Ruling allows snowmobile use on contested road

INDIAN LAKE — A court ruling this week should allow the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s plan to use one mile of a road near the Hudson River for a snowmobile trail, even though that stretch of river is classified as ‘Wild.’

Several years ago, the DEC proposed a roughly 20-mile snowmobile connector trail between the hamlets of Indian Lake and Minerva, which would utilize roads in the Essex Chain Lakes Wild Forest. However, the trail would require use of the Chain Lakes Road (South), one mile of which is located within a half-mile of the Hudson River.

With that Wild designation under the Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers System Act, motorized use within a half-mile of the river is supposed to be severely restricted, but the DEC argued in court that motorized use in that area pre-dates the Wild designation.

In a ruling this week, the state Court of Appeals agreed with the DEC, and said the department’s decision to allow seasonal motorized use was not “arbitrary or capricious.” The lawsuit was brought by Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, an Adirondack green group.

“Chain Lakes Road was designated a highway in the late 1800s and Finch continued the historic land uses from the time it purchased the property in the 1890s,” the court’s ruling says. “From the 1940s onward, after Finch initiated larger-scale logging operations, the roadway was subject to heavy commercial use as the company frequently drove cars, Jeeps, ten-wheel tractor-trailers and trucks on Chain Lakes Road to transport pulp and logs.

“Based on these facts, DEC’s determination that the limited, seasonal motor vehicle use authorized in the Complex Plan on the disputed portion of roadway constituted a continuation of an existing land use was not irrational.

“It was rational for DEC to conclude that the contemplated use of the disputed one-mile portion of the road during the winter and hunting season would not necessarily alter or expand the prior use.”

DEC’s plan for the disputed section of road includes allowing seasonal access to three parking areas during the state’s big game hunting season, which runs roughly from the end of October through mid-December each year, and snowmobile access during the winter.

The lands in question were owned and used for logging by Finch-Pruyn, which sold the land to The Nature Conservancy. After several years of stewardship, TNC sold the land to the state and it was included in the Forest Preserve.

Despite this ruling, the community connector trail between Minerva and Indian Lake is still being held up in court, as the DEC’s plan also involves constructing a new bridge over the Cedar River, which flows into the Hudson upstream of the area contested in this week’s ruling.

Earlier this month, a state judge issued a stay in another lawsuit that alleges the bridge over the Cedar River also violates the Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers act. The stay was issued because yet another court is determining whether the DEC can cut down trees to build trails.

David Gibson, a managing partner with Adirondack Wild, did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.