INLET — A injunction that stopped tree cutting along the Class II Community Connector snowmobile trail between Raquette Lake and Indian Lake remains in force as courts await decisions on appeal.
Plans to build the 12.8-mile Seventh Mountain Trail in Moose River Plains Wild Forest were launched by the state Department of Environmental Conservation in 2013.
Protect the Adirondacks, a Lake George-based environmental group, sued soon after, alleging that construction of the Class II style of snowmobile trail violates the Forever Wild clause in New York’s constitution.
The case is set to go to bench trial in Albany State Supreme Court in March.
Originally planned as a “connector,” the trail was aligned and designed to join existing Moose River Plains Wild Forest trails, which form “the center of a trail system that connects to Newcomb in Essex County and Old Forge in Herkimer County,” according to DEC’s plan.
To focus snowmobile use on connector trails at the edges of preserve lands, DEC closed 46 miles of snowmobile trails in more remote areas and reclassified 15,000 acres of Moose River Plains Wild Forest as Wilderness.
DEC also closed two miles of roads on the state property.
Despite permitting and Adirondack Park Agency approvals, the project drew legal fire soon after it began.
A final ruling on Protect’s legal stance could set precedent for construction methods and terms of tree cutting on New York’s Wild Forest land.
“There are two case items on a parallel track,” Bauer said in a recent interview with the Sun.
“In the main case (filed in 2013), we filed paperwork in November corresponding to the state’s request for summary judgment. The state (via the attorney general’s office) is asking the judge to dismiss the case or to limit the arguments brought to a bench trial.”
Protect contends, as it has since the early incarnation of Adirondack Park snowmobile plans 11 years ago, that 8-foot to 12-foot wide sled trails are not consistent with constitutional forest preserve protection.
“There are two main issues, one is that the construction of these Class II connector trails violates the state constitution because of the number of trees cut,” Bauer said.
“We’ve calculated that they are cutting a thousand trees per mile, counting all trees from 1-inch to 40-inches in diameter,” Bauer said.
“The other argument we’re making is that it is not just the impact on the state constitution’s Forever Wild clause. We think that the (tree) cuts made violate use of Wild Forest,” Bauer said.
DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said last summer that the department worked carefully to plan the trail with minimal impact on state lands.
“And at the same time, (DEC) is eliminating other trails that are redundant, unsafe and intrude into more remote areas of the Forest Preserve,” Seggos said when Albany Supreme Court Judge Gerald Connolly lifted an Appellate Court ban on tree cutting last summer.
The trail was about half cut when Appellate justices halted the process again.
Class II Connector trails are different from foot trails in the forest preserve because they are much wider and cleared of rocks.
“They are graded with heavy equipment,” Bauer said, likening the trail work to road construction.
“They (DEC) are also building very large bridges that can hold vehicles that weigh several tons, which are the trail groomers.”
Among other concerns, Bauer said, is science that shows 9-foot to 12-foot-wide trails create a route for invasive species.
“And we’ve documented two instance where invasive species have already infested newly constructed Class II Community Connector trails, Japanese knotweed and common ragweed.”
The Class II connector trail system is designed to provide more snowmobile access between towns in the central Adirondacks.
In fact, in July 2015, DEC also approved a Community Connector Class II trail between Newcomb, Minerva and North Hudson, which utilizes the edge of the as-yet-unclassified Boreas Ponds tract.
In their plan, DEC explained that: “These trails are located in the periphery of Wild Forest or other Forest Preserve areas. They are always located as close as possible to motorized travel corridors, given safety, terrain and environmental constraints, and only rarely are any segments of them located further than one mile away from the nearest of these corridors.
“They are not duplicated or paralleled by other snowmobile trails. Some can be short, linking communities to longer Class II trails that connect two or more other communities,” DEC says of its design.
The state is looking to improve business and heighten economic impact to the winter economy in central parts of the park.
“This will bring positive, on‐going, economic impacts to the Adirondack communities. Impact will be in the form of increased business investment in the community, increased tax revenue, and possibly more year‐round business and employment opportunities,” DEC says in the 2015 Class II trail plan for Minerva, Newcomb and North Hudson.
DEC defends its Class II trail system as beneficial to the more protected Wilderness Areas.
“Shifting of recreational traffic to the periphery of Forest Preserve units and along transportation corridors should decrease user conflicts and wildlife impacts,” they explained in the trail plan.
Further Class II snowmobile trail development may hinge on the case brought by Protect against DEC and APA.
The central constitutional matter is in a holding pattern, Bauer said.
“We are appealing the Supreme Court’s decision not to give us an injunction. The appellate court halted further tree cutting until the appeal has been ruled upon.
“If that appeal is not decided until June or July next year, then the temporary ban on tree cutting remains in effect. We see this as a high stakes lawsuit with regard to the forest preserve.”
Oral arguments on the case were held in Albany State Supreme Court on Dec. 5.
DEC had hoped to open the Seventh Mountain Trail by fall 2017.
The Minerva, Newcomb, North Hudson “Roosevelt Truck Trail” Class II Connector is planned in four segments to connect with Gulf Brook Road in Boreas with about 10 miles of new trailways aligned to existing snowmobile trails and a railroad bed.