A state Supreme Court justice has rejected an environmental group's attempt to halt construction of a trio of so-called "community connector" snowmobile trails in the Adirondack Forest Preserve because they've already been substantially completed.
However, in ruling on the claims made by Protect the Adirondacks, Albany County Judge George Ceresia Jr. raised serious questions about the state's plans to cut down trees to build more such trails on state land in the future without securing a constitutional amendment.
The judge also rejected the state's motions to dismiss other aspects of Protect's lawsuit, including its claim that the use of tracked groomers to maintain snowmobile trails on Forest Preserve lands is prohibited.
A tracked groomer and a snowmobile pass each other at the Snodeo rally in Old Forge in December 2009. Protect the Adirondacks, an environmental group, is suing the state over tracked groomers, saying they’re unconstitutional in the state Forest Preserve. It’s also suing to stop tree cutting for snowmobile trails.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
Protect asked the court to declare that the cutting of trees for construction of community connector snowmobile trails violates Article 14, the "forever wild" clause, of the state Constitution. It also sought an injunction to prevent future violations.
To back up its arguments, Protect submitted information about the number of trees cut to build three different community connector trails. Citing information from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the group said 2,085 trees were cut to build the new Seventh Lake Mountain Connector Trail between Raquette Lake and Inlet; 666 trees were cut for the Wilmington Connector Trail (with 56 trees left to be cut); and 30 trees were cut for the Gilmantown Snowmobile Connector Trail (with 123 remaining to be cut) linking Wells and Speculator. Based on other connector trails DEC plans to cut in the future, Protect estimated 8,223 trees have been or will be cut.
The judge noted that Protect views the work on the three trails as a single project, but the state considers them separate.
"In viewing the work as a whole, the court must indicate that it has serious concerns about the constitutionality (and administrative policy) of cutting down, now and in the future, thousands of trees throughout the Forest Preserve without any attempt to secure an amendment to (Article 14)," Ceresia wrote.
However, the judge rejected the call for an injunction, noting that all the trees DEC planned to cut for the Seventh Lake trail have already been removed so "there is nothing to enjoin." As for the Wilmington and Gilmantown trails, where the state still plans to cut more trees, Ceresia said the numbers of trees to be cut in each case wouldn't destroy the Forest Preserve "to a substantial extent," citing prior case law.
As for the claim that DEC plans to cut hundreds of miles of snowmobile connector trails in the future, the judge said there wasn't enough evidence presented "to demonstrate that the removal of trees in connection with construction of other snowmobile connector trails is imminent.
"For this reason, the court is of the view that there is no showing of a necessity to issue a preliminary injunction at this time with respect to proposed snowmobile trails which may never be constructed," the judge wrote. "In the event that there is a change in circumstances, Protect may re-apply for such relief."
In a press release issued this week, Protect said it's already done so. It refiled its motion for a preliminary injunction to halt construction of a new community connector snowmobile trail in the Taylor Pond Wild Forest in Clinton County. DEC announced plans for the trail in late July. It said it would cut down 133 trees to build the trail.
Protect has also asked for an order annulling the permits DEC issues to municipalities and snowmobile clubs, allowing them to use tracked groomers to maintain snowmobile trails Forest Preserve lands. The group argues that the use of such vehicles on state land is prohibited under the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan and DEC regulations.
The state asked the judge to dismiss the request on the grounds that Protect failed to include the municipalities and clubs as parties to the action. Ceresia rejected the motion to dismiss, saying the state failed to demonstrate how the rights of the municipalities or snowmobile clubs would be affected.
"They are not, in the court's view, necessary parties," the judge ruled
Ceresia also rejected a motion by the state to convert Protect's claim that community connector trails violate the state Constitution to an Article 78 proceeding.
The judge has directed the state to file an answer to Protect's complaint and petition within 20 days of his ruling, which was issued Aug. 22. The Enterprise wasn't able to determine Friday if that had happened or if the deadline had been extended.
In its press release, Protect said it was pleased the court denied the state's motions to dismiss.
"We look forward to the opportunity to make our final submission to fully substantiate our claims and complete this lawsuit," said Chuck Clusen, the group's chairman.
"This lawsuit is not about removing snowmobile use on the Forest Preserve," Executive Director Peter Bauer said. "It is about making state agencies obey state law and protecting the Forest Preserve from further damage from the construction and grooming of excessively wide road-like trails."
DEC officials have said they don't believe Protect's lawsuit has merit.
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.