Protect the Adirondacks is very disappointed that we’ve been forced to go back to court in order to try and get the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Adirondack Park Agency (APA) to comply with the courts. On May 4, 2021, the Court of Appeals ruled in Protect the Adirondacks v. Department of Environmental Conservation and Adirondack Park Agency that these agencies violated Article 14, Section 1, the famed forever wild clause, of the State Constitution, which protects the public Forest Preserve. The 4-2 Court of Appeals decision followed a 2019 4-1 decision from the Appellate Division, Third Department, which also found that these agencies violated the State Constitution. The courts ruled that the DEC-APA plans to build a network of extra-wide Class II Community Connector snowmobile trails (Class II trails) through the Forest Preserve was illegal. Since last May, these agencies have refused to deal with the substance or reality of these decisions.
The court cases involved the first 34 miles of Class II trails, the first of what was to be hundreds of miles of such trails crisscrossing the Forest Preserve. As the courts recognized and stated in their decisions, Class II trails were nothing like foot trails. These were a new type of trail in the Forest Preserve and were distinguished from all other trails by their width, construction with heavy equipment to grade a wide flat trail surface of 9-12 feet, extensive use of benchcuts that often required clearing of forest areas 15-20 feet wide, and cutting down of around 1,000 trees per mile. No other type of trail in the Forest Preserve has seen this level of terrain alteration to facilitate an outdoor public recreation activity.
For years in the early 2000s as the DEC-APA put together plans to build an expansive Class II trail network in the Forest Preserve of the Adirondack Park, Protect the Adirondacks protested at every step of the way that their plans were illegal and violated the State Constitution. Year after year, both agencies rejected input from Protect the Adirondacks that questioned the constitutionality of these trails. In 2006, we opposed the state’s snowmobile plan as unconstitutional, and raised these same issues again in 2009 as the state put together its trail building plans. Finally, after more than a decade of advocacy to try and defend forever wild, as a means of last resort, we went to court in 2013 when the state started to build its first trails.
In 2016, we successfully obtained a stop-work order that halted Class II trail work. At that time, several short sections of trail had been built along with one major trail. The biggest completed trail was the 12-mile-long Seventh Lake Mountain Trail, in the Moose River Plains Wild Forest. In addition, around 18 miles of other Class II trails were partially completed, with trees cut down, terrain graded, bridges constructed, or stockpiled materials.
Since the Court of Appeals decision in May 2021 Class II trails found to be illegal, such as the Seventh Lake Mountain Trail, have remained open as if nothing happened. Since that decision, not a single tree has been replanted, though thousands were cut down to build these illegal trails. Since that decision, not a single shovel full of soil has been moved, though dozens of miles of trails were bulldozed with heavy equipment to build these illegal trails. Since that decision, not a single stretch of graded and flattened trail has been restored to natural wild forest conditions, though miles of wild forest was disturbed and altered to build these illegal trails.
At recent budget hearings at the end of January, DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos told Legislators that these illegal trails had been closed and only trails that “predated” the litigation were open. This was not true. Seggos misled Legislators as illegal trails were wide open on that day, just as they are right now.
It’s time for Governor Kathy Hochul to stand up for the State Constitution. We call upon Governor Hochul stand up for forever wild. We call upon Governor Hochul to stand up for the rule of law. We call upon Governor Hochul to reign in these out-of-control state agencies that believe they are free to mislead the public and are somehow above the law and accountable to no one.
We hope that Governor Hochul would agree that it is outrageous that a citizen group would have to go to court in an effort to get state agencies to obey the courts. The two highest courts in New York ruled that the DEC and APA violated the State Constitution. Yet, these agencies have continued to operate illegal trails as if nothing has happened and have refused to restore damaged Forest Preserve areas.
It is high time to reign in these out-of-control state agencies that believe they are above the law.
It is vital to the 3-million acre public New York State Forest Preserve that we see your administration and these state agencies get back on the right side of forever wild.
Postscript: The DEC-APA have started settlement discussions with Protect the Adirondacks.