In one of his last acts as the state’s environmental conservation commissioner, Joe Martens overturned a predecessor’s finding that part of the Jackrabbit Ski Trail was still a town road and therefore could be open to snowmobiles, ATVs, and other vehicles.
Martens, who left his post last week, wrote in a July 22 decision that the road had long been abandoned and so the state had the power to close it to vehicular use. The road in question — known as the Old Mountain Road — cuts through the Sentinel Range Wilderness between Keene and North Elba.
Under the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, motor vehicles are prohibited in Wilderness Areas. One argument advanced by Martens is that local towns did not object when the road was closed under the State Land Master Plan. Every edition of the master plan since 1987 has noted that the road “has been closed and the area now conforms to wilderness standards.”
Furthermore, Martens said that under state highway law, a road is considered abandoned if it has not been used as a highway for six years or longer. Old Mountain Road, he said, fit that criterion.
The decision vacates much of the decision of a former environmental conservation commissioner, Alexander “Pete” Grannis, who ruled in May 2009 that the road had not been legally abandoned.
Grannis’s decision was a victory for Jim McCulley, president of the Lake Placid Snowmobile Club. A forest ranger had ticketed McCulley for driving a pickup truck on Old Mountain Road.
Shortly after that decision, staff from the Department of Environmental Conservation asked the commissioner to clarify certain legal questions raised by the ruling.
In response to the motion for clarification, Martens reviewed the case and concluded that the original decision was wrong. Nevertheless, he said DEC will not reinstate the ticket against McCulley.
McCulley and his lawyer, Matt Norfolk of Lake Placid, said Wednesday that they intend to appeal to New York State Supreme Court and perhaps to federal court as well. “They’re going to lose, and it’s going to set an even bigger precedent,” McCulley told Adirondack Almanack.
Norfolk said there was no legal basis for clarifying the original decision. Consequently, he said the ruling by Martens is “null and void. The motion should not even have been entertained.”
Norfolk also disputed Martens’s interpretation of the highway statutes. “His conclusion flies in the face of well-established case law on how you determine whether a town road has been abandoned or not,” he said.
The 3.5-mile stretch of old road is one of the most popular sections of the Jackrabbit Ski Trail, which extends 24 miles from Keene to Saranac Lake.
“We think that the commissioner’s decision makes sense,” said Josh Wilson, executive director of the Barkeater Trails Alliance (BETA), which maintains the Jackrabbit and other trails.
However, Wilson said the Grannis ruling had little effect on the Jackrabbit Trail’s use.
After the 2009 ruling, the town of Keene allowed local residents to ride all-terrain vehicles on the road during hunting season. However, few took advantage of the opportunity.
Keene resident Tony Goodwin, Wilson’s predecessor (BETA was then known as the Adirondack Ski Touring Council), is concerned that the latest decision will rile up advocates of motorized use. “Given that there’s been so little use [of the road by ATVs], one hopes there’s not a big backlash,” he said.
McCulley said he is less concerned with opening the road to motorized use than he is with defending the rights of local towns. “It’s about the state taking things that don’t belong to them,” he said. “It’s an abuse of power.”
He accused DEC of taking marching orders from the Adirondack Council, which intervened in the case.
Willie Janeway, the council’s executive director, praised the decision. “We are very pleased that Commissioner Joe Martens looked at all of the evidence in this case and reaffirmed that the Old Mountain Road was legally closed to motorized traffic long ago. The commissioner verified the importance of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan in resolving disputes over acceptable uses of the ‘forever wild’ Forest Preserve,” he said in a news release.
Photo by Susan Bibeau: Jim McCulley walks along Old Mountain Road.