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Van Ho trees were cut on Forest Preserve, too

ORDA made request after public planning process, bargained with green groups so they wouldn’t sue

Recent tree clearing at the Olympic Sports Complex at Mount Van Hoevenberg is seen from an airplane on Aug. 13. The combined bobsled-skeleton-luge track is at top, parking lots are at right, new cross-country ski trails are at left, a new base lodge will be built at center, and at bottom is the former cross-country ski parking lot which will become a new ski stadium and biathlon shooting range. (Provided photo — Willie Janeway, Adirondack Council)

LAKE PLACID — Tree cutting to make way for new amenities at the Mount Van Hoevenberg Olympic Sports Complex has not only happened on town land but also on the state Forest Preserve.

The state constitution says the Forest Preserve must be forever wild and that timber may not be sold, removed or destroyed, but a court interpretation from 1930 gives state agencies leeway for some exceptions.

The state Olympic Regional Development Authority — which is overseeing an estimated $60 million upgrade to the venues for Nordic skiing, biathlon, bobsled, skeleton and luge at Mount Van Hoevenberg — quietly received authorization to cut trees in the Forest Preserve earlier this year through an administrative process that includes approval from a regional forester and the director of the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Lands and Forests, according to the DEC.

The DEC approved the cutting after the 2018 approval of a unit management plan amendment, which had said no tree cutting would be necessary on Forest Preserve lands.

ORDA later told DEC it needed to cut 3,528 trees to make space for an Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant drop-off lane to serve its new $32 million, three-story base lodge, according to documents obtained by the Enterprise.

The state Olympic Regional Development Authority initially planned to cut 3,528 trees on state Forest Preserve land, including both the red and green areas highlighted here. After the Adirondack Council and Protect the Adirondacks voiced opposition, ORDA revised the scope to include 1,500 trees, pictured in green. Most of the tree cutting was on North Elba town land, lined off in the upper right area of this map. (Provided image — Adirondack Council)

At least two environmental advocacy groups expressed strong opposition to that plan. In response, ORDA pared that number down to 1,500 trees.

The state authority completed all its tree cutting on the Forest Preserve before July 3, according to the DEC. That’s when a state appellate court issued a landmark decision in a separate case regarding DEC cutting for a snowmobile trail, ruling that cutting trees in the Forest Preserve, regardless of their size, is not constitutional. Both New York state and Protect the Adirondacks, which leveled the 2013 lawsuit against two state agencies, plan to appeal parts of the ruling.

Green groups: Cutting OK if constitution is amended

Logs and what appears to be wood chips are piled at the Olympic Sports Complex at Mount Van Hoevenberg on July 21. The trees were cut for construction involved with an overhaul of the winter sports venues. (Enterprise photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

ORDA proposed cutting trees in the Forest Preserve after an amendment to the Mount Van Hoevenberg Unit Management Plan was approved last summer.

That amendment, which went through a public hearing process, said “none of the proposed management actions will require the cutting of any trees on Forest Preserve lands.”

Protect the Adirondacks raised concerns at the time about the amount of tree cutting that would be necessary in the Forest Preserve to facilitate the scope of the work proposed by ORDA, according to Protect the Adirondacks Executive Director Peter Bauer. In March, Bauer posted criticism of the plan on Protect’s website.

After the UMP amendment was authorized, ORDA conducted an engineering review that deemed tree cutting in the Forest Preserve necessary, both for ADA compliance and to ensure safe traffic patterns, according to an Environmental Notice Bulletin posted by the DEC in February.

“We had a meeting with ORDA. The DEC was there. We said, ‘You’ve got to reduce this cutting,'” said Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council. “‘It can’t be this substantial.'”

The cutting was later pared down to 1,500 trees, a number that both Protect and the Adirondack Council still opposed. But both organizations agreed not to sue the state as long as the DEC and ORDA would help to prepare, and support, a constitutional amendment.

A constitutional amendment requires approval by the state legislature twice, with an election in between, and then by a majority of all voters in a statewide referendum.

The proposed amendment would essentially authorize certain activities at Mount Van Hoevenberg similar to those already allowed at Gore and Whiteface downhill ski areas, according to Bauer.

“There have been long-standing violations of Article 14 (at Mount Van Hoevenberg) that go back to the 1980 Olympics,” he said.

Article 14 of the state constitution says that state Forest Preserve land can’t “be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.”

“Those violations need to be cleaned up in a constitutional amendment that authorizes activities on Forest Preserve so ORDA can manage a competitive sports complex,” Bauer said.

ORDA Communications Director Jon Lundin has confirmed that the trees cut in the Forest Preserve can’t leave the Forest Preserve.

ORDA has not yet confirmed whether any of the trees have been chipped, but huge piles of chips have been seen on the site, at one point alongside logs that are no longer there. Bauer said the authority told him that all of the trees were chipped in place, ground up and spread along the trails.

He said that by chipping the trees in place, they aren’t being removed or sold, which would be outlawed in the state constitution. But he said “one could argue” chipping means that timber is being destroyed.

Janeway said in the past, courts have interpreted minor cutting for trails or bridges to be consistent with managing forever wild Forest Preserve. He cited a 1930 case which involved Mount Van Hoevenberg as an example, Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks v. McDonald, when the state appeals court declared that “reasonable” cutting of trees is allowed if it’s necessary to enable the public to safely use Forest Preserve lands as long as the cutting is “immaterial.”

That court decision doesn’t interpret Article 14 as absolutely limiting tree cutting but as allowing some cutting of Forest Preserve in certain specific circumstances.

Another court decision, in the 1993 Balsam Lake Anglers Club v. DEC case, affirmed the McDonald decision: “Only those activities involving the removal of timber ‘to any material degree’ will run afoul of the constitutional provision.”

ORDA: Cutting necessary

The new base lodge at Mount Van Hoevenberg is set to include lounges, a cafe and gift shop, space for the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, and amenities for hikers, recreational skiers and competitive athletes.

The tree cutting on Forest Preserve lands will open up space for a streamlined access point, according to ORDA Communications Director Jon Lundin.

“It makes for easier access to the base lodge for a formal drop off area, meeting ADA compliance and it also gives easier access to the Nordic center’s trail system for the recreational guest,” Lundin wrote in an email. “Finally, it allows better access for maintenance to the bobsled track.”

Other work planned at the sports complex includes the construction of a new cross-country ski stadium; two “mountain coasters,” one for recreation and another for transportation; the addition of more cross-country ski trails and updated trailheads — relocated away from state Route 73, where there isn’t enough parking — that would connect to Cascade, Porter and Pitchoff mountains; and the incorporation of a new 8-million gallon snowmaking reservoir with storage.

Most of that work is planned on land owned by the town of North Elba for which the state has a permanent easement. North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi has directed the town attorney to find out whether the town has the authority to sell the trees ORDA cut on that land.

The trees cut on state Forest Preserve can’t be removed from the site, however. ORDA has separated the trees cut on town land and those from state land, according to Lundin. The hardwood from the town land is still stacked on site.

Construction is projected to last roughly 26 months, according to ORDA CEO Michael Pratt. The base lodge is expected to open in the winter of 2021, and the other work, including the installation of new trails and stadium construction, is scheduled for completion in 2021 or 2022.