Rail removal could end snowmobile use

As the debate continues on the fate of the Remsen-Lake Placid rail corridor, I cannot help but wonder if the individuals that enjoy the snowmobiling sport in the Adirondack Park have concern in the back of their minds a proverbial “can of worms” is about to be opened.

In just a few days, the Adirondack Park Agency is expected to weigh in on the State Land Master Plan compliance of the Department of Environmental Conservation Alternate 7 unit management plan revisions, and this could remove a 34-mile portion of the active railroad line between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid. At the present time, and for perhaps another season, the snowmobilers share the corridor with the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. Even though this winter has not provided much in the way of cooperating weather conditions, for many years this co-existing use of the rail corridor has provided communities some source of economic diversity through each tourism season. That all may disappear in more ways that some are expecting.

Not all snowmobilers are certain that sled riding on the railroad corridor, known as C7 in trail identifiers, will continue following a rail-trail conversion. Trail boosters claim that nothing will change in using the C7 corridor. This is not based on any formal statements of support or promises from green groups they won’t challenge snowmobile access with a use change or land classification change if the rails are pulled up. It is based on speculation that the existing travel corridor designation will remain unchanged from the New York State Department of Transportation perspective. The state seems to be moving to redefine the rail corridor by changing the SLMP to read “right of way,” but this also opens up another angle that invites litigation. The state owns much of the underlying land and the railroad corridor in fee simple; how can the state, the common owner of the land and the right of way, have rights against itself? This could be a point of legal discussion, and only time will tell which groups may challenge this position.

Looking at an example provided by the environmental group Protect the Adirondacks, their public position on snowmobile use can provide insight to the battle that may lie ahead for those that enjoy this winter motorized sport. Here are just a few excerpts under “Safety and Public Health”:

“Protect believes that the class II connector ‘trails’ designed to enable greater snowmobile speeds will decrease public safety in Wild Forest areas.

“Improvements in snowmobile speed and performance have been achieved at the expense of noise and emissions abatement. Manifest in the exhaust haze that shrouds Old Forge and Inlet on many winter weekends, snowmobiles are a major source of air pollution, with some models emitting as many pollutants as nearly 100 cars. In connector trailhead communities where snowmobiles congregate, exposure to ground-level ozone, carcinogenic emissions, smog and engine noise will pose a serious threat to public health. This undeniable threat commends the wisdom of Wild Forest Guideline #4’s enjoinder not to encourage snowmobile use.

And under “Envisioning the Future”: “Public policy should be encouraging the reduction of carbon pollution in all forms, particularly from motorized recreation. Moreover, it is in the long-term interest of Adirondack communities to encourage non-motorized winter recreation.”

Protect’s position is based in safety and environmental stewardship against use of the machines in wild forest areas. I cannot begin to imagine a group like this making a promise to support snowmobiling, or to agree not to challenge changing conditions to land classifications that would enable the spread of their ideology.

Another harbinger of difficult times for snowmobiling may come from apathy as the sport diminishes because of well-documented declining sales and registrations, perhaps due to weather, and aging of the population with disposable income. From the perspective of New York state and the rail-trail debate, only out-of-state sled registrations count toward regional economic growth, and this has historically been steady at around 14 percent of all registered snowmobiles. But these are statewide demographics, not local numbers. Considering data available from the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism provided in the most recent 2014 Leisure Survey, only 7.7 percent of respondents’ recreation purpose was snowmobiling. While this winter sport does contribute to the local economy, trail-advocacy-based information seems to create the illusion all of the economic benefit will pass through the Tri-Lakes region.

Also appearing in the Leisure Survey was this statement: “Skiing and riding and cycling did not rank as highly among 2014 respondents as they had in the two years prior.” Transportation issues have also been mentioned as problematic, and this statement was made recently by Jim McKenna of ROOST: “As we look at the younger demographics, especially from urban areas, really the younger demographics drive everything right now,” he said. “They are not as well connected to cars and everything else, and I see that as a larger challenge for us in the future.” These concerns may have been factors that contributed to recent decisions by Harrietstown and Franklin County community leaders who appear to have economic diversity in mind by choosing to support rail corridor improvement and enhancements.

In a sense, many snowmobiling advocates have wagered the use of the C7 corridor by supporting the trail boosters in calling for removal of the rails. While weather conditions cannot be controlled, most likely there will be many winters yet to come where copious amounts of snow make the Remsen-Lake Placid rail corridor safe for snowmobile travel. In light of the ever-present possibility of challenges from environmental groups, and the declining economic impact of the sport influencing tourism decision making, snowmobilers who have not accepted this wager are urged to resolve their support for continued coexistence on the C7 Remsen-Lake Placid rail corridor. Preserving the rails will be an insurance policy so snowmobiling on this corridor will continue into the future.

James Falcsik lives in Irwin, Pennsylvania.






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