ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) – It’s taken 11 years, the efforts of two groups, miles of felled logs and a dispute over the definition of a tree, but this week everything has come to a head.
On Tuesday, the New York State Court of Appeals deemed a state plan to create 300 miles of new snowmobile trails through the Adirondack Park to be unconstitutional.
The victor of the 4-2 decision was Protect the Adirondacks!, a nonprofit stewardship group that started speaking out early on against the project, in talks with then-New York Governor George Pataki.
“We kept arguing, ‘You’ve got these constitutional limits on what you can do, and it seems to us that what you’re planning to do will violate that,'” said Protect the Adirondacks! Executive Director Peter Bauer. “And they blew us off.”
The relevant part of the state constitution is Article 14, Section 1, which reads in relevant part:
“The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the Forest Preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.”
Protect the Adirondacks! sued the state in 2017, but their work started years earlier. The plan was first formally proposed in 2009, and when Adirondack Council, another stewardship group, tried to legally challenge it then, they were told there was nothing that could be done when no trees had been damaged yet.
That damage became both the price of, and the keystone to, Tuesday’s decision.
The state began to fell trees in 2013, in areas around Racquette Lake; Moose River; the start of a path between Newcomb and Minerva; and through Wilmington. Once the chopping of trees and leveling of park ground was underway, Protect the Adirondacks! members went out to start collecting photo evidence of the damage.
The DEC cut through 27 of the 300 miles they had planned on, covering around 27 acres of forest, which currently stand as strips of new grass and changed terrain cutting through parkland.
Meanwhile, the state was classifying the trees as timber, saying that meant they should be treated with lumber rules that only classify trees as trees if they stand at narrower than three inches at breast height, classifying those broader as a consumable resource.
The counter from the protection group’s expert witnesses was that those trees weren’t marked for lumber; they were on protected land.
“During the trial, they kept saying that these commercial logging standards don’t make any sense,” Bauer said. “We’re talking about a preserve.”
At the trial in 2017, the judge disagreed, ruling with the state and claiming that the number of trees felled was inconsequential. However, that judge said the protection group was correct, and that the use of lumber rules didn’t check out. Every tree should count.
That meant that those 25,000 trees did indeed fall under the state constitution.
The group successfully appealed to the New York Appellate Division, Third Department, in 2019, reversing the court’s decision. From there, COVID-19 slowed the process down, but eventually led to victory for Protect the Adirondacks!.
In a statement, Maureen Wren with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation said:
“While DEC is disappointed by this ruling, we appreciate the Court’s application of the long-standing ruling in the Association for Protection of Adirondacks v Macdonald (253 NY 234 ), which is consistent with DEC’s ongoing efforts to provide access to the forest preserve and protect public safety, including the construction and maintenance of facilities associated with hiking and camping. DEC remains committed to serving as a steward of this essential and irreplaceable resource as we fulfill our statutory duty to manage the Forest Preserve for the use and enjoyment of the public.”
Next, the question is what will become of the completed or partially-completed paths. Bauer suggested having the DEC come up with a plan.