Adirondack Snowmobile Routes Ruled Unconstitutional in NY

Expected to fell some 25,000 trees, the plans for multi-use connector trails through preserved land have been hotly litigated since 2013.

(Image courtesy of New York’s Adirondack Park Agency via Courthouse News)

ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) — New York’s highest court zapped an effort to build snowmobile routes through the Adirondacks, finding Tuesday in a 3-2 decision that the plans would violate the “forever wild” provision of the state constitution. 

Writing for the Court of Appeals majority Tuesday, Associate Judge Jenny Rivera touted the law as maintaining a “publicly owned wilderness of incomparable beauty” for more than a century. 

The ruling slams the door on New York’s proposal for 27 miles of multi-use trails, affirming judgment for the group Protect the Adirondacks, which complained that the plan would have required leveling thousands of trees, rocks and other components of the 6 million acre Adirondacks, a preserved forest. 

“Located in two regions of the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains, the Forest Preserve — with its trees, rivers, wetlands, mountain landscape, and rugged terrain — is a respite from the demands of daily life and the encroachment of commercial development, Rivera wrote of the Adirondacks.

Rivera likened the state’s 2006 snowmobile plan to a bobsled run in Lake Placid that the Third Department, a lower state appellate court, ruled against in advance of the 1932 Olympics. 

In terms of constitutionality, Rivera wrote, the proposed 11 snowmobile routes that would connect existing communities are “no different than the construction of the bobsleigh run.” 

That 1930 bobsleigh case marked the sole instance where a court took considered the constitutionality of Forest Preserve encroachments since the New York lawmakers unanimously passed the “forever wild” provision at the state’s 1894 constitutional convention. Since that time, the people of New York have voted to allow specific forest preserve encroachments 19 times. 

Per the now-128-year-old changes, the statute mandates that preserved forest land 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.” 

Joined by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, Associate Judge Leslie E. Stein dissented, noting that, despite the felling of trees required to build the proposed trails, the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation’s long-term plan for snowmobile trails, launched in 2006, would nevertheless result in a net benefit to forest preservation as it also required closing off other existing trails to motorized traffic.

Court cases have “consistently recognized that these are interlocking goals — preservation for the purpose of enabling recreational use of the wild forest land in the Preserve by the People,” Stein wrote (emphasis in original). 

“Creating hiking trails for year-round use is entirely consistent with the purpose underlying the constitutional protection of the Forest Preserve,” Stein wrote, “and the construction at issue here involves trails that the courts below found to be more in the nature of hiking trails than roads.” 

There are already nearly 800 miles of trails in the Forest Preserve that can accommodate snowmobiles, Stein added.

“It is unclear,” Stein wrote, “how the continuation of a long-standing public use by means of a project that reduces the total number of trails in the preserve and protects its most ecologically sensitive areas constitutes a substantial change or impacts the wild forest nature of the preserve.”

Stein said she would have reversed in favor of the state, writing that the majority holding misreads the state constitution and “thwarts the intention of the drafters of the Forever Wild provision.” 

Peter Bauer, executive director for Protect the Adirondacks, applauded Tuesday’s decision as historic, saying it will “shape Forest Preserve management for decades to come.”

“The court ruled today that the constitution does not provide protections to some trees but not to others. The forever wild clause protects all trees,” Bauer said in a press release, noting that about 25,000 trees would have been cut to build the trail network proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office. 

Claudia Braymer, an attorney for Protect the Adirondacks, spoke to the constitutional implications of the ruling.  

“There are many ways that the state agencies responsible for managing the Adirondack and Catskill Parks provide access for the public to enjoy these special places,” Braymer said. 

“Nevertheless, as the court has confirmed, the avenues that the state provides for accessing the Forest Preserve cannot violate the constitution’s ‘forever wild’ clause. The public has retained its ability to decide the fate of the Forest Preserve through the constitutional amendment process.” 

The DEC said Tuesday that it is reviewing the appellate judges’ decision. 

Environmental groups were somewhat divided in their support for the lawsuit. Among those that sided with the state DEC was The Nature Conservancy, which told Courthouse News in March that focusing on the number of trees being cut down could open the door for future narrow views of environmental impact.

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