Two of the Adirondack Park’s major environmental groups are suing the state over the management plan for the Essex Chain Lakes region—a large tract of forest, ponds, and streams that the state acquired from the Nature Conservancy as part of the blockbuster Finch, Pruyn deal.
Protect the Adirondacks and Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court in Albany contending that the management plan violates the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, the state Wild, Scenic, and Recreational Rivers System Act, and state snowmobile-trail policy.
Named as defendants are the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which drafted the management plan, and the Adirondack Park Agency, which approved it. The state is expected to reply to the suit soon. Meantime, both agencies are refusing to comment.
Christopher Amato, a former assistant commissioner at DEC, told the Adirondack Explorer that the Essex Chain plan is “blatantly illegal.” Amato is now an attorney at Earthjustice, a nonprofit organization that is representing Protect and Adirondack Wild.
Earthjustice wants the agencies to withdraw the management plan and draft a new one “that complies with all applicable laws, rules, and guidance.” It is asking the court to prohibit the agencies from implementing the existing plan.
The Adirondack Council and Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) declined to join the suit, but they also have raised legal questions. “We are hoping to resolve these issues without going to court,” said Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council.
Neil Woodworth, ADK’s executive director, said the two groups might yet sue, but they are holding fire until DEC provides its legal justification for its actions. In some cases, he said, DEC may take additional steps to satisfy the law.
“ADK and the council have retained our own attorneys, and we have a different way of looking at the whole situation,” he said. “It’s just a different approach.”
At its November meeting, the APA voted 8-2 to approve the unit management plan (UMP). The document governs recreational use in the 19,600-acre Essex Chain Lakes Complex, which includes the Essex Chain Lakes Primitive Area, the Pine Lake Primitive Area, and portions of the Blue Mountain Lake Wild Forest.
The two dissenters on the APA board, Dick Booth and Art Lussi, argued that the UMP fails to comply with the State Land Master Plan. But DEC Regional Director Robert Stegemann, who also sits on the board, defended the plan.
“We’ve had this looked at by both agencies extensively. I appreciate your concerns, but I just don’t think they stand up,” he told Booth and Lussi at the November meeting.
The lawsuit, filed in January, contains five causes of action. Four pertain to a proposed snowmobile trail. The fifth challenges a provision that would allow mountain biking in the two Primitive Areas.
The Essex Chain Lakes Complex is crisscrossed by fifty-three miles of former logging and woods roads. Most of these roads are closed to the general public. However, members of the Gooley Club, which leased land from Finch, Pruyn, drive on some of the otherwise-closed roads to reach their camps and will be allowed to do so until 2018, when their leases expire.
DEC intends to use three of the roads—Chain Lakes South Road, Camp Six Road, and Drakes Mill Road—as part of a snowmobile route linking the hamlets of Indian Lake and Newcomb. The trail then would cross the Hudson River (leaving the Essex Chain Lakes Complex) and continue north through the Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forest. Eventually, DEC wants to extend the trail east to Minerva. Local-government leaders lobbied for such a trail after the Nature Conservancy bought the Finch, Pruyn land.
The Adirondack Council and Adirondack Mountain Club acquiesced to a snowmobile trail as the price for keeping the Essex Chain Lakes motor-free. However, the groups favored a route that didn’t cross the Hudson.
In another controversial decision, DEC last summer adopted an interim stewardship plan that opened about nine miles of roads in the Essex Chain Lakes and Pine Lake Primitive Areas to mountain biking. The UMP continues this practice.
Following are details of the five causes of action in the Earthjustice suit.
Cedar River bridge
The UMP calls for building a 150-foot bridge over the Cedar that would be used by snowmobilers, skiers, horseback riders, mountain bikers, and hikers. In the past, bridges had crossed the Cedar in the vicinity of the proposed site of the new span. The last one collapsed in 1978.
Earthjustice contends that the new bridge would violate the Wild, Scenic, and Recreational Rivers System Act. The stretch of the Cedar in question is designated a Scenic River. Regulations state that bridges are allowed over a Scenic River “for public roads or for non-motorized open space recreational uses [our emphasis].” Thus, Earthjustice argues that a bridge for snowmobiling is not allowed.
DEC contends that the bridge is permissible in that it would continue a use that predated the rivers act. In the past, it says, the road leading to the river was a town highway. Even after the bridge collapsed, snowmobilers would cross the frozen river at the site, according to the UMP.
Nevertheless, the department says it will need to issue itself a permit under the rivers act to build the bridge. And because the snowmobile trail would exceed four feet in width—the maximum width allowed under the act—the department may also need to issue itself a variance.
Earthjustice claims such a permit would be illegal “for the simple reason that DEC cannot lawfully issue itself a permit and variance allowing a use that is prohibited.”
Because of the length of the bridge, DEC wants to use non-natural materials, which would require an amendment to the State Land Master Plan. The use of non-natural materials, however, is not part of the lawsuit.
In 1992, Finch, Pruyn built an iron bridge over the Hudson to access timberlands on the east side of the river. It replaced an earlier bridge that evidently washed out in the 1950s. Members of the Polaris Mountain Club drive across the iron bridge to reach their camps. Before the bridge was built, they crossed the water at a low point in the river.
This stretch of the Hudson is classified as Scenic. Earthjustice says the Polaris Bridge was never open to the public for snowmobiling, so opening it up now would violate the rivers act.
Robert Davies, director of DEC’s Division of Lands and Forests, told the Explorer last fall that even though the Polaris Bridge was not open to the general public, the motorized history of the crossing still qualifies as a pre-existing use that may be continued. “The law doesn’t talk about public or private uses,” he said. “It talks about existing uses.”
