Position Statement: Snowmobile Use of the Forest Preserve
By Michael Wilson, Conservation Advocacy Committee, Protect the Adirondacks
Protect the Adirondacks calls upon the new Cuomo administration to review the compliance with the SLMP of the “Management Guidance: Snowmobile Trail Siting, Construction, and Maintenance on Forest Preserve Lands in the Adirondack Park,” and to request the Attorney General’s opinion about its constitutional consistency. We ask the administration to declare those provisions it supports and those it opposes, as well as to identify those it regards as requiring an amendment of the SLMP.
Throughout a decade-long effort by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to frame a comprehensive Snowmobile Plan for the Forest Preserve, Protect the Adirondacks! (Protect) and other conservation advocacy organizations frequently registered objections to enabling unauthorized motorized uses in order to accommodate significant increases in the intensity of snowmobile use. But a history of judicial decisions and directives1 combined with the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) staff’s repeated warnings about non-compliance2 fostered confidence that the Agency would uphold the established meanings of Constitutional Article XIV (XIV) and the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (SLMP). This confidence was misplaced: the APA has consented to the DEC’s misguided planning.
On November 12, 2009 the APA Commissioners voted to adopt new guidelines for snowmobile use of Wild Forest lands, and a resolution of compliance with the SLMP (Link 1). “Management Guidance: Snowmobile Trail Siting, Construction, and Maintenance on Forest Preserve Lands in the Adirondack Park” (Guidance, Link 2), subsequently approved for implementation in the DEC’s Jessup River and Moose River Plains Wild Forest unit management plans, creates a new class ( II ) of “Community Connector Trails” which authorize
• widening trails from 8’ to 9’, and up to 12’ on curves and side slopes, entailing an increased cutting of trees;
• the use of tracked grooming machines, a class of motor vehicle permitted only on designated Forest Preserve roads and in such intensive use zones as ski areas;
• in order to engineer “trails” that can accommodate these heavy groomers, the use of motorized landscaping and earthmoving equipment for rock removal, grading smooth surfaces, and excavation to level side slopes, as well as the construction of bridges that can bear the weight of several tons; and
• the use of all-terrain vehicles, trucks, or apparently any other motor vehicle for seasonal inspection and maintenance of any designated snowmobile trail in the Forest Preserve.
1 For example, in a lawsuit brought by the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, the Residents Committee to Protect the Adirondacks, and the Adirondack Mountain Club against the APA and DEC regarding the unauthorized use of tracked groomers in the Jessup River Wild Forest, the NYS Supreme Court stipulated in a June, 2007 court order that the snowmobile provisions of that Unit Management Plan be rescinded “pending APA conformance determinations with the SLMP.” And Gov. Pataki’s and the DEC’s charge to the Snowmobile Focus Group (2000-2004) stated that only a formal amendment to the SLMP could authorize wider snowmobile connector trails and the use of tracked groomers in the Forest Preserve.
2 Inserted below are links to several internal APA staff documents reviewing DEC draft unit management plans, clearly stating explanations for and research underlying their warnings of non-compliance with the SLMP.
Protect Snowmobile Position Statement, p. 2
The SLMP defines snowmobile trails as having “essentially the same character as a foot trail” (19), and foot trails as designed “in a manner causing the least effect on the surrounding environment” (17). These stipulations are alone sufficient to justify Protect’s judgment that
the above criteria for Class II Community Connector “trails” comprise illegitimate authorization of new road construction which alters the natural terrain so as to enable grooming by a prohibited class of motor vehicle in order to accommodate the technology of heavier, more powerful snowmobiles traveling at higher speeds and in greater numbers.
Protect believes that the APA/DEC’s Management Guidance and its application in unit management plans significantly increase motorized uses of the Forest Preserve, violating the clear intent and plain meaning of the SLMP and XIV in the ways explained below. Moreover, Protect rejects the APA’s rationalizations of compliance with the SLMP as “interpretations”, which merely explain meaning; they are in fact unilateral amendments of public policy which fundamentally change its meaning. Protect thus insists that before they are implemented through any unit management plan, these amendments must undergo the requisite procedure of comprehensive SEQR/EIS study, statewide public hearings, and Executive approval.
Further Points of Non-Compliance with the SLMP
1. Motorized grooming
In its guideline for motor vehicles, the SLMP specifically allows only snowmobiles on snowmobile trails (35); tracked groomers (“snowcats”) are distinguished as a different type of motor vehicle (18), in a class that is permitted not on trails, but only on designated roads. Protect thus finds that the SLMP permits snowmobile trails to be groomed only by a snowmobile with a drag, and that there is no justification for the use of tracked groomers on any trail in any Wild Forest unit. Nothing in the APA Guidance better demonstrates that its provisions for mechanized alterations of natural terrain to accommodate these heavy machines constitute unlawful road building.
