Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Dave Gibson: Consider Big Policy Issues Early, Openly

MRP-Snowmobile-Trail-3Not quite twenty years ago, Governor George Pataki’s administration made some decisions about snowmobiling on the Adirondack Forest Preserve which are still playing themselves out today. Governor Pataki’s first DEC Commissioner, Michael Zagata, signaled in 1995-96 that he would support a minimum of 15-foot wide routes (roads) for snowmobiling, cleared in order to accommodate 52 inch sleds and two-way travel. A hue and cry erupted and Commissioner Zagata did not survive in the job past 1996. The cleared width standard remained 8 foot, 12 foot for sharp curves. However, two years later in 1998 the Governor recommitted to new snowmobiling initiatives in the Adirondack Park as a way to balance, in the Governor’s view, the State’s acquisition of Whitney Park in Long Lake for the Forest Preserve.

One of those initiatives was an Adirondack Park component to the Statewide Snowmobile Plan.  In 2000, a grand bargain appeared to be struck. Governor Pataki invited Park stakeholders into a conference room at the State Capitol. He encouraged a snowmobile plan that incorporated 9-foot wide community connector routes between towns and villages, and tracked groomers, a separate motor vehicle that grooms the snow and extends the sledding season. But, the Governor admitted to those in the room that these decisions would require an amendment to the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan and committed to the public review, comment and public hearing process that this entailed.

The Adirondack Snowmobile Plan proceeded to engage us all in meetings with DEC over the next four years. When the Plan was finally released in fall 2006, some of us felt betrayed by the Governor. In a press release, I wrote: “The Association (for the Protection of the Adirondacks) considers the Governor’s plan to be an end-run around the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, the “forever wild” clause of the NYS Constitution and the Governor’s own promise made in 2000 that any significant change to the Adirondack snowmobile trail system would require an amendment to the Master Plan and, therefore, a series of statewide public hearings. The plan would, for the first time, authorize widespread use of tracked grooming motor vehicles to groom snow on the narrow trails and natural forest surface of today’s combined snowmobile and hiking trails in Wild Forest areas of the Forest Preserve.”

So, the snowmobile plan recognized by the Governor and his administration’s DEC in 2000 as requiring an amendment was approved without one – although many public meetings were held about the plan. Then, in 2009, Governor Paterson’s DEC and APA approved a trail construction and maintenance guidance document which defined community connector routes and detailed how and where they would be built. Despite the hard work of DEC and APA staff, important aspects of that guidance were violated in the construction of the Seventh Lake Snowmobile Community Connector trail in the Moose River Plains Wild Forest during 2012-13. This inauspicious beginning led invariably to other compromises in implementing the guidance during the classification of the Essex Chain Lakes and in its draft Unit Management Plan in 2014 followed by proposed 2015 amendments to the Vanderwhacker Wild Forest UMP.

In particular, the guidance states that duplicative,  parallel snowmobile connector routes which end up pretty much in the same place will not happen. Yet, in separating the review and analysis of the Vanderwhacker and Essex Chain units with respect to snowmobiling and failing to plan comprehensively for motorized routes the State appears to be favoring duplicative parallel routes between Indian Lake and Newcomb.

State Land Committee Chair Richard Booth, therefore, made a lot of sense at last month’s Adirondack Park Agency meeting. Faced with 80 pages and 45 maps of alternative snowmobile routes on the Forest Preserve delivered by the NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation late on a Monday, and expected to determine if these proposals were ready to send out for public comment by Thursday, Booth told his colleagues: “There are big policy and legal questions” on one of the routes employing the Polaris Bridge across the Hudson River south of Newcomb. “We have not remotely had enough time to consider them. We should not be asking the public to comment on something so woefully flawed.” Later he said, “we need to confront public policy issues directly.”

One of Mr. Booth’s policy and legal objections to a particularly controversial part of the snowmobile trail proposals – a segment that utilizes the Polaris Bridge to cross the Hudson and then move north to Newcomb on a new trail also employing old wood roads – was a lack of analysis of alternative ways for snowmobiles to reach practically the same destination. Alternatives analysis is a fundamental requirement of all governmental activities under the State Environmental Quality Review Act.

