Judge dismisses snowmobile trail lawsuit

Class II snowmobile trails are wider and more heavily built than regular foot trails. 
(Photo provided by Protect the Adirondacks)

Class II snowmobile trails are wider and more heavily built than regular foot trails. (Photo provided by Protect the Adirondacks)

An acting New York Supreme Court justice dismissed a lawsuit over the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s cutting of snowmobile trails in the Adirondacks last week after several years of legal wrangling.

Protect the Adirondacks, an environmental advocacy group, had sued the DEC and the state Adirondack Park Agency over construction of Class II community connector snowmobile trails. The lawsuit centered around what Protect argued was an illegal amount of tree cutting for the trails, but Judge Gerald Connelly found in favor of the state. Connelly essentially said in his decision that the total acreage cut for the trails was not enough to constitute an illegal taking.

“We put on a case that showed there were around 1,000 trees cut down for each mile of snowmobile trail constructed and that intact forest areas were turned into grass lawns,” Protect Executive Director Peter Bauer said. “We thought that this was proof that these lands were not forever kept as wild forest lands and that tree cutting exceeded past precedents for what was allowable. The judge disagreed.”

The decision was issued on Friday, but Bauer said in an interview Wednesday that Protect doesn’t have to decide whether to appeal until late January.

The lawsuit also centered around, essentially, what constitutes a tree. The DEC considers any stem that is 3 inches or greater at breast height to be a tree, while Bauer and Protect basically argued that smaller trees should also be counted.

“He [the judge] opened the door that small trees could be counted,” Bauer said. “But then in the end, he said even if that’s the case, he took the position that the total acres involved is the minimum when you look across the entire Forest Preserve.”

Bauer said he thinks this decision could be a slippery slope and argued that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been pushing for more and more use of motorized recreation in the Forest Preserve, a patchwork of state land makes up nearly half of the 6 million-acre Adirondack Park.

“Governor Cuomo is intent on implementing the greatest expansion of motor vehicle use in the history of the Forest Preserve, and unfortunately the courts will not stop him,” Bauer said. “Long-term, everybody should be concerned because as the snowmobiling season continues to contract and as a number of these snowmobile trails are being built in areas without reliable snowfall, there will be immense pressure to open them up for ATV riding.”

All-terrain vehicle riding is currently not allowed in the Adirondack Forest Preserve.

Justice Connelly wrote in his decision that although the snowmobile trails, which can be up to 12 feet wide, are not the same as a foot trail, the construction of them by the DEC does not run afoul of the state constitution’s Article XIV, which protects the Forest Preserve.

“Taking all of the factors into account … the court finds that any impingement on the wild forest nature of the Preserve by the limited bridges and signage is not unconstitutional,” the decision reads. “The Court finds and holds that, though the trails herein are generally larger than foot or ski trails in the Preserve, they do not constitute an improper use of the Preserve.

“[It is] ordered, adjudged and declared that construction in the Forest Preserve of the Class II trails that were planned and approved as of October 15, 2015 does not violate Article XIV … of the New York State Constitution.”

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