2. Wild Forest Guideline #4
The SLMP’s Basic Guideline #4 is the fundamental policy intended to limit motor vehicle use in Wild Forest areas of the Park. It was created specifically to protect the character of the wild setting: “Public use of motor vehicles will not be encouraged and there will not be any material increase in the mileage of roads and snowmobile trails open to motorized use by the public in wild forest areas that conformed to the master plan at the time of its original adoption in 1972” (33). A review of the changes in this Guideline’s language between 1972 and 1979 makes two things clear: first, the “no material increase” clause based upon road and trail mileage was not intended either as an entitlement or as a sufficient basis for defining “use”; rather, it was added as a benchmark against which a material increase in mileage over 1972 could be concretely and readily measured. Second, adequate measures of use must also include such considerations of intensity as speed, traffic volume, noise level, and certainly the addition of other motorized uses than snowmobiles. The first clause prohibiting the encouragement of public use thus states the ruling purpose of Guideline #4 (Link 3). Protect regards the Guidance provisions for Class II Community Connector “Trails” as fundamentally in opposition to the purposes of Basic Guideline #4, for their declared purpose is “allowing the furtherance of modern snowmobiling in the Forest Preserve.”
Protect Snowmobile Position Statement, p. 3
3. Environmental impacts
All management of such recreational uses as snowmobiling is governed by the “unifying theme” of the SLMP: “The protection and preservation of the natural resources of the state
lands within the Park must be paramount. Human use and enjoyment of those lands should be
permitted and encouraged, so long as the resources in their physical and biological context as well as their social or psychological aspects are not degraded” (1). Neither the Guidance nor the DEC Snowmobile Plan it tacitly endorses is, however, informed by an adequate assessment of snowmobiling’s degrading impacts on air and water quality; wildlife and habitat fragmentation; noise and quality of non-motorized recreational experience as well as life in Park communities, including public health and safety concerns. Despite such well known models as the Park Service’s comprehensive study of snowmobile impacts in Yellowstone National Park, the DEC and APA have approved management policies and practices without meaningful analysis either of localized or cumulative regional environmental impacts. The presumption of economic benefit invoked to justify the construction of new snowmobile roads is not supported by data reliably projecting the numbers of snowmobiles expected to use specific community connectors in any units. Protect thus contends that the DEC and APA are obliged to observe the ruling directive of the SLMP by providing fact-based justifications for rejecting the Agency staff’s own conclusions: “By its very nature, the presence of motor vehicles in Wild Forest areas has been shown to reduce its [sic] biological integrity and also its sense of remoteness and wild character. This concept is deeply rooted in a long history of the State’s management of public lands within the Park” (supra Link 4).
4. Constitutional Considerations
The SLMP derives from Article XIV of the NYS Constitution. Its repeated enjoinders against degrading the wild character of Forest Preserve lands echo XIV’s most influential policy statement for the management of all public lands in the Adirondack Park: that they “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands.” Moreover, a 1930 Appellate decision, upheld by the Court of Appeals, specified the types of recreational pursuit suited to a “wild forest park as distinguished from other parks so common to our civilization. . . . It must be a wild resort in which nature is given free rein. . . . Sports which require a setting which is man-made are unmistakably inconsistent with the preservation of these forest lands in the wild and natural state in which Providence has developed them.” Protect regards high-speed snowmobile recreation, and especially the widened, cleared, graded roads and mechanized grooming the Guidance permits to accommodate speed, as unconstitutional uses of the Forest Preserve.
The proceedings of the 1894 Constitutional Convention reveal a widespread public conviction that a “forever wild” Forest Preserve in the Adirondacks was a necessary antidote to the unhealthiest aspects of a new urban-industrial life. The social needs for escape are far greater today. Rather than embrace advances in motorized technology, the wild character of Adirondack public lands should continue to provide a special refuge from the prevalence elsewhere of mechanized technologies. As opposed to high-speed, long-distance trekking on heavily groomed trail networks, the experience of snowmobiling in the Forest Preserve must adapt to the wild character mandated by XIV; that is, it must learn to relish low-speed travel on narrow trails that wind like footpaths on routes dictated by unchanged natural terrain.