This is how the DEC’s document justifies the need for new snowmobile connector trails to and from Newcomb: “Despite its position in the center of the Adirondacks, the Town of Newcomb is relatively isolated from the regional snowmobile trail system. Snowmobile access to communities in Essex and Warren Counties to the south and east is difficult and extremely roundabout. The town’s only connection to the larger regional system is via a single trail leading roughly 15 miles west across private lands to the hamlet of Long Lake, from where snowmobilers can access the Hamilton County system.”

I am not a snowmobiler and I hesitate to question DEC’s statement, but I do recall that a trail was built between Indian Lake and Blue Mountain Lake not too many years ago, crossing the Cedar River on a new snowmobile bridge. I recall walking parts of that trail. Then, under the Finch Conservation Easement that trail (O’Neill Flow) was opened to connect northeast to the Cornell Road west of the new Essex Chain Lakes area, then on past Goodnow Flow on good dirt road corridors, and then on to Newcomb.

One of Mr. Booth’s arguments to his colleagues on the APA is that DEC’s snowmobile documents delivered just a few days before the APA meeting fails to even mention this alternative way for snowmobilers to go from Indian Lake-Blue Mountain Lake to Newcomb.   Apparently contradicting the DEC statement, snowmobilers in Newcomb today can access the Hamilton County system, and visa-versa, but perhaps not in the preferred way. If so, that should be fully discussed within the DEC trail documents and within a future Essex Chain Lakes UMP.  Separate analysis of seemingly independent parts of what in actuality is a comprehensive snowmobile plan or network constitutes segmented review, a violation of the State Environmental Quality Review Act.

Another of Mr. Booth’s points was that the DEC documents failed to discuss at all whether the Polaris Bridge over the Hudson was legally available for a new snowmobile connector route without violating the Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act and its Regulations. Furthermore, snowmobiles crossing on that bridge and proceeding north to Newcomb would also constitute new motorized activity within the half-mile Rivers Act designation, another legal matter.

Mr. Booth also made the point that Agency decision making should consider the snowmobile issues and route alternatives in the Essex Chain of Lakes UMP (2nd draft coming soon) and the adjoining units together, as they constitute a single trail system.  APA Chairwoman Ulrich responded to Mr. Booth’s points by saying that “we do need to see the big picture.”

Notwithstanding her comment,  the committee on Thursday did not support Mr. Booth’s request to postpone for a month further deliberation until the policy and planning questions could be resolved and the various trail segments reviewed comprehensively.

However by Friday, rather mysteriously, the trail segment which Mr. Booth maintained raised these big policy issues, Polaris Bridge north to Newcomb east of the Hudson River, was pulled from the DEC documents now approved for public comment. For those who were trying to follow the action on the APA webcast, when this change occurred was not at all transparent, but it certainly was sudden. The document now reads: “There are five distinct trail sections proposed in this Trail Plan, and for each section a separate analysis of alternatives was conducted.” Yet, only four sections are then described. The Polaris Bridge section was stricken from the public record overnight. Adirondack Wild happens to find that the right thing to have done at this juncture, but it surely would have been better to have had it debated and decided in full public view. Mr. Booth tried his best to make that happen.

Why is any of this important? First, snowmobiling in the Park is important to people and to the region’s economies, I readily admit. The questions include how much, how well planned, how integrated, public and private, how restrained in terms of mechanization and alteration of the Forest Preserve and how constitutional the snowmobile route system is.  They go on. How are secondary and more damaging impacts, like illegal ATV traffic on these routes, prevented.  What about climate change and factoring it into the planning process. How are all the citizens of the State, who have such a stake in the Forest Preserve, involved in deciding the outcomes. Governor Pataki could not live up to his promise of State Land Master Plan amendment public hearings on the snowmobile plan fifteen years ago. That was a big mistake.  Governor Andrew Cuomo still has an opportunity to correct his predecessors  failing.

Second,  APA is the only comprehensive planning agency the Park has, yet it is currently failing its responsibilities to think and to plan comprehensively and to do so transparently. With respect to snowmobiling routes, it and the DEC are prone to making independent, secretive decisions about snowmobile trail segments while knowing these segments are (or should be) part of a larger plan. That’s segmented decision making and that’s illegal.

Mr. Booth is trying to convince his colleagues at the APA and the DEC to reform themselves and to tackle and to resolve big policy questions early, comprehensively and publicly. Remember, he also tried to do this for the Adirondack Club and Resort. That effort was short-circuited by the highest State authority, the Governor. His efforts to have his colleagues debate major policy issues for the Essex Chain of Lakes classification were partly successful, but only by the hardest.

