LAKE PLACID - The state Department of Environmental Conservation has tossed out a fine against Lake Placid Snowmobile Club President Jim McCulley for driving his truck on Old Mountain Road, an action that puts control of the road at the local level and also could affect town roads that weren't closed properly across the Adirondack Park and state.
The implications of the ruling handed down by DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis Tuesday will shake out over time.
For now, both those in favor of keeping Old Mountain Road a ski trail and those in favor of allowing snowmobile use on the trail are claiming victory. Ultimately, it appears that what use the trail has in the future will be determined at the town level.
Skiers go through Old Mountain Road this winter, with the cliffs of Pitchoff Mountain on the right.
(Enterprise file photo — Mike Lynch)
Exactly four years ago to this day, McCulley was ticketed by a DEC officer for driving his pickup truck on a portion of Old Mountain Road located about 30 feet into the Forest Preserve. Since 1986, Old Mountain Road has been a popular 5-mile section of the Jackrabbit ski trail that the DEC has incorporated - wrongly, it now seems - into the Sentinel Range Wilderness.
McCulley fought the ticket and ultimately won based on the argument that Old Mountain Road was a town road that the DEC had illegally taken over.
"Obviously, we're happy the judge followed the law. It would have been nice if the DEC had done that many years ago instead of putting me through all this," McCulley said. "I can't say enough about the honesty of Judge (James) McClymonds. He did it right by the book. I'm glad for the people of North Elba and the people of Keene. I'm glad for the people of the Adirondack Park, who have watched the DEC close things illegally for years and never been able to stop them."
McClymonds was the administrative law judge who handed out a 37-page decision that Grannis reviewed before making his ruling.
But Adirondack Ski Touring Council Executive Director Tony Goodwin also applauded McClymonds' decision because it acknowledged his organization's work to reopen the trail in the late 1980s and to keep it open after floods in 1995 and 1996 and after the 1998 ice storm threatened its viability.
"The ASTC, through volunteer labor and capital, has taken the initiative to keep the Road open for public use and enjoyment, and is largely responsible for the Road's continuing popularity as a recreational destination," McClymonds said. "That effort would be threatened if the Road is subjected to significant snowmobile use."
For these reasons and because he said snowmobiles pose a danger to skiers, McClymonds urged Grannis to "discontinue that portion of the Old Mountain Road that passes through the Forest Preserve as a town road and public right-of-way, and reopen the road as a trail fully under the department's jurisdiction."
This would "protect the Old Mountain Road for those pedestrian and horseback users that have given the road its most significant use in modern times," McClymond stated.
In his decision, Grannis states that the state has the right to close the road under state Highway Law section 212 in the future but stopped short of doing so because such an action "was outside the scope of the issues presented in this matter, and is not material to the determination of this case."
So for now, the road is under the town's jurisdiction, and that appears to mean that the towns of Keene and North Elba, where the road falls, will have a final say in what type of use occurs on the road. The authority of local governments is clearly stated on the New York Snowmobiling Association's Web site.
"Snowmobiles may be operated on county, town, city, or village highways which are customarily unplowed and unused by wheeled vehicles during the winter months," states the New York Snowmobiling Association's Web site. "These roads must be designated as such by the governing authority."
A town may designate one, multiple, all or none of its roads for snowmobile use.
North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi said the decision doesn't change much for the town.
"The town has always taken the position that it's theirs," Politi said.
He said any future actions regarding the trail would include input from Goodwin because of the work he's put into the trail and should be in collaboration with the town of Keene.
Keene Supervisor William Ferebee declined comment until he had more time to research the decision.
Goodwin has researched what would happen if it were ruled that the town had jurisdiction over this road.
"This isn't the way we had hoped the decision would have gone, but that doesn't mean it's going to become a snowmobile trail either," Goodwin said. "Because if it now clearly reverts to the jurisdiction of the towns, the town of Keene does not allow snowmobiles on their roads." But Lake Placid lawyer Matt Norfolk, who represents McCulley, had a different take on it.
"I'm not saying this to be cavalier, but if this decision came out in the middle of January, I'd probably take my snowmobile out this weekend," Norfolk said. "Say, let's go through it and see it, look at it. That would be legal. Right now, you can take your mountain bike on it. You can take your truck on it. It's legal."
Adirondack Rock and River Guide Service, which is also a lodging facility, has been located at the bottom of Old Mountain Road on Alstead Road in Keene for 21 years. Owner Ed Palin was disappointed at the prospect of seeing snowmobiles on the trail.
"I want to see it be a ski trail," Palin said. "My business would be hurt badly if it could be used by snowmobiles. All the people that come here, come here to get away from snowmobiles."
Palin did say he wasn't against snowmobile use in other areas.
Upon hearing about the decision, the Adirondack Council called upon Grannis to close the Old Mountain Road through state Highway Law Section 212.
"If Commissioner Grannis doesn't make use of Section 212, today's decision could turn into a disaster for the natural character of the Adirondack Park," Adirondack Council Executive Director Brian Houseal said in a prepared statement. "There are more than one million acres of protected, roadless wilderness in the Adirondack Park. It represents nearly 85 percent of all roadless, wilderness forest lands in the eastern United States. Yet, it is only one-thirtieth of New York State's total land area - very rare.
"Opening these roads to motorized traffic will harm wildlife, water quality and the peaceful nature of the last big place left in the Northeast where you can escape the noise and pollution of motorized traffic," he said.
Norfolk said the other issue that will come up is land-use designation of the Sentinel Range Wilderness.
"To be a wilderness classification in the State Land Master Plan, you have to have 10,000 square acres of continuous land mass," Norfolk said. "Not only did they say where Jim drove was a town road, but the judge and DEC commissioner ruled that the entire Old Mountain Road, from (state Route) 73 to Alstead Road is a town road. So what you've done is dissect it - literally, cut in half the Sentinel Range Wilderness Range."
But even if it is ultimately determined that Old Mountain Road is not open to snowmobiles, some believe the decision could have far-reaching implications around the Park.
"I do not believe ... there were too many roads that were closed by the DEC done pursuant to either Highway Law 212 or some other fashion," Norfolk said. "I think the private sector, whether it's mountain bikers, horseback riders, or four-wheelers or snowmobile people, are probably going to be looking at this in the Park."