The contradictory, disconnected, segmented, illegal and impractical ways that the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (with full cooperation from the Adirondack Park Agency so far and support from Governor Andrew Cuomo) is going about the business of planning and building community connector snowmobile routes in the Adirondack Park continues apace. Work planning for the just approved community connector between Newcomb and Minerva, for example, will prove very interesting indeed and will be challenged in every sense of that word.
DEC’s stated snowmobile community connector objective is to connect Indian Lake with Minerva and North Hudson by way of Newcomb. The DEC’s preferred Newcomb-Minerva snowmobile connector (described in Community Connector UMP amendments just approved) begins at the inlet of Lake Harris on the Newcomb Lake Road. Almost directly across from this location along Route 28N is the outlet of an alternative snowmobile route leading from Indian Lake, along the Chain Lakes Road North to the Goodnow Flow Trail on private lands (described in another Draft UMP, the Essex Chain Lakes Complex). So, these two alternatives and UMP recommendations sensibly line up with each other and require only a crossing of Route 28N at this location to meet.
However, DEC rejected the Goodnow Flow Trail as an Indian Lake-Newcomb alternative in the Essex Chain UMP and prefers to build an entirely new snowmobile route east of the Hudson River in the Forest Preserve which empties out at Newcomb’s Chaisson Road and Route 28N. Chaisson Road-Route 28N is several miles east of the inlet of Lake Harris. Thus, the DEC’s preferred terminus of the Indian Lake to Newcomb route does not match up with the preferred start of the Newcomb to Minerva route.
Already, the community connector is disconnected.
Why, in the Essex Chain UMP, does the DEC reject the Goodnow Flow Route which follows a combination of Town Road, private land and private land conservation easement currently used by snowmobilers, with its terminus in Newcomb that lines-up better with the proposed start of the route to Minerva? The answer: “Because there is a history of private land issues related to snowmobiling.” Those issues go unexplained in the UMP, which is improper since the UMP should fully analyze alternatives. Furthermore, private lands, especially those which allow snowmobiling by conservation easement, are, wherever possible, preferred over the Forest Preserve as a way to connect snowmobile routes according to the DEC’s own Snowmobile Plan and Guidance documents. That policy “disconnect” is also not discussed in the UMP.
The other reason DEC rejects the Goodnow Flow alternative is that it follows a Town Road for some distance, and “use of a Town Road for some distance is not preferred if other alternatives exist.” That statement is also not explained.
At the very least, DEC’s explanations should be consistent between the Draft Essex Chain UMP and the Community Connector UMP amendment since they are both needed to create the desired Indian Lake to Newcomb to Minerva to North Hudson connections. That is not the case.
In the Community Connector UMP just approved, DEC states: “After leaving the campground, the route continues on Campsite Road, a town road designated for snowmobile use. The trail then leaves Campsite Road and continues southeast on an existing snowmobile trail to the Newcomb golf course. The trail is located on town property. The connection from the golf course to the Hyslop Pond Tract will be developed on private property. The trail location would be negotiated by the local snowmobile club, private landowners, and town/county officials. ..the exact location of this trail segment will rely on the owner’s permission.” Many similar statements are made for the remaining route to Minerva.
In short, while existing snowmobiling on private land routes covered by conservation easements and along Town Roads are rejected out of hand by DEC in the snowmobile route to Newcomb in preference to constructing long new routes in the interior of the “forever wild” Forest Preserve, private lands and Town Roads are preferred alternatives in the Community Connector route which goes from Newcomb to Minerva despite the uncertainties of gaining and maintaining permissions from multiple landowners.
There are numerous practical, private property, natural resource and legal difficulties in reaching Minerva and North Hudson from Newcomb via a 9-12 foot snowmobile route. I recently reviewed some of these Newcomb to Minerva difficulties with a nearby concerned landowner. I was especially impressed with the practical (to say nothing of the legal) pinch point of crossing the Boreas River en route to Minerva. In the Community Connector UMP, DEC acknowledges the limited sight distance and narrow highway shoulder that makes use of Route 28N itself unsafe for snowmobiles, but fails to acknowledge that hanging a snowmobile bridge off of Route 28N or just upstream of 28N (the UMP recommends one or the other), poses its own engineering and safety concerns. Snowmobilers approaching at some speed from both directions will have to drop steeply down to the river, and then quickly and steeply ride uphill to a newly constructed 12-foot wide embankment and new 12-foot wide bridge that must lie well above the river’s flood stage at the same height as Route 28N itself. Snowmobilers will have to navigate all this while also turning rather sharply to stay on course and not wind up in the river, with poor sight lines ahead.
