Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Discussion: Reopening Historic Adirondack Roads

A week ago today, state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Pete Grannis effectively reopened Old Mountain Road between North Elba (Route 73) and Keene (Shackett Road / Route 40) in Essex County. According to surveys made in 1893-1894 (here, and here), the road had been abandoned since the 19th century; it was believed to have been officially closed when the Sentinel Wilderness Area UMP was ratified in 1974. Beginning in 1986 part of the road has been maintained as the popular 35-mile long Jackrabbit Trail by the Adirondack Ski Touring Council.

The Grannis decision was forced by Lake Placid Snowmobile Club President James McCulley who drove his truck down the trail in May of 2005 and was ticketed (he previously beat a 2003 ticket for doing the same thing with his snowmobile). An agency administrative judge later found that the road had never been closed properly (it required public hearings).

Last week’s ruling pits hikers and cross-country skiers against motorists and snowmobile enthusiasts. McCulley’s goal, announced publicly in 2002, is to connect snowmobile trails around Lake Placid with Keene and Wilmington using old roadways that pass through the Sentinel Wilderness and the Wilmington Wild Forest.

More generally speaking, local environmental organizations are arguing that the Grannis decision will set a precedent that will re-open numerous roads through the Adirondack back-country. That’s something apparently borne out by a comment by McCulley, who told the Albany Times Union that: “This gives people here the legal avenue to reopen roads throughout the Adirondacks that the state illegally closed.” McCulley said, “Word is getting around already,” and indicated that he was already getting calls from around the Adirondack Park by those interested in reopening old roads.

The whole matter may just be a legal bump in the road based on a technicality. According to local environmental organizations the DEC has the absolute authority to close roads through state lands using NYS Highway Law Section 212:

§ 212. Changing location of highways over certain lands owned and occupied by the state. If a highway passes over or through lands wholly owned and occupied by the state, the location of such portion of such highway as passes through such lands may be altered and changed, or the same may be abandoned or the use thereof as a highway discontinued with the consent and approval of the state authority having jurisdiction or control over such lands by an order directing such change in location, abandonment or discontinuance. Such order shall contain a description of that portion of the highway the location of which has been changed, abandoned or discontinued, and a description of the new location thereof, if any, and shall be filed in the office of the state authority having control of such lands

What’s more, is that the Grannis decision also has legal implications for the towns of North Elba and Keene. “Simply stated, this gravel and dirt road that runs through the forest preserve does not conform to current highway standards, Grannis wrote. “To the extent that automobiles or pickup trucks attempt to drive on it, the towns may be liable for any adverse consequences to drivers, to their vehicles, and of course to other users of the road.” I’ll be glad to send a pdf of the decision to those who are interested.

Frequent APA critics Sen. Betty Little and Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward introduced in January bills that would “remove the ability of the state to modify, abandon or close roads within the Adirondack Park,” and which say that road closure by the state “disrupts local transportation without compensation to the local community.”

For additional context, I’ll be posting a short history of Old Mountain Road at noon today. But for now, what do you think? It the reopening of Old Mountain Road a real threat? McCulley also seeks to open a second road, the Old Wilmington Road, as well. Portions of Old Mountain Road have deteriorated to six or seven feet wide, certainly not big enough to safely accommodate cross-country skiers and snowmobiles without widening – should it be widened? Should DEC act immediately to close the road legally? If it does, will local opposition keep the road open? Another lawsuit recently opened 48 miles of roads in wilderness areas to use by disabled persons. Is this part of a important trend?

What now?

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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

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