Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Proposed Snowmobile Trail Raises Questions

FULL SIZE - APA Essex Chain Lakes Recommendation MapTown leaders lobbied hard for a snowmobile trail through the Essex Chain Tract that would connect the hamlets of Indian Lake and Newcomb, and it appears they may get their wish.

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.

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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.

13 Responses

  1. David says:

    This proposal was effectively brought up in the APA meeting a few months ago by a Board member and the presenting staff basically identified all the problems mentioned in this article. Then the APA said that was not a valid option, I wonder what changed since then.

  2. Paul says:

    The bridge over the Cedar is a tricky question. On a “scenic river” a bridge is allowed with a permit but for non-motorized uses. The question here is the way a snowmobile is “defined” for use on Forest Preserve land. It seems to be defined separately from other “motorized” things, the reason why they are allowed on Forest Preserve land where all other motorized uses are prohibited.

    • Darrin says:

      It’s not that tricky. There is already a snowmobiling bridge over the Cedar River in the town of Indian Lake on Forest Preserve land….

      • Paul says:

        That is what I mean. I am not surprised that despite the wording in the WSRRA regarding motorized use of bridges across a Scenic river that a snowmobile does not count. They have always been treated as something quite different in the Forest Preserve.

        • David says:

          I believe the issue is somewhat more complicated than you make it sound. First of all a snowmobile is absolutely a motorized from definitions found in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act “‘Motor vehicle’ means a device for transport incorporating a motor or an engine of any type for propulsion and with wheels, tracks, skids, skis, propeller, air cushion or other contrivance for traveling on or over land or water or through water, other than a motorized vessel as defined in this Part”

          Whether or not a bride is legal over a scenic river can be seen in the tables further down the page. assuming the snowmobile trail is technically a Public Road (which seems the only way this can work) a bridge can be built with a permit (from the DEC?)

          Also the bridge over the Cedar further up stream falls outside of its designation as a Wild or Scenic river. It is a recreational river and is subject to similar laws as a scenic river so I do recognize the validity of your point.

          In addition to what I have said above the Moose River Plains Unit Management Plan seems to say that new snowmobile trails are illegal inside Scenic River corridor, stating ” Part 666 allows the continued use of snowmobile trails that existed prior to the regulation, so long as they were lawfully existing. However, the creation of new snowmobile trails or the continued use of trails developed after the regulation was in place appears to be in conflict with the regulations.”

          MRP UMP scenic and wild river appendix http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/lands_forests_pdf/mrpwfump031.pdf

          WSR Act http://www.dec.ny.gov/regs/4610.html

          • Paul says:

            Yes, if the other bridge is over a recreational segment of the river that is different.

            The MRP UMP can and would have to be amended.

            The real problem here is that all of this should have been worked out before the state made the acquisition.

            If they promised the towns a snowmobile trail in order to get them to approve the transaction then now they have to keep that promise and change the regulations if necessary.

            The other alternative is that the state never got the towns approval and never got the opportunity to buy the land from the TNC.

            • David says:

              The state did promise a snow mobile trail, but not on forest preserve land. From the beginning the DEC wanted to put the trail on easement land adjacent to he Blue Mountain Wild Forest, and it has (these easements were also acquired in the land deal). To say that this is the only way to connect the two towns is simply wrong.

              I only brought up the MRP UMP because it seems that the DEC interpreted the law in a way that wouldn’t make crossing the river legal. I understand it can be amended, I was just commenting on their interpretation.

          • Darrin says:

            I hear there is old documentation to prove that Chain Lakes Road is a Town of Indian Lake highway all the way up to Newcomb If that’s the case, I would say game over on trying to keep snowmobiling off that corridor. And that ROAD will need a bridge…..

          • B says:

            By that definition it sounds like a snowmobile is not a motor vehicle. They’re not designed for traveling on or over land or water, they’re designed for ice and snow. Yeah, I know, there are grass drags and pond skips, but that’s not what they’re “for”. It doesn’t help that the DMV doesn’t consider snowmobiles to be motor vehicles either, by law. If you want it from the horse’s mouth call up the NYS Parks snowmobile unit, though I hear they’re pretty busy this time of year.

            • David says:

              Snow travel is still over land. I think you’re missing the point, but if you want to be pedantic snow is water. Not liquid water but still water.

              Also the DMV has a wholly separate definition of motor vehicle based on public highway use and even then a snowmobile has to be specifically excluded.

  3. Pete Klein says:

    Why Darrin would get a “dislike” when mentioning a factual truth is beyond me.
    The bridge was built about 10 years ago and is part of the trail between Indian Lake and Blue Mnt. Lake.
    The trail, like all snowmobile trails, is a great place to go for a hike.
    You cross this trail when hiking the trail to Rock Lake.
    I love snowmobile trails when I am sick of snowshoeing on hiking trails. Nice not to sink deep into powder.

  4. David says:

    Also my quick measuring says that if this route is chosen over a route through the newly acquired easement land (in accordance with the DEC’s previous plan) the new trail will only be 4-5 miles shorter (north-south option). If the other option is preferred there will be no reduction in trail miles between the two towns, and probably would actually be an increase (east-west option). This plan just doesn’t make sense!

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