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Court blocks plan to build snowmobile connector trails in the Adirondacks

Gary Lee

A state court has blocked a plan to build snowmobile trails through the heart of the Adirondacks. The trails would have connected remote towns like Indian Lake and Newcomb, but environmental activists argued the project violated the state’s ‘forever wild’ clause by cutting too many trees down.

The legal battle over the snowmobile trails started in 2013. That’s when the advocacy group Protect the Adirondacks filed suit against the State Dept. of Environmental Conservation. The state had planned to build 27 miles of snowmobile trails in the Adirondacks.

Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, said Tuesday's ruling to block those trails was a big win for the park.

“We feel vindicated and we are proud that we were able to step up and protect the people’s land.”

In the four to two ruling, the NYS Court of Appeals said that the state’s constitution and legal precedents are clear. If the DEC wants to cut thousands of trees to build a trail system, the state would first need to pass a constitutional amendment.

Bauer said the ruling is good news for every forest in the park. “Those trees are better protected today than they were yesterday. So this will have some changes on the Forest Preserve, but it should not affect the public’s recreational use of the Forest Preserve at all.”

The DEC had said the connector trails would open more of the Park to snowmobilers and tourists. The Adirondack Park Agency approved the trails in 2014. Bauer questioned the economics behind the effort.

“There is this idea that if we build these Class II community connector trails in the Adirondacks, every community, whether it's Indian Lake, or North Hudson, or Minerva, are suddenly going to turn into Old Forge," he said. "That's just not reality.”

Brian Wells disagrees. Wells is the town supervisor of Indian Lake.

“Peter Bauer does not know what he's talking about," said Wells.

“Snowmobiling brings in a huge amount of money, whether we have a good winter or a bad [winter]," said Wells. "A good winter is better than a bad winter, but it brings in a huge amount of money for us.”

Snowmobile connector trails were part of a deal hashed out years ago between environmental groups, the state of New York, and local communities. In exchange, towns like Indian Lake agreed to go along with a huge expansion of the Park’s High Peaks Wilderness.

“The towns went into this agreeing to protect the Adirondacks, to protect the land," said Wells. "I'm sorry I'm getting pretty emotional about this.

"We give, we give, we give," said Wells, "and to be just basically screwed over, it's disheartening for the Adirondacks, to be quite honest with you.”

Green groups and local leaders and state officials have collaborated more on environmental projects in recent years. That’s a shift away from old feuds over development and motorized recreation in the Park.

Wells thinks Tuesday’s ruling is a big setback.  He says it will make it harder for the state to get towns on board when it wants to buy and protect more land in the park.

“This is going to create such hardship and such anger amongst local government, that they're not going to cooperate. There will not be any cooperation anymore about any land deals, I'm afraid that's what's going to happen. “

Green groups in the park have been split over the legal battle. The Adirondack Council and Adirondack Wild both applauded the state’s ruling, while the Nature Conservancy and the Adirondack Mountain Club have sided with the DEC and the towns.

Ben Brosseau, spokesperson for the Adirondack Mountain Club, said the court ruling could limit the state’s ability to cut trees for all kinds of recreational activities – not just snowmobiles.

“This new standard could very dramatically affect the ability to maintain trails to the point of counting all the way down to the tiniest saplings.”

The Adirondacks have seen a boost in hiker traffic in recent years. To keep up with that, Brosseau said the state will need to reroute trails to make them more sustainable.

“To reroute trails, you have to have some flexibility," said Brosseau. "I'm not saying we want to clear cut, not by any means, but the ability to go along and identify corridors where it's possible to make this happen.”

The DEC hasn’t said what its next move is. In a statement to North Country Public Radio, the DEC said it’s reviewing the court’s ruling. It could now propose a constitutional amendment to build the snowmobile connector trails, but there’s a lot of uncertainty in that process and it could take years to achieve.