Late December snow makes it likely that a good base will develop for snowmobiling throughout this winter. A new 13-mile snowmobile (and hiking, possibly biking) trail has been established, a so-called community connector trail between the Moose River Plains Road (Limekiln-Cedar River Road) and Raquette Lake.
Nearly a dozen alternate locations for this trail were included in the Moose River Plains Wild Forest Unit Management Plan approved by the NYS DEC and APA in 2011. One was chosen as the preferred alternative, deemed most in compliance with the state’s Snowmobile Trail Guidance approved by DEC and APA in 2010. The new trail is nearly completed as it reaches the north end of Sagamore Road near Raquette Lake village, utilizing DEC operations and other staff pulled in from all over the state. Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve investigated the trail construction in mid-October.
For those readers unfamiliar with the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, snowmobiles on designated snowmobile trails only are permitted to lie within Forest Preserve classified as Wild Forest, or Intensive Use. Snowmobiling is not permitted in those parts of our Forest Preserve classified Wilderness, Primitive or Canoe. The Master Plan places strict limitations on motorized uses anywhere in the Forest Preserve, and limits the total mileage of snowmobile trails within Wild Forest areas. In the Moose River Plains UMP, there were a total of over 91 miles of trail or road open to snowmobiling as of the adoption of the State Land Master Plan in 1972. DEC in 2011 proposed to close 45 miles of dead-end, or little used snowmobile routes following completion of the new 13-mile connector trail, resulting in a net decrease of approximately 33 miles of trails or roads open for snowmobiling in this unit.
What is a community connector snowmobile trail? DEC and APA’s “Management Guidance for Snowmobile Trail Siting, Construction and Maintenance on Forest Preserve in the Adirondack Park, approved by APA and DEC in 2009, defines them as : “snowmobile trails…that serve to connect communities and provide the main travel routes for snowmobiles within a unit…These trails are located in the periphery of Wild Forest…they are always located as close as possible to motorized travel corridors…and only rarely are any segments located further than one mile away from the nearest of these corridors. They are not duplicated or paralleled by other snowmobile trails.” According to the Guidance, these trails can be cut and maintained to nine feet total cleared width (12 feet on steep slopes and sharp curves), and can be maintained by a tracked groomer no wider than 8.5 feet.
This question of use of tracked groomers such as SnoCats, is particularly controversial, as we maintain, as do many others, that such use of a another type of motor vehicle on a snowmobile trail violates the express provisions and limitations of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan. That is a subject for another day.
The day for our October field visit was clear, conditions warm. On our way to Inlet, we spoke briefly with a DEC employee building the trail’s bridges who gave us helpful directions to access the trail work, then drove to Inlet’s end of the Moose River Plains Rd (aka, Limekiln-Cedar River Road) and started walking east. We walked 5.1 miles to Route 28 across from the DEC Seventh Lake Boat Launch. We documented the straight trail runs, measured trail widths, counted cut trees, and documented with photographs and notes.
We were impressed with, among other things, the sheer scope and difficulty of the project, which continues east through the Forest Preserve from Seventh Lake Boat Launch parallel to Rt. 28 and Eighth Lake, and eventually will reach the end of Sagamore Road across from Raquette Lake Village, a total distance of about 12 miles. We only observed the western 5.1 mile leg, including number of straight trail runs, probably the result of the old roadbed on which parts of the trail are being built, but which appear to violate the Trail Guidance which states “to the greatest extent possible, trails will not be aligned with long straight sections.” The trail was also quite wet in places, although the unit management plan’s alternate trail locations would probably intercept actual wetlands, which this trail does not. The Trail Guidance states “all trails will be constructed so as not to intercept groundwater (again, here come those weasel words) to the greatest extent possible; natural drainage patterns will be maintained.”
Speaking of drainage, we stopped for lunch at a beautiful and tranquil wetland and pond just off the trail, and thought about the anticipated hundreds of snowmobiles that would someday buzz past this spot each day, assuming a decent snowpack. Hopefully they may choose to turn off their engines for a while to enjoy the peace and solitude we experienced.
