The Court’s Snowmobile Connector Decision In Perspective
The NYS Court of Appeals has just decided by a 4-2 majority, that New York State agencies under Governor Andrew Cuomo have violated Article 14, Section 1 of our State Constitution by impermissibly constructing snowmobile community connector trails through the ‘forever wild’ Forest Preserve, removing rocks, grading the trails, bench cutting the trails, and cutting thousands of trees.
Bitter comments about the court’s decision notwithstanding, snowmobiling continued in the Adirondack region during the years while this case was being appealed by state agencies up to New York’s highest court, and will again.
Also, the snowmobile connector issues that seem so consequentially decided by the Court of Appeals this month predate Governor Andrew Cuomo by 25 years. Gov. Cuomo’s DEC aggressively built upon foundations laid by prior administrations of Governors Patterson, Spitzer and, most especially, George Pataki. There were plenty of concerns and warnings issued then about the legal and constitutional problems of snowmobile community connectors. These were swept under the legal rug until after Governor Andrew Cuomo was elected.
The recent Court of Appeals decision ruled unconstitutional further construction of 9-12 ft. wide snowmobile community connector trails on Wild Forest portions of the Adirondack Forest Preserve, as defined by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation. An example is the 15-miled long Seventh Lake Community Connector Trail through the Moose River Plains Wild Forest between Inlet and Raquette Lake constructed in 2012-14.
The Snowmobile Trail System is Not Going Away
The Adirondack snowmobile trail network which pre-existed community connectors remains extensive, including but not limited to:
- the meandering, narrower, non- graded Forest Preserve Wild Forest trails that have been around for decades (authorized up to 848 miles by state policy, and which also serve as parts of the hiking trail systems), as well as on;
- more recent, privately owned, conservation easement lands, as well as;
- town-owned lands like the towns of Webb and Inlet snowmobile trail systems, and;
- the abandoned rail corridors like the former Adirondack Railroad from Remsen to Tupper Lake and from Tupper Lake to Lake Placid.
In all, there were several thousand miles or more of Adirondack trails on which to snowmobile last winter and, assuming a healthy snowpack, will be again this coming winter. Several of DEC’s proposed community connector trails were proposed in areas that are now lacking in an extended snowpack due to much warmer winters.
I recall a past chairman of the Adirondack Park Agency who, after inviting the Tug Hill Commission to speak about their wide, fast trail system, responded with pride during a meeting in Ray Brook that only in the Adirondack Park could the snowmobiler experience narrow, meandering, wild forest environments. This APA chair said, and I am paraphrasing him from memory, “we are all required to slow down when our cars enter Adirondack villages. Why shouldn’t we want to also slow down on narrow Adirondack snowmobile trails? They are what set us apart from Tug Hill. Let’s market our strength and our appeal – slower, more beautiful, narrow, wooded, wild trails on which to hike or snowmobile.”
The Five Towns of Indian Lake, Long Lake, Newcomb, Minerva, North Hudson may justifiably feel they were promised wider, faster, more graded community connector trails by Governor Andrew Cuomo in return for their support for the state’s acquiring the Finch conservation easements and lands like Boreas Ponds and the Essex Chain of Lakes during 2013-16.
But the legal and constitutional debate that wider, faster snowmobile routes faced goes back to the 1990s.
The Pataki Era
In 1995, Governor George Pataki came into office. Among his appointments was DEC Commissioner Michael Zagata. Zagata came from prior employment in Texas. He was not only unfamiliar with the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve, from my perspective in the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks he was impatient with and actively hostile to its ‘forever wild’ strictures, as well as to the State Land Master Plan.
By 1995, more powerful, heavier, and wider snowmobiles were being sold across the state. Zagata saw no reason not to accommodate them in the Adirondack Park. He proposed to expand the 8-ft wide Forest Preserve trails long in existence to 12-15 ft. width for two-way passage of newer, 42-inch snowmobiles.
To discuss these issues in the field, in the winter of 1997 I was invited – along with all members of the DEC Forest Preserve Advisory Committee – to snowmobile a trail in Arietta, Hamilton County. I appreciated the experience as we traveled on these new snowmobiles through deep snow. It was a beautiful, exhilarating winter day but some of us snowmobiling novices got stuck on our sleds because, I was told, the sleds were too heavy and foundered without Snocat grooming machines to prepack the snow.
The SnoCat Groomer
So, I learned that the new generation of snowmobiles required a separate grooming machine to prepare the trail system for heavier sleds on more trafficked trails, and to allow the snowpack to last into the spring. There lay one big legal problem. The snowcat groomers were a separate motor vehicle from the snowmobile, and the State Land Master Plan only authorizes snowmobiles on Wild Forest trails, not the separate, motorized groomer. My colleagues and I have harped on this issue on many occasions, but no one in authority at DEC or APA has ever sought to amend the State Land Master Plan to bring the use of snowcat grooming motor vehicles on Forest Preserve trails into compliance with the Master Plan. Their widespread but illegal use continues to this day. One reason why so many trees were cut for the community connector trails in 2012-14, resulting in parts of the Court of Appeals recent ruling, was to accommodate the tracked groomer as well as the snowmobiles.
Commissioner Zagata only kept his position for a few years. However, his attitude towards the Forest Preserve was not unique within DEC. By 1998, I was seeing the results of DEC turning a blind eye or even cooperating in the use of tracked excavators and bulldozers to turn 8 ft. wide forest trails into 12-25 ft. muddy turnpikes for groomed snowmobiling. This happened on trails within the Vanderwhacker Wild Forest, Shaker Mountain Wild Forest, Fulton Chain Wild Forest, and Watsons East Triangle Wild Forest, to name just some of the areas investigated. After investigations by my organization, AfPA, as well as by the Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and the Adirondack Mountain Club, the Adirondack Park Agency also got involved. APA investigated, found illegalities throughout the Park, and got DEC to agree to close certain snowmobile trails and to remediate the wetland damage done there. Under threat of a lawsuit, new DEC Commissioner John Cahill agreed to restrict those operating a motor vehicle to “maintain” snowmobile trails to DEC employees. Unfortunately, DEC had no intention of keeping that policy.
