Not 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.