Mostly, we found the trail was cut to the designated nine foot clear width, with some obvious exceptions where it was wider. Doubtless, there were some errors made. Doubtless, the original road was wider than nine feet in places. But the Guidance also presents severe practical difficulties for a trail crew. For example, the Guidance allows a connector trail to be kept clear up to a dozen feet above the trail surface, resulting in the cutting of those trees growing outside the nine feet clear width but which hung over the trail within the 12-foot clear height.
We counted cut trees three inches or larger, about 650, but perhaps we missed as many as a hundred or so. The total number of trees cut for the entire trail may exceed 2000. While this degree of tree-cutting within the Forest Preserve concerns us, of course, of even greater concern is the potential for illegal use of this trail by all-terrain vehicles during the warmer months, or even during a relatively snowless winter like last year. ATVs are not permitted on any trails within the Forest Preserve, yet we have observed them (or the evidence, meaning the rutted, ponded, ruined trails that result from their use) on certain snowmobile trails for many years. DEC law enforcement – Forest Rangers and Environmental Conservation Officers – are constantly trying to reduce this illegal use, but time and time again it has taken documentary evidence from watchdogs to bring enforcement action, and to sustain such action over time diverts the officers from many other duties.
Speaking of other duties, staff at the NYS DEC is at its lowest point in 20 years. The staff of DEC’s Division of Lands and Forests which oversees the Forest Preserve and this trail project has shrunk by over 25% statewide since 1995. In Region 5, the eastern two-thirds of the Adirondack Park, there are only 4 Full-Time Equivalent positions left assigned exclusively to the Forest Preserve. APA has only three personnel assigned full-time to State Lands and oversight of the State Land Master Plan. The DEC Forest Ranger force has over 20 unfilled vacancies around the state. This trail project alone has required bringing DEC staff resources from all over. In a state of such shrunken state conservation personnel, with over 3 million acres of Forest Preserve and Conservation Easement lands to manage, there are legitimate questions about how high a priority any one new trail construction project, be it for snowmobiling or hiking, should rank.
Then, we also think about the day, and not in the distant future either, when political and economic forces, along with more relatively snowless winters will combine as pressure to legalize ATVs on trails such as this new snowmobile connector. That is a truly scary prospect, one which is completely indefensible and intolerable within the meaning of the “Forever Kept as Wild Forest Lands” stricture of Article 14 of the NYS Constitution. To date, the failure of most Forest Preserve Unit Management Plans to take climate change and future winter conditions into account has resulted in a lack of dialogue and anticipation of the fate of 9-foot community connector snowmobile trails.
For now, most snowmobilers have a vested interest in helping Forest Preserve advocates like ourselves to prevent ATV damage to their trail systems, but that may not always be the case. Technology is advancing rapidly, marketing a new class of powerful off-road, even off-trail vehicles. Our job is to ensure that in our grandchildren’s time and beyond that human recreational appetites and attraction to four-season mechanized speed and adventure will never outpace our determination to uphold Article 14 of the NYS Constitution and protect the Forest Preserve for its wilderness values.
The building of this trail has brought all these pressure points into sharp relief. As the trail neared State Route 28, we saw a small bobcat tracked excavator in use along a muddied section of raw trail, and a brand new, 12-foot bridge with timbers requiring resources, machinery and expertise to put in place. We measured, photographed and moved on to enjoy a meal in Raquette Lake village. In our hearts is a determination to stand up for wild lands, whatever their classification, and to expect the highest standards of wild lands management within the world-class Adirondack Park.
However, in our minds are these words from former DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis – candor which helped get him fired from his job just two years ago: “Many of our programs are hanging by a thread,” Grannis wrote in a now famous internal memorandum. “The public would be shocked to learn how thin we are in many areas.”
Photos: Above, 12-foot wide bridge timbers in place for the new snowmobile trail; middle, Bobcat tracked excavator used to construct the trail near the Seventh Lake Boat Launch; below, a section of new 9-foot wide snowmobile trail near Inlet.