The legal difficulties of constructing a new snowmobile bridge over the Boreas River, designated Scenic under the Rivers Act, are several. Briefly, in the Community Connector UMP DEC states that it can issue itself a permit to build a motorized bridge because DEC judges that the bridge will not adversely impact the Scenic River and therefore meets one section of the Regulations. The judgment of no adverse impact given is that the bridge will be built close to existing motorized highway Route 28N, so there could be nothing adverse with building another motorized route so close by.
The UMP also states that the bridge at this location minimizes use of the Forest Preserve and related tree-cutting. Perhaps this is so. However, the UMP ignores the following DEC Finding from the 1986 River Regulations: “The Regulations have been amended to prohibit motorized open space recreational uses in scenic river areas. Therefore, bridges for this use have been prohibited. The Department agrees that motorized recreational vehicles should not be allowed to operate in scenic river areas due to their relatively undeveloped nature and the concurrent extensive low intensity recreational and other passive outdoor uses which predominately take place within such river areas and conflict with motorized recreational vehicles.”
Additional obstacles to reaching Minerva from Newcomb inside the tree line and outside of the Department of Transportation Right-Of-Way along Route 28N include securing multiple private landowner permissions. This is acknowledged in the UMP description of the five mile long Boreas River to Stony Ponds route segment: “If an agreement to cross private inholdings in this area can’t be secured, a short section of the trail will have to be located within the DOT right of way to avoid the private land. Where possible the trail will be located to avoid wetlands and minimize tree cutting. Additional field work will be required to locate this new trail to avoid wetlands, minimize stream crossings, minimize tree cutting and provide a safe trail in accordance with the Management Guidance.” This description hardly justifies confidence in the route’s practical feasibility or long-term stability.
Another difficulty will be found in actually reaching and traversing the hamlet of Minerva over the last 1.5 miles of the connector route. The UMP states: “between the state land boundary to the hamlet of Minerva, the trail location will be negotiated by the local snowmobile clubs, private landowners, and town/county officials.” There appear to be many uncertainties and intervening front lawns and shade trees on private property along this final leg of the Newcomb to Minerva connector.
The question posed by the concerned resident I went along with on my tour is the most apt: Where is the public demand in Minerva that snowmobilers from Newcomb can reach and drive through the hamlet? And visa-versa? Does such a demand exist and is it well documented?
If it does, continued use of the Tahawus railroad line into Minerva (via the town road portion of the North Woods Club Road) may prove in the end the most viable option. But DEC rejects this alternative, stating “because the Department is proposing to designate a four season multiple use trail, the use of the railroad is proposed only in the short term as a snowmobile community connector route, but will be discontinued for use by snowmobiles upon completion of the preferred alternative.” The reason: “recreational uses during the non-winter months are not permitted on the railroad.”
The refrain throughout the Community Connector UMP that this is a multi-use trail may become true one day, but not during the important design and construction phase. The planning, design and construction is completely focused on snowmobiling, not snowshoeing, skiing, tramping, bicycling. Designing trails for these activities would take other considerations into account.
Also, what the UMP fails to acknowledge and discuss is that the Tahawus railroad is not actively being used today by Iowa-Pacific Holdings, the lessee of the rails, despite the company’s promise of tailings removal from the former Tahawus mine just a few years ago. The continued non-use of the tracks as an active railroad bring back the question whether the federal rail corridor lease (1942, renewed in 1962) has been voided, and whether the State of New York should insist that the public gain back 13 miles of Forest Preserve taken by the federal government as a war emergency measure back in 1942. If the State did insist on this action, the rails could be removed and the route revert to Forest Preserve, with the questions of its management and use resolved through dialogue and the Vanderwhacker Wild Forest UMP.
Other uncertainties, and I have only touched on some of them, exist “upstream” of Minerva all the way to Newcomb. Similar problems plague the connector route to North Hudson and deserve their own separate essay.
Yet, APA and DEC have approved both connector routes as compliant with the State Land Master Plan. Will the APA similarly find the Essex Chain of Lakes Primitive Area UMP compliant with the Master Plan? Will APA Staff and Members question the inconsistencies or the disconnects between the two plans, or be troubled by that UMP’s compliance with the Snowmobile Guidance and River regulations, or by the lack of alternatives analysis required by the SLMP and State Environmental Quality Review Act, or by the unnecessary cutting of thousands of trees on the Forest Preserve, or by the inevitable use by all-terrain vehicles of these wide motorized corridors? We may find out as early as September.
In its testimony to the DEC on the Essex Chain of Lakes Draft UMP, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve concludes: “this Draft UMP does not comply with the SLMP. DEC should re-write this UMP to forthrightly address and comply with all existing law, regulation, policy and guidance documents. We encourage DEC and APA to form a citizen advisory committee or stakeholder task force that brings the agencies together with the five towns, recreational interests and Forest Preserve advocates to discuss the legal obstacles, alternative management recommendations, and other constructive forward steps to achieving SLMP compliance.”
Photo: The Boreas River and Route 28N where DEC proposes a new snowmobile bridge.