State lets itself bypass ‘forever wild’

New York state has a double standard for its Adirondack Forest Preserve: It can let its own agencies break the law, but no one else can.

Earlier this year, the state Department of Environmental Conservation let the state Olympic Regional Development Authority cut trees on Forest Preserve land as it overhauls the Olympic Sports Complex at Mount Van Hoevenberg. ORDA’s unit management plan for the area specified that it would only cut on town land, not state land, but then, after a public process by which the state Adirondack Park Agency approved that plan, ORDA quietly went back to DEC and got an exception made. It would have to cut on neighboring state land after all, ORDA said.

The general public was left in the dark about this, but environmental groups became aware of it and bargained ORDA down from 3,500 to 1,500 trees.

A 1930 court decision lets the state make exceptions for itself to the state constitution’s Article 14, which says the Forest Preserve must be forever wild and that its timber may not be sold, removed or destroyed. Given that precedent, the wilderness advocates decided that 1,500 trees aren’t worth suing over.

Granted, we’re not going to sue, either. And that’s what the state is counting on. But we are going to speak up.

We just want to point out how things are: If a town needs to cut on Forest Preserve to drill a new well for its people, or expand its cemetery, it has to go through the multi-year constitutional amendment process, which involves getting approval from two separately elected state legislatures plus a referendum of every voter in the state. But if a state agency changes its mind and decides it does need to cut state trees, despite its approved plan that said it wouldn’t, it can wrap the whole thing up in a couple of months by quietly bargaining with private advocacy groups.

If a forest ranger catches an Adirondack camper cutting a branch off a tree for firewood, that camper can be issued a ticket and a fine, and only a judge can grant leniency. But DEC can let ORDA cut down 1,500 trees.

Doesn’t seem fair somehow.

Weirdest of all, the state has decided that even if it cuts trees, it cannot remove them from the property — so it’s chipping them and spreading them out in the woods.

That seems a lot like destroying the timber, which Article 14 prohibits, and also a lot like waste, which isn’t good for anyone.

Wouldn’t it be more in the public interest, and the spirit of the Constitution, that if the state is going to let itself break the law, at least it could come up with a public-benefit silver lining? For instance, it could use the wood to power the state agency headquarters in Ray Brook, which now have a biomass power plant. Or better yet, the state could give the wood to low-income families, the way the Paul Smith’s College forestry program does with trees its students cut.

We’re not against cutting trees, or new winter sports venues. We are in favor of these Olympic Sports Complex upgrades. They are exciting and will help make Lake Placid more world-renowned for Olympic winter sports. We’re just not for double standards, or waste.

What’s done is done, but next time this kind of thing comes around — and it will, eventually — let’s handle it in a more open, fair manner.