The Snowmobile Focus Group
By 2000, Governor George Pataki had become directly involved. He agreed to expand the snowmobile network on the Forest Preserve in exchange for new land acquisition like Whitney Park but wanted a stakeholder group to negotiate the concepts and to dive into the specifics. So, in late 2000 was born the Snowmobile Focus Group led by DEC’s Division of Lands and Forests. For three years I met periodically with snowmobile club leaders, local government leaders, my colleagues, and state personnel from all three agencies, DEC, APA, and New York State Parks, which distributed the federal matching funds used by local clubs to purchase the tracked grooming machines. Slowly, over the course of many workshop meetings the concept of closing so-called “interior” snowmobile trails in exchange for wider connector trails along the “perimeter” of the Forest Preserve gained acceptance, but the devil was clearly in the details.
What was in the “interior” and in the “perimeter” was debatable. Some proposed new connector routes seemed to duplicate trails already in existence. Conceptual connectors turned into specific trails on a map, while those interior trails to be closed to snowmobiling remained uncertain or ambiguous. DEC was unable to provide the group with specific trail mileage across the Park, or with detailed maps of trail networks. Much more mapping was needed to show the entire snowmobile trail network, on public and private land, and how those networks interconnected.
Just as the Focus Group began to make more progress, the DEC abruptly ended the meetings and announced it would hold public meetings on a Draft Plan – before the Focus Group could finish its research.
In 2000 Governor Pataki made a commitment that if community connector trails were ever to be constructed, the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan would have to be amended first to authorize them. In his final year in office, 2006, he broke that promise. DEC would proceed to plan and construct a new snowmobile trail system administratively, a system that the Governor, back in 2000, agreed could only be done through public hearings and a formal State Land Plan amendment process at the Adirondack Park Agency.
DEC unveiled the final Snowmobile Plan in fall of 2006. The Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, AfPA, was among those who sharply criticized it. What we said about it in 2006 echoes recent events:
“Governor Pataki’s recently announced Adirondack Snowmobile Plan encourages more motorized use of the NYS Forest Preserve and new road-like conditions through the Forest Preserve according to the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks. The Association considers the Governor’s plan to be an end-run around the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, the ‘forever wild’ clause of the NYS Constitution and the Governor’s own promise made in 2000 that any significant change to the Adirondack snowmobile trail system would require an amendment to the Master Plan and, therefore, a series of statewide public hearings.
The plan would, for the first time, authorize widespread use of tracked grooming motor vehicles to groom snow on the narrow trails and natural forest surface of today’s combined snowmobile and hiking trails in Wild Forest areas of the Forest Preserve.
These Adirondack wild forest trails would become, in effect, new roads through the Forest Preserve. Governor Pataki in his final weeks in office is charting a course that will erode and, eventually, destroy the Forest Preserve that is treasured by millions of New Yorkers. He is willing to chart this course without so much as one public hearing. Coming from a Governor with former environmental credentials, this is completely shocking to us.
The use of these new motor vehicle groomers requires thousands of trees to be cut on the Forest Preserve so that trails can be widened to nine feet (from the current eight-foot guideline) and flattened by the removal of protruding rocks. The Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan does not allow anything but a snowmobile to be driven on snowmobile trails. Article 14 of the NYS Constitution only permits tree cutting on the Forest Preserve that is immaterial and mandates the retention of the preserve’s wild forest character. Artificial sports and high-speed mechanized uses are banned from the Forest Preserve according to a Court of Appeals decision from 1930, McDonald v. The Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks.
Pataki’s Department of Environmental Conservation removed a statement from the prior draft plan which said that mechanized grooming 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. The Governor has gone back on his word.
The Forest Preserve should not be compromised in order to accommodate faster snowmobiling on road-like surfaces, with all the rocks plucked out. The Governor apparently believes more roads and motorized traffic can be allowed on “forever wild” lands without, at the very least, an amendment to the master plan and without statewide public hearings and public comment. We find this totally undemocratic, surprising, and very disappointing.
The plan does not estimate how many Forest Preserve trees would have to be cut in order to turn many trails into nine-foot corridors, but the Association estimates the number to be in the tens of thousands. A constitutional amendment is the only way to authorize such a large amount of tree cutting, but the plan does not even broach this subject.
We are forced to oppose this plan because it authorizes more motors and tree cutting on the Forest Preserve through administrative action that clearly can only be permitted by the people through a constitutional amendment or, at the very least, through public hearings on the Master Plan. The plan blatantly disregards the fragile wild forest character of the Forest Preserve which, if eroded by more and more motors, will not be there for future generations as it has been for all the generations of New Yorkers born since 1894.
The Forest Preserve and ‘forever wild’ are unique ecological and economic attributes for the Adirondack region. Snowmobiling through this region should remain what it is today – slow speed through meandering, wild, narrow, forested trails with a natural trail surface, with trail grooming accomplished using a snowmobile and a drag. That kind of snowmobiling is a unique Adirondack product available nowhere else. Governor Pataki’s plan would convert Adirondack trails into ‘anyplace USA,’ and that is unacceptable.”
On May 4, 2021, the NYS Court of Appeals ruled that this 25-year history of administrative compromising of the Forest Preserve is, in fact, unacceptable and must not continue because it is unconstitutional.
By David Gibson, Managing Partner, Adirondack Wild