Protect Snowmobile Position Statement, p. 4
Even if the Management Guidance is somehow deemed compliant with, or ultimately approved in amendments to the SLMP, Protect believes that the following provisions are necessary reconsiderations:
1. Connector Trail Routing
Since most of the Forest Preserve is within one to three miles of a road, the Guidance’s
criterion of two miles for “peripheral” routing of Community Connector Trails is an unacceptable encroachment on the interior of Wild Forest units. The SLMP’s example of minimizing snowmobiling’s “impact on the wild forest environment” calls for “trails adjacent to but screened from certain public highways” (36). Basic Guideline #4 thus requires the Guidance to specify standards for “periphery” that are more consonant with the meaning of “adjacency”.
2. DEC Work Plans
The Guidance should stipulate criteria and an approval process for DEC work plans. The criteria should include demonstrated acquisition of and a map marking all easements on private lands, including parking areas, which are necessary for a completed community connector trail. And if the promise of new connector trail construction is to be more than bait-and-switch, work plan maps must also identify those dead-end and little-used interior trails to be closed, and specify the actions and schedule for closure as concurrent with new construction work. In addition to APA staff review, the approval process should provide for public notice and opportunity to review work plans at least thirty days before construction begins.
3. Safety and Public Health
Protect believes that the class II connector “trails” designed to enable greater snowmobile speeds will decrease public safety in Wild Forest areas. Anecdotal evidence indicates that many of the snowmobile accidents in Old Forge resulted in serious injury and death because of excessive speed and alcohol use, and that they occurred either on roads or on Town of Webb trails which do not have the character of foot trails. The only way to ensure public safety is to design trails that inhibit speed. In fact, as the volume of two-way traffic increases the likelihood of collision on connector roads, their nine-foot width will likely be deemed inadequate for public safety, and the state will be obligated to add shoulders at great expense and with the even greater cost of significant further degradation of wild forest character.
Improvements in snowmobile speed and performance have been achieved at the expense of noise and emissions abatement. Manifest in the exhaust haze that shrouds Old Forge and Inlet on many winter weekends, snowmobiles are a major source of air pollution, with some models emitting as many pollutants as nearly 100 cars. In connector trailhead communities where snowmobiles congregate, exposure to ground-level ozone, carcinogenic emissions, smog and engine noise will pose a serious threat to public health. This undeniable threat commends the wisdom of Wild Forest Guideline #4’s enjoinder not to encourage snowmobile use; it also recommends a phased requirement for four-stroke power plants that meet Best Available Technology (BAT) emission standards similar to those used in Yellowstone National Park.
Protect Snowmobile Position Statement, p. 5
4. Envisioning the Future
Protect contends that the vision of the Park’s future entailed by Class II Community
Connector Trails is too short-term, even anachronistic:
a. Peak oil extraction and global resource conflicts will inevitably increase gasoline prices to levels that curtail its recreational uses, particularly in notoriously inefficient
b. Climate change is likely to make annual snow cover and sound ice more uncertain, and will certainly shorten the snowmobile season.3 The need to justify Class II Community Connector “Trails” will then inevitably entail pressure to extend the now limited maintenance uses of other motorized vehicles to public recreation uses, particularly by all-terrain vehicles. The policies of the SLMP and the Guidance should clearly state the permanent prohibition of public ATV use on Forest Preserve lands.
c. As the global quest for carbon neutrality grows more urgent, the value of the Forest Preserve as a carbon sink will also grow. Accordingly, public policy should be encouraging the reduction of carbon pollution in all forms, particularly from motorized recreation. Moreover, it is in the long-term interest of Adirondack communities to encourage non-motorized winter recreation.
3 Jerry Jenkins observes that “the fossil fuels we have already burned have committed us to a warming of 50 or more in the coming century. This will be enough to warm our winters [and] decrease our snowfall.” Climate Change in the Adirondacks (Cornell UP, 2010), p. 32. On p. 44 he characterizes snowmobiling as perhaps the most vulnerable of winter sports. Further, annual purchases of new snowmobiles have decreased nearly 30% over the last 13 years. The International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association acknowledges that “lack of snow” is a major factor.
Documentation in website links
Link 1, p. 1: APA “Resolution . . . [of] an Interpretation of the SLMP Involving Compliance of Proposed Guidance”, Nov. 13, 2009
Link 2, p. 1: “Management Guidance: Snowmobile Trail Siting, Construction, and Maintenance on Forest Preserve Lands in the Adirondack Park”, Nov. 13, 2009 http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/lands_forests_pdf/snowmangguid.pdf
Link 3, p. 2: Weber “Background Paper: Origin and Intent of . . . No Material Increase Provision”, July 3, 2007 Also see Weber/Linck Memo: “Staff recommendations regarding White Hill WFUMP”, Dec. 6, 2006
This Position Statement was approved by the Conservation Advocacy Committee of Protect the Adirondacks on February 26, 2011.