The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and Adirondack Park Agency need to comply with the forever wild decision and close illegal trails and restore damaged areas
In a landmark decision, the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, ruled on May 4, 2021 that a plan by the Department of Environmental Conservation and Adirondack Park Agency to build a network of hundreds of miles of “Class II Community Connector Snowmobile Trails” violated Article 14, Section 1, the famed forever wild clause, of the New York Constitution. The Court ruled that the changes to the Forest Preserve from this new kind of trail were so great that these trails could only be built after approval of a constitutional amendment and could not be authorized by administrative actions.
The first 54 words of Article 14, Section 1 have not been changed since 1894. They read today the same as they have been read for the last 125 years: “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.”
The Court of Appeals decision was the last stop in an 8-year legal odyssey in Protect the Adirondacks v. the Department of Environmental Conservation and Adirondack Park Agency, initiated in 2013. This ruling, like the 1930 ruling on Article 14 by Court of Appeals, will shape Forest Preserve management for decades to come. The Board and staff of Protect the Adirondacks, and most of all our extraordinary attorneys, John Caffry and Claudia Braymer, poured their heart and souls into that legal challenge. Through the last eight years there were a number of twists and turns, with high points and low points. This was a David and Goliath story in every way.
The courts in New York have long deferred to the administrative discretion of state agencies. The old adage that it’s hard to beat City Hall is certainly true when it comes to trying to hold state agencies accountable to their statutory responsibilities. In the months after this decision, the DEC and APA have tried to ignore and downplay it. Neither agency has taken responsibility and both agencies have embarked upon a course of distorting and misrepresenting the meaning of the decision. Neither agency has proposed any meaningful reforms to change management practices in order to comply with the Protect decision.
In late June, Protect the Adirondacks submitted a Forest Preserve management reform platform to the DEC and APA. It called on the agencies to restore Forest Preserve areas damaged by Class II trail construction, provide the public with guidance over future tree cutting on the Forest Preserve for hiking-trail construction and maintenance, and undertake the revision of various Forest Preserve management policies that were either obsolete or inaccurate in the wake of the Court of Appeals’ decision. Reform of Forest Preserve management is going to be a major challenge for the APA and DEC in the months and years ahead. The DEC and APA have a lot of work to do and a long road ahead of them to get back on the right side of forever wild. The DEC needs to close illegal Class II trails and restore trails that were partly built.
What is now known as “the Protect decision” will cast a long, bright light over Forest Preserve management for decades to come. In 2021, Article 14, Section 1 was affirmed once again, with a decision guaranteeing that forever wild remains vital and vibrant. This decision inextricably links our time with that of the framers of Article 14 in 1894 and with New York State’s courts over the last 100 years. Forever wild is not some quaint notion, or archaic legalism, or words borrowed by organizations for fundraising, but it is one of New York State’s great public values and achievements, which has coursed through the decades, like a river, to bind together generations of New Yorkers. In 2021, forever wild was upheld and affirmed, literally, as the law of the land.
Enshrining Article 14 in the State Constitution insured that the Forest Preserve would not be changed in any material way by the Governor, the Legislature, or any state agencies, all subject to pressure from special interests. We clearly saw outside influences guide decisions by the APA and DEC with regards to Class II trails. The Court saw through this. Leaving final authority over the Forest Preserve to the People is just as important in 2021 as it was in 1894. Major changes, such as a Class II trail network of hundreds of miles could only be done with a constitutional amendment, not through administrative actions.
PROTECT will continue to work to defend this decision and to bring the heart of forever wild to Forest Preserve management decisions and actions.