Now, as these Unit Management Plan decisions face both agencies, he is trying again. Adirondack Wild supports him in these efforts and hopes that other members on the APA will rouse themselves and do the planning work the Legislature and citizens expect of them. And we hope that Governor Cuomo will begin to appoint new members to the APA who share Mr. Booth’s standards. There is an immediate vacancy around the APA’s table. Who the Governor picks to fill it will be telling.

Photo: A 12-foot wide snowmobile trail bridge being constructed in the Moose River Plains in 2012.

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

23 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Dave, Is the newer “alternate” route you describe on private conservation easement land? That wouldn’t make a new trail on public forest preserve land “redundant” as some have described. There are no long-term guarantees for a trail on private timber management lands. Two trails on public land would be somewhat redundant but these would not meet that definition.

  2. scott says:

    I see a lot of focus was on allowing snowmobiles across the Polaris bridge. The Polaris bridge looks pretty large and substantial. If they were to permit a snowmobile trail to go that way, I do not understand the problem of allowing snowmobiles to use an existing bridge. If the bridge is allowed under the wild scenic rivers act, what will make it worse by using the bridge?

  3. Dave Gibson says:

    Scott, the Polaris Bridge was built for forest management and harvesting and transport of the logs while Finch, Pruyn owned both banks of the designated Scenic Hudson river at this location. It was debated at both the DEC and APA in the early 90s, and permitted under the Rivers Act regulations for Private sections of designated rivers. No public use of the bridge – by foot or by motor- was permitted then. In fact, my recollection is that the bridge was to be temporary for the forest harvesting then underway, and not a permanent structure.
    However, when both banks came into state ownership in 2013-14, the situation changed. I do not believe the State Land River regulations permit a bridge affording new public motorized uses across a designated Scenic river. Therefore, DEC must seek to amend its regulations if it wishes to route new public snowmobile trails across this bridge. Adirondack Wild favors the removal of the Polaris Bridge because of the Wilderness classification (pending) on the eastern side of the river (Hudson Gorge Wilderness Area) and the Primitive classification on the western side, and because it is such a truly scenic location. Thanks for commenting.

  4. Pete Klein says:

    I am sick of the never ending pettiness that goes on concerning the Adirondacks by all the environmental groups except for TNC.
    This whole junk about wild forest and wilderness is the only reason all the pettiness exists.
    No human who comes up here to enjoy the woods knows not the difference between wild forest and wilderness. The deer and the bear don’t know and don’t care.
    If you hate snowmobiles, just man up and say you want them banned from the Adirondacks. Stop trying to pretend you only object to them here or there.
    Frankly, I have no idea why the APA should continue to exist and waste tax payer dollars when the dollars can be better used by the DEC to protect state lands.
    The Catskills survive very well without a Catskill Park Agency.
    It seems to me the main value of the APA is to provide a forum for the environmental groups where they claim they are the only ones who care for the Adirondacks, when the fact is what they care about is stirring up debates to justify their existence and provide them with paying jobs.

    • John Warren says:

      Pete Klein is a reporter for the Hamilton County Express who covers DEC, the APA, state land policy and related subjects.

      “Frankly, I have no idea why the APA should continue to exist and waste tax payer dollars… It seems to me the main value of the APA is to provide a forum for the environmental groups where they claim they are the only ones who care for the Adirondacks, when the fact is what they care about is stirring up debates to justify their existence and provide them with paying jobs.”

      The Hamilton County Express can be reached via their contact page:

      • Greg M. says:

        Really John? After all the stone throwing over you made after the Denton editorial being completely out of line, you do the same attack, albeit implied, on someone’s personal comments?

        With personal attacks such as this, the bickering earlier in the week with Bill, you / Adirondack Almanak is becoming a more an environmental tabloid.

        Just as you demanded of Denton, I think you seriously owe someone an apology at a minimum!

        • M.P. Heller says:

          What is nice about Internet sites is that you don’t have to read them if you don’t want to. John does a very good job publishing interesting content and allowing free discussion of the issues amongst the readership. He too is entitled to express his own opinions as well, and if you have read much of his writings it’s not hard to see where he comes down on most issues. Pointing out to the readers that Mr. Klein is a journalist who covers environmental agencies might be interesting to some. Seems a fair point to me. No need to pillory the man for it. There is enough vitriol on this site lately without manufacturing any more.

