snowmobile damage and rider injury from collisions than at present. This in turn will result in the need for wide shoulders. In fact, the State will be obligated to build them as an added safety feature. Over time, we predict it will be next to impossible to restrict these routes to 9-feet.
  • There is no analysis of the costs incurred when people physically move their residence in the Park due to the quality of life issues surrounding concentrated use of snowmobiles. These are many serious community issues surrounding current and increased snowmobile use along highways, roads and near residences in Adirondack towns and villages that have not been addressed in this plan.

Recommendations:

Given the existing and steadily increasing pressures from all motorized uses on all Adirondack Park land classifications and ownerships, we (the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks)  recommend to the next administration that this plan be rejected and in its place:

  1. APA should be the lead agency for all long-range planning in the Park, in close consultation with DEC, Parks, Department of State and county planning agencies. The APA should be funded to undertake this work, consistent with the legislative authority the agency has to undertake comprehensive Park planning.
  2. Proposed planning should include all motorized uses in the Park across all land ownerships, including snowmobiling.
  3. As a result of this planning approach, the citizens of the State of New York and of Adirondack Park towns and villages would be the clear beneficiaries. Everyone would receive essential information about the existing motorized routes, about environmental quality and community impacts of these routes and about where routes might be improved or better planned across all land-ownerships. Further, this approach has the advantage of addressing possible private, municipal and conservation land solutions for the corridor connectors between towns, for increased use of easements and for State incentives and other forms of support for participating landowners, towns and villages.

We ask that the APA, DEC and its other partners to jointly:

  • Map and describe existing, publicly accessible motorized routes on all land-ownerships, and describe connections that exit and enter the Park from different directions.
  • Search the existing Adirondack scientific literature, describe appropriate Adirondack study protocols and recommend actual Adirondack environmental quality studies of a high standard appropriate to the Park.
  • Conduct a proper assessment of motorized recreation on all land-ownerships in the Park. Then, if the policy direction is to reduce snowmobiling on the Forest Preserve, create tangible incentives for moving more motorized routes onto private, municipal or conservation lands.

Thank you for considering our views.”

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