Judge sends snowmobile trail lawsuit to trial

A lawsuit filed against the state for cutting trees to make new snowmobile trails has been sent to trial after both the plaintiff and the state were denied summary judgments in the case this week.

Protect the Adirondacks had filed the suit in 2013 over the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s construction of “community connector” snowmobile trails. Protect argued that building the trails, which can be 12 feet wide, violated laws against taking timber on state lands.

In a press release issued Wednesday, Protect’s Executive Director Peter Bauer said, “We have documented the actual or planned destruction of over 31,000 trees on trails that have been built, or where construction was planned or underway, and the vast changes to the Forest Preserve from construction practices that are very different from those used on foot trails. We believe that construction of this new network of trails is a different type of use of the Forest Preserve and requires a constitutional amendment.”

Acting State Supreme Court Justice Gerald Connolly set a trial start date of March 1.

“In its decision to send this matter to trial, the Supreme Court repeatedly referenced the recent Court of Appeals decision in the Friends of Thayer Lake v. Brown case, which involves public navigation rights in the Adirondacks. That decision reversed lower court rulings on motions for summary judgment, and sent the case back to the Supreme Court for a trial to develop a more complete record,” the release said.

Protect says that “the purpose of the trial in court on the current Article 14 lawsuit will be to develop a complete factual record where there are serious matters in dispute over what constitutes a tree, the historic interpretation of what ‘timber’ means in the NYS Constitution, the ecological benefits of closing interior trails to snowmobiles, and whether the construction of class II snowmobile trails constitutes an improper use of the Forest Preserve due to dramatic changes in terrain.

“Unlike other trails built on the Forest Preserve, new ‘class II community connector snowmobile trails’ are excavated with heavy machinery to remove large boulders and stumps, utilize extensive bench cutting along trailsides, grade and flatten a wide trail surface area, remove thousands of trees over 3 inches diameter at breast height (DBH), remove thousands more trees under 3 inches DBH, remove the entire native understory, often replace the native understory with a grass mix, open the forest canopy, fracture and chip away bedrock, utilize oversized bridges often equipped with reflectors, and are built to handle operation of motor vehicles at high rates of speed.

“No other recreational activity in the Forest Preserve requires such intensive tree cutting, terrain alteration and destruction of natural resources.

“This decision shows the seriousness and merits of our arguments,” Bauer said. “The court refused the state’s demand to dismiss our case.”