Counties: Appeal trail cutting ruling

Class II snowmobile trails are wider and more heavily built than regular foot trails. Protect the Adirondacks sued the state Department of Environmental Conservation over trees cut to build one of these trails. (Photo provided by Protect the Adirondacks)

The New York State Association of Counties is calling on the state to appeal a recent Appellate Court decision ruling that the state cutting trees to construct snowmobile trails in the Forest Preserve is not constitutional.

NYSAC, on behalf of its Adirondack counties, is urging Gov. Andrew Cuomo, state Attorney General Letitia James and the Department of Environmental Conservation to appeal that decision.

“This ruling is a severe setback to the people of New York state, and interferes with those who choose to enjoy the stated purpose of the great state park: outdoor recreation and forest preservation in harmony,” NYSAC Executive Director Stephen J. Acquario said in a statement.

Earlier this month, the state Appellate Division Third Department ruled that the DEC must halt planned construction of a trail intended for snowmobile and hiker use.

A key portion of the decision was based on the definition of the word “timber.” The court decided to overturn the DEC’s definition of the word, which referred to trees at least 3 inches in diameter at breast height, to embrace a definition that encompasses all trees.

The environmental group Protect the Adirondacks leveled the lawsuit at the DEC and state Adirondack Park Agency. The lower court originally ruled in those two agencies’ favor, but the Appellate Division, Third Department reversed that.

According to Protect, the lawsuit was started in 2013, injunctions against further tree cutting were ordered in 2016, and a bench trial was held at state Supreme Court in 2017.

By statutory and constitutional authority, the DEC designs, constructs, and maintains all trails in Adirondack Forest Preserve.

NYSAC said in a news release that the DEC has always created trails there with two main principles in mind: maintaining the integrity of the Adirondack Forest Preserve and allowing for sustainable access into the preserve for the public to enjoy.

The lawsuit was already underway when 11 trails totaling 27 miles long were approved by the DEC and APA in 2014.

DEC’s goal with the trails were to protect the Adirondack Forest Preserve by minimizing existing environmental concerns and overuse on unofficial trails, according to NYSAC, which cited the moving of existing snowmobile trails to the edge of the Forest Preserve and away from areas that are more susceptible to damage as an example.

Protect challenged the constitutionality of the project, saying it would cut more than 25,000 trees. The state plans had described the cutting of 6,184 trees that measured at least 3 inches in diameter at breast height.

Protect argued that the state’s definition of timber was too narrow, in that it did not also include narrow but mature trees.

The court also agreed with a previous determination on the definition of timber, saying it refers to all trees, regardless of size.

NYSAC agrees with the court’s dissenting opinion, which defined this trail project to be reasonable under the constitution because the trail is limited in its small tree removal and “(w)hatever the advantages may be of having wild forest lands preserved in their natural state, the advantages are for everyone within the (s)tate and for the use of the people of the (s)tate.”

“Ultimately, the new trail would promote and maintain the integrity of the Adirondack Forest Preserve by promoting access along a carefully constructed, sustainable trail, planned through environmental forestry management principles by expert staff at the DEC,” Acquario said. “These principles would minimize the environmental impact while also preserving and stewarding public lands for the public to enjoy. We urge the state to appeal to a higher level of authority.”