Why Do We Let Snowmobiles Drive on “Forever Wild” Forest Preserve?

January 3, 2013

Not only are 1,000 pound, $10,000, 100 mile per hour machines being allowed to drive on forest preserve lands which were to be kept wild forever; but now multi-ton tracked groomers will be driving on so-called “trails” and on bridges, complete with reflectors for night driving and made to support 10,000 pounds, to make smooth the way for snowmobiles. This article is about how and why these “motorized toys” were allowed into the tent in the first place.

By the 1950′s, 350 pound snow machines were buzzing all over the forest preserve wherever they could and wanted to go. Conservationists were disturbed by the destruction of the “peace and quiet” promised in 1894 by David McClure, head of the constitutional convention committee responsible for promoting the (presently numbered) Article XIV amendment of the NYS constitution.

After thirteen years of on-the-ground study of the Adirondacks by the Joint Legislative Committee on Natural Resources (JLCNR), the determination in 1964 was that no motor vehicles of any kind should drive on forest preserve trails, and many open automobile roads should be closed. It was assumed that the “wild” in “wild forest lands” had to mean non-motorized. Natural “soundscapes” and pure air were as important to maintaining wildness as the landscape itself.

To protect at least some forest preserve from motors, Clarence Petty and J. Watson Pomeroy were authorized to recommend areas to be designated “wilderness”, where the land was especially wild because of remoteness, wetlands or rough terrain. These areas would be protected from any motorized degradation by closing all roads and having strict regulation against mechanized use.

After an opinion by Attorney General Lefkowitz that said the DEC commissioner had the authority to control or ban motors on forest preserve, though abiding by constitutional and statutory provisions, Pomeroy withdrew the proposed wilderness legislation. According to Petty who was well acquainted with DEC Commissioner Harold Wilm, he was not at all interested in “conservation” of the forest preserve. Wilm assured the JLCNR that he supported the committee’s recommendation banning motors, but at a NYS Conservation Council (sportsmen’s) meeting on October 3, 1964, Wilm announced that motor vehicles would be banned on forest preserve trails, except for snowmobiles when the ground was covered with ice and snow! This surprise announcement caused great consternation and threats of a lawsuit. But after some restrictions were put on where snowmobiles could go, there was no further action by conservationists.

Another chance to ban snowmobiles came in 1969 when the conservation community agreed that snowmobiles were unconstitutional on forest preserve trails. They argued against “zoning” forest preserve into “Wilderness” and “Wild Forest” because the latter would then be considered less than “wilderness”, therefore inevitably a throw away zone. But under extreme pressure from the snowmobile lobby, including sportsmen, manufacturers, sellers of snowmobiles and owners of bars and motels in the Park, snow machines were written into the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (APSLMP), with some restrictions. However, in the Introduction to the SLMP was language that noted some uses in it had never been litigated, but that natural resource protection in forest preserve was paramount.

Though never mentioned in the APSLMP, natural sound is now considered by most biologists as well as ordinary citizens to be one of the rarest and most valued natural resources of a wild forest.

About the author. Evelyn Greene, a PROTECT board member and Adirondack resident for 36 years, is a self-trained naturalist and writer who snowshoes, skis, hikes, and carries solo canoes to backcountry ponds and bogs.

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