The proposal calls for removing 34 miles of track between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake and fixing up 45 miles of largely unused track between Tupper Lake and Big Moose. The trail would be used by snowmobiles in winter and by bicyclists and other recreationists the rest of the year.
For years a public debate has raged online and in newspapers over the best use of the rail corridor, but the APA focused only on the question of whether the proposal conforms to the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan.
That narrow focus led to some strange results. Dick Booth, chairman of the agency’s State Land Committee, voted against the measure even though he supports removing rails to create a trail. And Bill Thomas supported it even though he would rather see all the rails remain in place.
Afterward, Thomas told the Adirondack Almanack that he thought the APA staff had made a sound case that the proposal conformed to the master plan. “I had to vote against my personal feelings,” he remarked.
Booth, however, argued that the agency needed to amend the master plan before approving the proposal, which was finalized last fall by the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the state Department of Transportation.
At issue is the corridor’s land-use classification. The State Land Master Plan designates the 119-mile railroad right of way as a Travel Corridor. In comments to the APA, many rail supporters argued that if the tracks are removed, the corridor will no longer qualify as a Travel Corridor. In that case, the corridor presumably would revert to other land classifications that would not allow the construction of the kind of trail—wide, graded, and surfaced—envisioned by DEC and DOT.
Booth said he supported the rail-trail plan but agreed with the opponents’ interpretation of the State Land Master Plan’s language on the corridor. “It’s talking about a railroad; it’s not talking about something else,” he said.
APA attorney James Townsend conceded that the language could be clearer, but he believes the removal of the rails will not change the corridor’s classification.
Booth moved to delay voting on the measure until the State Land Master Plan is amended, but no one seconded the motion.
After the meeting, Townsend said he is confident that the board’s decision could withstand a legal challenge.
The Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, which runs tourist trains in the corridor, sharply criticized the vote, partly on legal grounds. “We will continue to fight for our position and likely find joinder with other credible groups opposed to the DEC’s headlong run at common sense and the law,” Bill Branson, the society’s president, said in a news release.
Tony Goodwin of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, which pushed for a recreational trail, applauded the APA’s decision, but he added that he won’t be surprised if a lawsuit is filed. “It’s not over until the contractor moves in and actually removes the rails,” he said.
Historic Saranac Lake and Adirondack Architectural Heritage have argued that pulling up tracks will destroy a piece of history. The corridor is on both the State and National Register of Historic Places.
“I am not in a position to say if rail supporters will sue over this decision, but I do think there is the basis for a lawsuit on many grounds, not just on the historic-preservation issue,” said Steven Engelhart, the executive director of AARCH.
The Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, operating as Adirondack Scenic Railroad, runs tourist trains between Utica and Old Forge and between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. If the state’s proposal is implemented, it will have to shut down its Lake Placid operation. However, the length of its excursion trains from Utica eventually could be extended 45 miles.
The railroad’s supporters argue that ending a tourist train in Tupper Lake makes little economic sense because Tupper lacks the cachet of Lake Placid. They pressed the state to refurbish the line so trains could be run from Utica all the way to Lake Placid.
For its part, Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates wanted the state to remove all the tracks between Big Moose and Lake Placid and create a 79-mile trail. Although it didn’t get all it wanted, ARTA has been happier than the railroad with the state’s proposal, which many people view as a compromise.
The state plans to allow Adirondack Scenic Railroad and Rail Explorers USA, which offers pedal-bike excursions, to operate one more season on the northern end of the corridor.
Bob Stegemann, DEC’s regional director, said work on the trail could begin as soon as the season ends. “We’re going to act,” he said. “It’s not going to be languishing.”
The DEC and DOT commissioners must sign off on the proposal, which amends the corridor’s management plan. Under the proposal, DOT will retain jurisdiction of the entire corridor, but DEC will oversee the trail.
Photos by Mike Lynch: (top) the crowd listens to the discussion at the APA meeting, (below) Dick Booth makes a point.