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Court Rules DEC Construction Of Snowmobile Trails Violates NY Constitution

Adirondack wilderness area sign
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Adirondack wilderness area sign

Adirondack environmental groups are lauding a rulingfrom New York’s highest court that finds a Department of Environmental Conservation project building snowmobile connector trails in the Adirondacks violates the state Constitution.

In 2013 Protect the Adirondacks filed suit against the DEC and the Adirondack Park Agency over the project on Adirondack Forest Preserve lands.   The New York Court of Appeals on Tuesday ruled that “…the planned construction of the Class II community connector trails would violate the constitution.”  The relevant clause is Article 14, which states: “….lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the Forest Preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.”

Protect the Adirondacks Executive Director Peter Bauer says the ruling keeps the Constitutional intent that the Forest Preserve be managed by the people. 

“The court determines, upholding past precedents from 1930 and 1993, that the level of tree cutting, the level of forest clearing in this new type of wide road-like snowmobile trail that the state had been building violated the Forever Wild clause of the state Constitution," Bauer said. "So it’s a very powerful ruling from the Court of Appeals.”

Adirondack Council spokesman John Sheehan says this is an important decision for the health of the forest preserve and future decisions on public recreation.  

“The court decided that the state can’t create a large disturbance beyond foot trails without permission from the voters," Sheehan said. "Essentially they said what you’ve been doing for the last hundred years going around trees to create a trail and working with the terrain is the right way to go.  The court pointed out that it had stopped smaller things like bobsled runs on the Catskill Forest Preserve in the past and had required constitutional amendments for ski areas like Gore and Whiteface so that it ought to be doing the same in this case.”

The suit was filed after construction on the trails began.  Sheehan says two previous lawsuits to stop the plan from moving forward had been filed by the Adirondack Council. 

“The court threw the two cases out saying well it’s just a plan, nothing’s happened to hurt the Preserve yet," Sheehan said. "It took until 2013 for them to start cutting trees and using earth moving equipment and that sort of thing on the ground in the Park. We had hoped to prevent that from happening in the first place. But the court felt that it was necessary to be sure that the state really intended to move forward before judging whether the plan was legal or not.”

In a statement provided to WAMC the Department of Environmental Conservation says “While DEC is disappointed by this ruling, we appreciate the Court’s application of the long-standing ruling in the Association for Protection of Adirondacks v Macdonald (253 NY 234 [1930]), which is consistent with DEC’s ongoing efforts to provide access to the forest preserve and protect public safety, including the construction and maintenance of facilities associated with hiking and camping. DEC remains committed to serving as a steward of this essential and irreplaceable resource as we fulfill our statutory duty to manage the Forest Preserve for the use and enjoyment of the public.”


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