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Snowmobile decision a setback to conservation and state/local relations

The New York State Court of Appeals last month ruled that a new type of snowmobile trail is unconstitutional, and that decision is now the law. New York state and Adirondack communities must now find a way to work together so that good Forest Preserve projects that provide community benefits can move forward. But it is important to these discussions to set the record straight and respond to a recent lopsided op-ed penned in the wake of the decision.

The May 12, 2021, column “Class II is nothing like a hiking trail” by Peter Bauer leaves the erroneous impression that the Cuomo administration, and the Department of Environmental Conservation in particular, were out to destroy the Forest Preserve by pursuing the construction of 27 miles of “community connector” or Class II snowmobile trails. In fact, DEC’s commitment to pursue Class II trails was an essential part of a plan to add 69,000 acres of land to the Forest Preserve and significantly reduce the presence of snowmobiles in the more remote, interior areas of the Preserve. DEC’s plan would have benefitted host communities, visitors and residents of the park by expanding access to the Forest Preserve while improving its wild forest character.

The 27 miles of snowmobile trails that DEC proposed were part of a commitment I made to local governments in the park when i was commissioner of DEC. My agreement to pursue the construction of these trails in conjunction with the necessary Master Plan classifications enabled local governments, in good faith, to support the state’s acquisition of the fabled Finch, Pruyn lands. I don’t use the word “fabled” lightly. The Finch lands include iconic, sweeping landscapes like the Boreas Ponds, OK Slip Falls, the Essex Chain of Lakes, miles of river frontage on the Hudson and Opalescent rivers, and much more.

As Enterprise readers may recall, most of the 27 towns affected by this acquisition supported it, and none opposed it, despite their legal right under state law to veto those parts of the acquisition lying within their respective jurisdictions. Importantly, the five towns that contained the lion’s share of the Finch lands — Newcomb, Indian Lake, Minerva, North Hudson and Long Lake — all approved the acquisition based on the hope and anticipation that it would improve economic development in the region by providing a wide variety of new recreational opportunities, including snowmobiling, hiking, canoeing and horseback riding. In short, without the state’s commitment to help realize our shared vision, this acquisition of the crown jewel of the Forest Preserve never would have happened: The towns would have vetoed the acquisition, and residents and park visitors would not now be enjoying the unparalleled recreational opportunities that these lands offer.

The Class II multi-use trails struck down by a recent Court of Appeals decision would have been located primarily on the periphery of the Forest Preserve near public highways or on existing wood roads, and construction of these trails would have allowed for the elimination of existing snowmobile trails in remote, interior sections of the Preserve. The decision unfortunately reverses a positive environmental outcome but also seriously erodes trust between the state and the park’s local governments. And because of this decision, some local governments may understandably decide to use their veto power to prevent further additions to the Forest Preserve. In sum, the lawsuit set back the cause of conservation in the park. Community support for land protection is critical. It makes it possible and long lasting and contributes to sustainable economic activity.

For the record, I think the Court of Appeals majority decision is deeply flawed, misreading the 1930s MacDonald decision on which it relies. Moreover, it offers little guidance to DEC going forward on what constitutes an unconstitutional “material “or “substantial” degree of timber cutting. The dissenting opinion written by Judge Stein, concurred by Chief Judge DiFiore, is well reasoned, and I encourage everyone interested in this issue to read it. However, since the majority opinion is the law of the state, DEC now has the difficult task of determining how to comply with it for any tree-cutting activity it undertakes in the Forest Preserve, and in determining how to repair the state’s relationship with local governments.

Joe Martens lives in Lake Placid and was commissioner of the DEC from 2011 to 2015.

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