Although the Adirondack Park Agency staff has recommended keeping most of the 18,230-acre tract motor-free, it would allow a snowmobile trail to traverse the property.
Fred Monroe, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, praised the staff’s proposal. “It was an attempt to protect the natural resources and make some reasonable compromises for the economy and the local communities,” he said.
Monroe said the towns need the trail to spur the winter economy. “It’s one thing to have a business and survive in the summer, but it’s very different in winter, and snowmobiling is huge,” he said.
Yet the proposed trail raises a number of legal and policy issues that the APA board likely will grapple with this week as it deliberates on the classification of the Essex Chain Tract and three smaller parcels acquired by the state over the past year.
In its recommendation, the APA staff envisions a snowmobile trail running between two motorless tracts: the proposed Essex Chain Primitive Area and the proposed Hudson Gorge Wilderness Area. To make this possible, the staff suggests creating a corridor of Wild Forest—a classification that allows motorized use.
The exact route of the trail is undetermined. From the north, it would follow existing logging roads to the Cedar River, at which point it would go in either of two directions: south across the river and or west, staying north of the river. The APA’s map above shows these two options in gray, meaning they lack a recommended classification. Once a decision is made, the chosen route will be classified as Wild Forest; the other will be classified as Primitive.
The word is that state officials favor the south route. After crossing the Cedar, this route follows logging roads to Chain Lakes Road in Indian Lake. The west route, in contrast, would require cutting a new trail through forests and possibly across wetlands. Also, the first option offers a more direct route between the hamlets.
Crossing a Scenic River
The rub is that the state would have to build a bridge over the Cedar, which at that location is classified as a Scenic River in the state’s Wild, Scenic, and Recreational Rivers System.
Dave Gibson and Dan Plumley of Adirondack Wild contend that building a bridge over the river or even allowing snowmobiles close to the river is illegal. In a letter to the APA, Gibson and Plumley assert that the Wild, Scenic, and Recreational Rivers Act and state regulations “prohibit any new motorized corridor, including a new bridge.”
Monroe concedes that the Scenic status of the Cedar poses a legal obstacle, but he believes that the state Department of Environmental Conservation can change the regulations on its own.
The south route also comes close in places to the Indian and Hudson rivers, raising similar legal questions.
Monroe said he’d like to see sections of the Wild Forest corridor open to automobiles in other seasons. He said this would allow paddlers and anglers, for example, to drive north from Indian Lake and park close to the Cedar. Even if the road is not opened to automobiles, he said, the snowmobile bridge would prove useful to hikers, mountain bikers, and cross-country skiers.
Is the Trail Needed?
The trail’s supporters say it will provide an important connection between Newcomb and Indian Lake, but there already is a snowmobile trail between the two hamlets. Part of it runs along the Cornell Road, a dirt road that divides the Essex Chain Tract from privately owned timberlands.
Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, says a new trail is unnecessary. “It is not linking any new communities together. It’s just providing new riding opportunities,” he said.
Monroe, however, said the new trail would provide a more direct and more scenic ride. He described the existing trail as “more roundabout, less direct. It doesn’t take you over the Cedar or between the Hudson and the Chain Lakes.”
Just as important, Monroe hopes the proposed trail someday will link to a trail (yet to be built) that would take snowmobilers across the Hudson and through the Vanderwhacker Wild Forest to Minerva. Establishing a snowmobile trail network that connects Newcomb, Indian Lake, and Minerva is a major goal of local leaders.
The Iron Bridge
The trail to Minerva would cross an iron bridge over the Hudson. Finch, Pruyn built it in the 1990s to remove timber from the east side of the river. Members of the Polaris Club (including Monroe) use the bridge to reach their camps, which must be dismantled in 2018.
Adirondack Wild contends the iron bridge was meant to be temporary and should be removed once it’s no longer needed by leaseholders. “Finch constructed this bridge to allow for easy de-construction. It should go, no question about it,” Gibson told Adirondack Almanack.
Monroe argues that since the bridge is a pre-existing structure, it can stay even though the Hudson, like the Cedar, is classified as a Scenic River. If it does remain, he said, it could be useful to mountain bikers and hikers as well as snowmobilers.
The iron bridge may have been in more jeopardy if it had been included in the proposed Hudson Gorge Wilderness Area. This was originally contemplated in the classification options considered by the APA staff. In the end, however, the staff recommended using the bridge to mark the boundary of the Wilderness Area, leaving the structure itself in a Wild Forest Area.
Under the original options, Monroe said, the Hudson would have had to be managed as a Wild River, a classification that forbids bridges. “If you don’t classify both sides of the river as Wilderness, you don’t have to manage the river as Wild, and you can retain the bridge,” he said.
“It’s a bridge to nowhere,” Bauer said. “It’s playing a significant role [in the classification decision-making] even though its future isn’t clear.”
The iron bridge is a takeout and put-in for paddling the Hudson. Paddlers now face a carry of more than a half-mile between the bridge and a parking area. In locating the parking area so far away, DEC was hedging its bets: motorized use is not permitted within a half-mile of a Wild River. If the Hudson is to be managed as a Scenic River, Monroe said, paddlers and other visitors should be allowed to drive within a quarter-mile of the river.
An Interior Trail
A few years ago, DEC and APA agreed on a “Management Guidance” for siting and constructing snowmobile trails in the Forest Preserve. Among other things, the document says community-connector trails should be built on the periphery of Forest Preserve units and “as close as possible” to roads.
Adirondack Wild contends a trail running through the interior of the Essex Chain Tract, as the APA proposes, would violate the guidelines and impair the wild character of the proposed Essex Chain Primitive Area and Hudson Gorge Wilderness Area.
“Of course APA could amend their guidelines and further weaken them, but it would likely be vigorously fought—likely in court if need be,” Plumley told the Almanack in an email.
Bauer agrees that the trail would violate the guidelines, but he said the APA is not required to follow them. “Legally, they’re free to violate their own guidance,” he said. “It’s guidance, not law.”
On this point, Monroe concurs with Bauer. “The snowmobile guidance is not law,” he said. When the document was drafted, he added, local leaders were told that “it was not going to be rigidly applied in all cases.”
Supporters of the snowmobile trail say a range of mountains will act as a buffer between the proposed route and the Essex Chain Lakes. Thus, snowshoers and skiers visiting the chain may be unaware of any snowmobilers.
The map shows the APA staff’s recommended land classifications. The proposed Essex Chain Primitive Area is blue. The proposed Hudson Gorge Primitive Area is dark green. Light green represents Wild Forest.