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Hikers, Snowmobilers at Odds on National Trail

ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) - New York's Office of Parks' allowing a snowmobile club to widen and rebuild a section of a hiking trail endangers the trail's inclusion in a seven-state, 4,500-mile National Scenic Trail, the North Country Trail Association claims in state court.

The association wants the 1-mile stretch of trail in Madison County, near Syracuse, restored "to the condition that it was in prior to the damage caused" when Tri-Valley Trail Riders, an Oneida-based snowmobile club, moved in with chainsaws and bulldozers over two weekends in November and December.

The association sued the Tri-Valley Trail Riders and the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, in Albany County Court.

The Office of Parks is responsible for maintaining historic sites, recreational facilities as well as parks in New York, and also directs a statewide snowmobile program to help fund trail development.

The Michigan-based nonprofit North Country Trail Association claims the state agency failed "to carry out its legal duties under the National Trails System Act and the State Environmental Quality Review Act," by granting permits that allowed the snowmobile club to wreck trail work done for a decade.

The North Country National Scenic Trail, which winds through North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, is part of the federal trail system governed by the National Park Service that includes the well-known Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails on the East and West Coasts.

The North Country trail, built and maintained primarily by volunteers, will be the country's longest continuous hiking trail when it's completed, according to the National Park Service.

In New York, the trail will cover 625 miles that include vistas along the glacier-carved Finger Lakes and in the 6 million-acre Adirondack Park Preserve.

As in other states, many sections of the trail in New York have been proposed but not completed. Portions that have met National Park Service criteria are deemed "certified." By law, no motorized vehicles are allowed on trails that are part of the national system.

It's that prohibition that endangers the 1-mile section in Madison County that was rebuilt by the snowmobile club, according to the complaint.

The North Country Trail Association says it has worked on the seven-state trail with the National Park Service and in New York with the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

"[T]he alteration of the stretch at issue herein, and its use by snowmobilers, means that it can no longer meet the criteria for certification," the complaint states. "Without remedying these violations, the stretch will be downgraded to 'connector trail' status."

The Madison County section runs along an abandoned railroad right-of-way that the state parks agency has owned since the 1970s. The North Country Trail Association's central New York chapter has been responsible for developing and maintaining the trail under revocable permits granted in 2002 and 2006 that allow cutting back of vegetation and grooming the footpath. The association says it has spent $80,000 developing the trail.

But in 2008, the complaint states, the parks agency began talking about allowing uses other than foot traffic on the trail, including bicycling and horseback riding.

This prompted concern from the National Park Service that hikers might be displaced and the trail might be damaged.

The National Park Service wrote to the state agency that "opening the trail now to uses that would tend to displace the very users that created it seems a bit unfair and perhaps arbitrary," according to the complaint.

In 2011, the agency issued revocable permits to the snowmobile club, "authorizing it to destroy the existing footpath and construct a snowmobile corridor on the stretch of the North Country National Scenic Trail at issue herein," the complaint states.

The Madison County Courier, a weekly newspaper, reported in January that county and state officials saw the snowmobile club's work as key to expanding recreational use of the trail and fulfilling a longtime goal of linking it to hiking, picnicking and other amenities at the Oxbow Falls County Park, near Canastota.

But the Trail Association's complaint calls the issuance of permits to the snowmobile club "arbitrary and capricious" and "affected by error of law." The association says the state parks agency violated the National Trails System Act and the New York Environmental Quality Review Act.

It erred under the former by allowing motorized-vehicle use on the trail, and in the latter by not scrutinizing the environmental effects of the snowmobile club's work, or inviting comment on it, the complaint states.

Anyone who operates a snowmobile in New York must register it with the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Most of the registration fees go into a Special Revenue Snowmobile Account overseen by the parks agency, which was charged by the New York Legislature with developing a program that promotes snowmobile education and safety. Much of the money is allocated as local grants for snowmobile trails.

For the 2010-11 season, New York collected $5.6 million in snowmobile registrations and budgeted $4.3 million for maintenance and development of trails. The state has some 10,000 miles of trails that are maintained by more than 200 snowmobile clubs, according to the parks agency's annual snowmobile report. Registrations numbered 134,566 for the season.

Nationwide, the number of registered snowmobiles was 1.55 million last year, according to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, which pegged the economic impact of the pastime at $22 billion annually in the United States.

In its complaint, the North Country Trail Association asks that the permits issued to the snowmobile club be rescinded; that motorized-vehicle use be prohibited on the Madison County trail; and that the parks agency be directed to restore the trail to the footpath it was before the snowmobile club's work.

Representing the association is Claudia Braymer of Caffry & Flower, in Glens Falls.

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