          • Greg M. says:

            There is big difference between letting others know he is a reporter (which I’m still not sure is relevant) and the clearly implied calling for his expulsion over personal comments.

            I agree there are good things here at the Almanak, but this senselessness needs to stop as it interferes with legitimate discussion and detracts from the larger community.

  5. roamin with broman says:

    I love snowmobiles.

  6. AdkGuy says:

    I definitely see a big difference between wilderness and wild forest. I would bet, pro or con, most do.

  7. Pete Newell says:

    There needs to be a balance and a common sense approach. Conservation means wise use, not just locking up the land and keeping 99% of the people out. Right now it is too slanted towards the extreme environmentalist agenda which seeks to eliminate snowmobiles completely, whether they admit it or not.

    50% of the forest preserve is wilderness where there are no snowmobile trails or much of anything else. That should be sufficient for those who want “wilderness.”

    It is nonsense to “reconfigure the trail system” to remove trails from the “remote interior” then build new trails (which requires tree cutting and other construction) to replace them. It makes no environmental or economic sense. There is no real logic to eliminating parallel trails except to satisfy environmentalists’ desire to get rid of snowmobiles. Whether on state, easement, or totally private land, things happen to unexpectedly close trails and if there are not “parallel” or “redundant” trails between A and B then the trail system becomes disconnected.

    There are 50+ miles of established roads in the new Essex Chain property which could be excellent snowmobile trails with zero cost of construction and zero environmental impact, but most of it was classified as wilderness. Environmentalists are still complaining about the 1 or 2 planned snowmobile trails.

    The state has acquired huge tracts of land since 1972 when the APA and SLMP were created, yet the snowmobile trail mileage cap has not been adjusted. The actual trail mileage has not changed much, Snowmobile trails occupy a much smaller % of state land now than they did in 1972. This is a fact.

    Snowmobiling brings in hundreds of millions of dollars to the Adirondack economy. Outside of the Lake Placid resort area, there is no other winter tourism activity that brings in significant revenue. XC Skiing and snowshoeing don’t and never will.

    The mission of the APA is supposed to be balancing environmental preservation with maintaining strong local communities with a good economic base. They have done a very poor job of this. One only has to look at the statistics. Population – especially younger people – is shrinking. Schools have closed. Businesses have closed.

    • John Warren says:

      “The actual trail mileage has not changed much”

      A look at an Adirondack snowmobile map should make it clear that there are thousands of more miles of snowmobile trails now than there were in 1972. A conservative estimate would be about 3,000 miles of designated snowmobile trails in the Adirondack Park, that’s at least 1,000 more miles than existed in 1972 and does not include spur trails. Meanwhile, snowmobiling has generally been in decline (number of sleds sold and registrations) since 1972, and considering the current warming trend, in my view is likely to continue to decline.

      The idea that snowmobiling brings “hundreds of millions of dollars to the Adirondacks economy” is wildly false. A 2010-2011 study by New York State Snowmobile Association and undertaken by the SUNY Potsdam Institute for Applied Research, puts the economic impact in the entire North Country Region (excluding Tug Hill) between 12 and 13 million. They didn’t parse out the Adirondacks from the North Country, but it’s obvious that the impact is less than $10 million – not “hundreds of millions”.

      • Pete Klein says:

        First, when I comment here it is not an editorial in the HCE. It is just my view as a resident since 1987.
        Second, a huge majority of the 3,000 miles of snowmobile trails mentioned by you, if factual, are on private property.
        Third,I have no dog in this fight. I don’t own a snowmobile and I have never even been on one. I have never been bothered by one while snowshoeing even when on a snowmobile trail.
        Lastly, when there isn’t snow on the ground, snowmobile trails make for some good hiking trails.
        Fact, the only way to hike between Indian Lake and Blue Mt. Lake without walking along Rt 28/30 is to use the snowmobile trail. This could become part of the Adirondack Park-wide Community-Based Trails and Lodging System plan

        • John Warren says:


          Your comments make it obvious that you are not a balanced observer. In my view, as someone who reads all your stories about environmental policy and Adirondack land use, it’s obvious your stories share that imbalance.

          As a reporter, you have an ethical responsibility, to your colleagues and your readers, to report fairly. Couching your opinions as journalism is unfair and unethical. You wouldn’t last a day at a serious newspaper after having written that nonsense.

