Note: This article is the second of three that looks at the widespread violations of public process, state policies, and state laws in the recent approval of the Essex Chain Plan. Part one can be found here.
One of the most controversial elements of the Essex Chain Complex Unit Management Plan (Essex Chain Plan), approved last week by the Adirondack Park Agency (APA), is the proposal to cut a new five-mile snowmobile trail through the western part of the Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forest area, east of the Hudson River. This new snowmobile trail will retain and use the Polaris Bridge and is designed to connect the communities of Indian Lake and Minerva with a major new snowmobile trail, despite the fact that these communities are already connected with a major snowmobile trail.
In 2009, the APA and Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) approved “Management Guidance: Snowmobile Trail Siting, Construction and Maintenance in Forest Preserve Lands in the Adirondack Park” (Snowmobile Guidance). This document details the ways that snowmobile trails in the Adirondack Park are to be managed.
The Snowmobile Guidance recognizes the major financial investment to build and maintain snowmobile trails in the Forest Preserve as well as the negative ecological impacts of these major trail systems on natural resources. In light of these considerations, the Guidance states a clear preference that trail redundancy is to be avoided and that trails should not be built in wild, interior areas.
The approved Essex Chain Plan widely violates the Snowmobile Guidance.
First, the Essex Chain Plan includes a duplicative new class II community connector snowmobile trail system. In July 2015, the APA approved a new trail to connect Newcomb to Minerva and the DEC is now undertaking extensive work to build that trail around Harris Lake and along Route 28N. There has long been a trail that connects Indian Lake to Newcomb, via a major existing snowmobile bridge over the Cedar River. This trail runs parallel to Route 30 in the Blue Mountain Wild Forest and runs through conservation easement lands.
In fact, state purchase of the snowmobile trail route in that easement was the major recreational right obtained. Since an existing trail connects Indian Lake to Newcomb and a new trail, now under construction, will connect Newcomb to Minerva, it stands to reason that Indian Lake and Minerva are connected. (See maps here.)
Yet, through a bewildering and Kafkaesque denial of reality, state agencies say that the existing trail system does not count as a Minerva to Indian Lake connection.
The DEC states that while one may be able to use this trail system to travel from Indian Lake to Minerva, the existing trail serves other purposes because it also connects trails to Blue Mountain Lake and Long Lake. Because it’s primary purpose is not a discreet Indian Lake to Minerva connection, the DEC contends it’s not a bonafide community connection.
The agencies also state that the existing route from Indian Lake to Minerva is too long at over 31 miles, whereas the new shorter route over the Polaris Bridge and through the Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forest area will be just over 20 miles. DEC staff have said the longer mileage make this trail “not practical.”
The route that involves cutting a new trail through five miles of the Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forest area, forests that have not seen an axe for more than 100 years, is somehow too long for snowmobile travel. This is a head-scratcher. Isn’t the whole purpose of snowmobile riding the enjoyment of snowmobile riding? Snowmobile riders regularly make 30-mile rides from Indian Lake to Speculator or Indian Lake to Old Forge, among many other places throughout the Adirondacks and Tug Hill area. It’s a regular event for snowmobile riders to ride from Old Forge to Long Lake and back.
The distance of the trail should not be the deciding factor. Snowmobile riders are riding motor vehicles after all. They’re not walking. Why is it that they need the shortest route possible? (At the APA meeting, Fred Monroe of the Local Government Review Board, stated “local government wants the shortest route possible.”) Isn’t the thrill of snowmobiles snowmobile riding? Newly constructed state-of the-art hiking trails up Coney Mountain, Goodman Mountain and Moxham Mountain were not built for the shortest routes from parking lot to mountain summits. These trails were built on routes to minimize impacts and protect natural resources. And hikers are actually walking. It makes no sense for a new snowmobile trail to be cut through a wild trailless part of the Forest Preserve simply to provide a shorter connection.
This decision is a clear violation of the Snowmobile Guidance, which discourages trail redundancy.
In addition to putting on blinders about trail redundancy and violation of the Guidance, APA and DEC also united to avoid assessing real alternatives. The Town of Indian Lake stated throughout the process that it hoped that the Essex Chain Plan would create a new snowmobile route that utilized the Wild Forest corridor between the Essex Chain Lakes Primitive area and Hudson Gorge Wilderness area and a new bridge over the Cedar River. In this way, snowmobilers could ride from Indian Lake to Newcomb along the existing trail and then return via the new trail through the Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forest area, across the Polaris Bridge, down the Wild Forest corridor, across a new Cedar River bridge, and down the Chain Lakes Road to Indian Lake. The Essex Chain Plan makes this loop a reality, but it could have been accomplished with much less damage to the Forest Preserve.
The APA-DEC never seriously looked at alternatives where a snowmobile trail that utilized the new Wild Forest corridor and Cedar River Bridge could have been connected to the existing Indian Lake to Minerva snowmobile trail east of the Hudson River. In this way the Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forest area could have been spared and the Polaris Bridge removed. Only through a deliberate obfuscation can the APA-DEC maintain that a new trail is needed.
The other way that the newly approved trails violate the Guidance is that the trail through the Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forest runs through wild, trailless interior areas. The Guidance says that snowmobile trails should be kept on the periphery of Forest Preserve units, but in this case DEC and APA ignored their own Guidance. APA and DEC studies showed extensive wetlands along this route where dozens of bridges and “bog bridges” will be needed. They also acknowledged that this trail “may” have impacts on deer wintering yards.
The new Indian Lake-to-Minerva snowmobile trail also runs contrary to the priorities detailed in the 2006 Snowmobile Plan for the Adirondack Park. This plan contained a list of priority trail systems to link communities throughout the Adirondack Park. This plan is the definitive policy to date for vital community connection trails in the Adirondacks. Under “Community Connection Goals” in the “Trail Section” part of the Snowmobile Plan (pages 45-46), there is no mention of a Minerva-to-Indian Lake snowmobile trail. This was not a major goal for New York and was not recognized as a priority. The Environmental Impact Study associated with the Snowmobile Plan did not evaluate the impacts of a Minerva-to-Indian Lake trail. APA and DEC said blithely and without any evidence that they judged the new trail complies with the state Snowmobile Plan.
The APA and DEC never seriously looked at issues such as snowfall for the Indian Lake to Minerva route. This part of the Adirondacks receives significantly less snow than western communities, like Old Forge, or parts of the Forest Preserve like the Moose River Plains. APA and DEC said snowfall should not be a consideration because these will be “multi use” trails for hikers, horseback riders, and mountainbikers. In addition to blowing off requests for analysis of snowfall data, these agencies blew off requests for user data on other multi use trails. The reality is that class II community connector snowmobile trails receive very little use other than snowmobiling. Mountainbikers do not use them. Horse riders do not use them. Hikers do not use them.
The other issue that neither agency considered is that the major viable snowmobile connections for community-to-community snowmobiling in the Adirondacks have already been made and are long established. The routes being cut today are of marginal value for enhancing the Adirondack snowmobile riding experience, yet cause immense environmental damage as they are cut largely through wild, trailless areas and they connect communities where snowmobiling is not a major sport, in part due to lack of consistent snowfall.
Plans, policies, and regulations adopted by state agencies exist to provide a public accounting for public policy objectives and safeguards for public lands. They also provide a guide for the ways that decisions should be made. Without these public documents, decisions would be made based on political considerations and by the caprice and whim of agencies seeking to implement the political or emotional objectives of their leadership.
The APA and DEC ignored their stated public policy objectives and safeguards for the Forest Preserve and made their decisions purely for political purposes. The net result is immense and needless damage to the “forever wild” Forest Preserve.