Who got it wrong?

The New York Court of Appeals’ recent ruling against extra wide Class 11 snowmobile trails in the Adirondack Forest Preserve has unleashed a flurry of conflicting opinions over who got it wrong and who got it right.

Marc Gerstman, a former deputy commissioner at the state Department of Environmental Conservation, in his opinion piece in the June 21 issue of the Enterprise in which he argued that the court had got its judgement wrong, predictably enough resulted in a number of heated responses from those who Gerstman described as “so-called environmentalists” and “a few misguided zealots.” In contrast, they felt that the court had got it right by ruling that the DEC and the Adirondack Park Agency had violated Article 14, Section 1, the “forever wild” clause of the state constitution, by seeking to clear 25,000 trees for the construction of 27 miles of trail from North Hudson, Newcomb, Minerva and Indian Lake.

James McMartin Long, the vice chair of Protect the Adirondacks that had been one of the environmental groups that had sued the DEC and the APA over its snowmobile building plans, in his opinion piece of June 25 with a similarly ad hominem response, maintained that Gerstman, before he had joined the DEC, had been part of lawsuits that opposed APA snowmobile trails maintenance and construction, but it was “curious” he had neglected to mention his current about turn in his opinion piece.

One might surmise that perhaps Gerstman’s five years (2011-2016) working with the DEC might have been responsible for this turnabout. In his own words, he, as a government official, was forced to approach “complex land preservation issues with [his] eyes and ears open to legitimate concerns expressed by interested stakeholders regardless of political stripes.” In this more rough and tumble world of “conflicting perspectives,” legalistic haggling over when a sapling becomes a tree must have rapidly lost its salience.

In addition, the “forever wild” clause in the state’s constitution has been applied in a decidedly uneven fashion to different areas of the park. The Route 73/86/3 corridor, with the greatest population concentration, has benefited considerably by extensive infrastructure development in the park which includes Whiteface Mountain, New York state’s premier ski resort, the Mount Van Hoevenberg cross-country ski center and bobsled and luge complex, the Lake Placid Olympic Jumping Complex, and several golf courses. There is far more access into the High Peaks area of the Adirondacks than elsewhere with several trailheads with extensive parking. In addition, there are two lodges: Johns Brook and the Adirondak Loj at Heart Lake, which offer meals and overnight accommodation.

In contrast, the 28N/28 corridor in the south east of the park is far more “forever wild” with little development on either side of these highways. The communities in the area, such as Minerva and Newcomb, lack supermarkets and gas stations. Indian Lake at least has two gas stations, but a few years ago lost its supermarket, and residents have to go either to North Creek (17 miles) or even Glens Falls (50 miles) for grocery shopping.

Undoubtedly, the most forlorn indication of decline is the ghost town of Tahawus. During World War II, when titanium was in demand for the war effort the settlement that had begun as an iron mining site in the 19th century had 84 buildings, including a bank. In 1962, this came to an end as the mining company moved its headquarters to Newcomb, and eventually went out of operation in 1989. Currently Mitchell Stone, a Tupper Lake company, is crushing the tailings from the mining site for construction aggregate, and one of the workers comes from Newcomb. However, this is a summer seasonal operation and the “forever wild” forest inexorably continues to overrun what was once the thriving community of Tahawus. In a similar fashion, North Hudson, at the eastern edge of the Park, also has gone into decline since its Frontier Town theme park closed in 1998.

A few snowmobile trails will obviously not arrest this decline, but if what exists in the Inlet/Moose River Recreation and Old Forge areas is any indication snowmobiling can play a significant role in extending tourism, upon which the Adirondack economy depends, into the winter months. Snowmobilers spend more money than hikers, and the sport creates more employment. Twenty-five thousand trees/saplings are a small price to pay for this benefit in an area that contains trillions of trees. Cutting some down will be even more insignificant given that this is to be spread out over a distance of 27 miles.

In the early part of the 20th century, “forever wild” was a necessary push back against what was then unrestricted and destructive forest clearing along with terrible forest fires ignited from fire-box sparks spewed out by steam locomotives. This is hardly the case today and an over-zealous protection of all trees in the park is as obsolete as the Second Amendment’s stipulation that this country needs “a well-regulated militia.” A highly restrictive application of “forever wild” applied to some areas of the park and not others can only be described as manifestly unfair.

I am no snowmobiler and have never even ridden on one as they strike me as an extremely chilly way to travel when it’s well below zero degrees. All of my activity in the great outdoors is human powered: hiking, cross-country skiing, climbing, mountain biking and paddling, but I don’t want to be the proverbial dog in the manger and demand that everyone else do it my way.

Indeed, I can see some personal benefit from 12-foot wide graded snowmobile trails. When the snow melts, they can become biking trails, not just single-track trails for mountain bikers, but more akin to what the biking world describes as gravel grinder trails. Here, once again the Route 73/86/3 corridor is ahead as the Remsen/Lake Placid railroad is currently being transformed into a rail trail, and the section between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake is already rideable though still pretty rough. In this case, the trailbed is more like 16 than 12 feet in width, and there is far more grading and bridging than anything like that planned for the North Hudson/Newcomb/Minerva/Indian Lake trail.

Roger Gocking lives in Saranac Lake.


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