          • mike says:

            John, to be fair you are not a balanced observer reporter either. But perhaps that is not your goal. Adk Explorer uses the phrase ‘journalism with a point of view’. No problem with that so long as it is made clear. The Almanac, and you, have a clear point of view that shows thru all the time. I like it, but it is not classic journalism. This article and your comments are an example of point of view writing.

  8. Hawthorn says:

    What is the mileage of hiking trails in the Adirondacks? I have heard numbers around 2000 miles, so there may be more mileage for snowmobilers even though there are many more hikers, skiers, and snowshoers. In any case, it is not as if snowmobiling is being outlawed or excluded from vast swaths of the Adirondack Park. If I’m not mistaken, the number of snowmobiles is way down in recent years, so are we to build huge new snowmobile roads for the pleasure of a small and dwindling number of people who can afford $10K and up snow machines? Seems rather elitist and shortsighted to me.

    • Hawthorn says:

      According to the DEC snowmobile registrations for 2014-2015 were 121,539, or about 50,000 less than back in the early 2000s. In other words, the number of snowmobiles has declined 30% from its peak. Should the citizens of New York be asked to fork over tax dollars in order to help prop up a sport with dwindling participation?

      • M.P. Heller says:

        It would be interesting to know what the different economic impacts of various user groups are. As it is I don’t believe that there has been any study done which attempts to quantify what the average individual economic contribution of say a hiker as compared to a fisherman or a skier or a snowmobiler. I’d be very willing to bet that there are large differences in the amount the average individual from different groups contribute to the Adirondack economy during a day of recreation. Knowing the economic impact of different user groups would be very helpful in determining what facilities should be created and maintained for these individuals. It’s hard to justify creating more and more facilities for groups who have little impact and are declining in numbers when there are other users who have less access to public recreation lands when those others are having a greater economic impact and/or are growing in number.

      • Tom Payne says:

        The users (snowmobilers) pay for the maintenance. policing and development of their trails in NYS through their registration dollars.

        • M.P. Heller says:

          I apologize. As I see it this is a very poor rebuttal. Not only do other groups also have alternative revenue and labor sources (for example ADK, ATIS, or various other clubs) but to suggest that user fees for snowmobilers covers the entirety of expenses related to this group and that it’s somehow self sustaining is either just the intentional spreading of misinformation or just the verbal diarrhea of the grossly misinformed.

          • Tom Payne says:

            NYS Parks and Recreation has the yearly dispersement record to all the clubs who maintain snowmobile trails statewide. Oh and a whole lot of volunteer hours in those clubs. Misinformed, hardly.

  9. Paul says:

    These numbers being bounced around here are crazy. According to state figures the number of miles of snowmobile trails on Forest Preserve land in 1972 was 740 miles. This includes roads that are open for public use of snowmobiles. In 2008 that number had grown to 766 miles, a whopping increase of 22 miles (or 0.03%). In 2008 the milage allowed for snowmobile trails was capped by the state at 848.88 miles. See link below for the relevant facts and the state land master plan resolution regarding the cap.

    Yes, it looks like snowmobile use is declining. Is it’s economic impact declining? Maybe. Is it still substantial relative to the economy of the region? Absolutely.

    There are far more miles of hiking trails on Forest Preserve land than there are miles of snowmobile trails (which you can also hike, even w/o snowmobiles much of the year). Plus there is no cap on hiking trails.

    In my opinion the milage that exists on private easement land, some open to the public and some not, should really not impact these decisions. That is apples and oranges.

  10. Charlie S says:

    Pete Newell says: “50% of the forest preserve is wilderness where there are no snowmobile trails or much of anything else. That should be sufficient for those who want “wilderness.”

    Yeah but 95% is the same old same old everywhere else Pete…. 50% wilderness means only half of the Adirondack Park is protected from motorized use and people who desire noise more than they desire solitude.It’s not enough! I’m along the thoughts of Clarence Petty who once said he’d like to see an unbroken wilderness from his doorstep to the Capital in Albany. There’s not enough wilderness Pete. Not even close.

    And that not much of anything else you mention! To some those woods may mean nothing but to others they are the Elysian fields.We’re all different thank the powers that be but too many of us are stiffs who could care less about things that really matter,things with meaning,things connected to the natural order of things not things connected to a wire.

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