All four of the environmental groups warn that this grandfathering of private uses sets a precedent that could be used to justify a variety of motorized use when land is acquired for the Forest Preserve.
“The grandfathering concept is a sham, and the agency ought not to permit it,” Booth said at the APA meeting in November. “It will come back to haunt us.”
Even if snowmobiling were a pre-existing use, Earthjustice contends that opening the Polaris Bridge to public snowmobiling would constitute “an impermissible expansion of a use not permitted under the Scenic classification.”
Wild River corridor
Starting a few miles south of the Polaris Bridge, the Hudson is classified as a Wild River, the most-protective designation in the rivers act. Generally, no motorized use is permitted within a half-mile of a Wild River. Yet part of Chain Lakes Road South falls within this corridor and, under the UMP, would be used by snowmobiles in winter and by automobiles in other seasons.
Earthjustice contends that this motorized use would violate the rivers act and the State Land Master Plan. The SLMP states that Wild River corridors “will be managed in accordance with guidelines for wilderness areas.” Motorized use is prohibited in Wilderness Areas.
DEC contends that Chain Lakes Road South has a long history of motorized use that justifies its continued use by snowmobiles and other motor vehicles.
New snowmobile trail
Apart from the objections above, Earthjustice argues that the new snowmobile trail would duplicate an existing trail (located several miles west) that connects Indian Lake and Newcomb and thus would violate a document approved by DEC and the APA in 2009 titled “Management Guidance: Snowmobile Trail Siting, Construction and Maintenance on Forest Preserve Lands in the Adirondack Park.”
The proposed trail is an example of a “community connector”—a wide, smooth trail that links hamlets. The snowmobile guidance declares that community connectors “are not duplicated or paralleled by other snowmobile trails.”
The existing snowmobile trail runs along the western border of the Essex Chain Lakes Complex. DEC acknowledges that snowmobilers would be able to use this trail to travel from Indian Lake to Newcomb and eventually to Minerva. However, the department asserts in the UMP that relying on the older trail would result in “a more circuitous route … and would therefore increase the travel time between Indian Lake and Minerva.”
The UMP seeks to designate as mountain-biking trails seven miles of roads in the Wild Forest portion of the complex and nine miles of roads in the Essex Chain Lakes and Pine Lake Primitive Areas.
Under the State Land Master Plan, biking is permitted in Wild Forest Areas, but biking is banned in Primitive Areas except on DEC administrative roads (truck trails) and on “existing roads legally open to the public.”
Gooley Club members are allowed to drive on roads in the Primitive Area until their leases expire in 2018. DEC considers this a form of public use and so has opened these roads to bicycling. After 2018, the department plans to continue to allow bicycling. In the UMP, the department says bicycling would take place on “a subset of administrative roads.” These would be roads that DEC wants to maintain for horseback riding and other uses.
Earthjustice notes that the UMP now identifies only 0.65 miles of roads as administrative roads. It also contends that the Gooley Club use is not public use. “These roads are therefore not ‘legally open to the public’ within the meaning of the SLMP,” the lawsuit says. As a result, Earthjustice says bicycling in the Primitive Areas is illegal.
Since the filing of the lawsuit, the APA has voted to amend the State Land Master Plan to allow bicycling in the two Primitive Areas.
Fred Monroe, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, accused Protect and Adirondack Wild of trying to sabotage a document that balances environmental and economic concerns.
“Mainstream environmental groups, local governments, the APA, and DEC worked diligently on a plan for the Essex Chain Complex which recognizes community needs as well as environmental protection,” Monroe said. “Protect and Wild failed to constructively participate in the process.”
Monroe, a member of the Polaris Mountain Club, corroborated DEC’s claim that Chain Lakes Road South was used by snowmobilers before the adoption of the Wild, Scenic, and Recreational Rivers System Act. He said they crossed the Cedar on ice after the last bridge washed out. Likewise, he added, before the Polaris Bridge existed, snowmobilers used to ride across the Hudson on ice at the site.
The new snowmobile trail, he said, “would provide a much more direct and much more attractive route to the towns of Newcomb and Minerva. This is especially important to Minerva, which has lacked viable snowmobile-trial connections to the wider region.”
The Adirondack Nature Conservancy bought 161,000 acres from Finch, Pruyn & Company in 2007. The state agreed to buy sixty-five thousand acres for the Forest Preserve in stages over five years, with nearly all of the rest protected by conservation easements.
In the final phase, the state plans this year to buy the 21,500-acre Boreas Ponds Tract on the edge of the High Peaks Wilderness. The classification and management of those lands also promises to be controversial. Environmentalists disagree with local officials over how much of the tract should be classified as motor-free Wilderness.
Primitive Areas to be combined
The Essex Chain Lakes Complex now contains two adjacent Primitive Areas, but the state intends to combine them.
At the moment, the Essex Chain Lakes Primitive Area (seven thousand acres) and the Pine Lake Primitive Area (2,800 acres) are separated only by a narrow strip of Forest Preserve that does not fall into any of the state-land classifications.
When the Adirondack Park Agency created the two Primitive Areas in 2013, it left the corridor unclassified while the state Department of Environmental Conservation investigated its suitability as a snowmobile route.
If the corridor became a snowmobile trail, the corridor would have been classified as Wild Forest and the two Primitive Areas would have remained as they are. However, DEC has rejected that snowmobile route in favor of another. As a result, the APA is expected to combine the two Primitive Areas and the corridor. The new tract will be called the Essex Chain Lakes Primitive Area.
Under the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, a Primitive Area is managed essentially as a Wilderness Area. Motorized recreation is forbidden in Wilderness Areas. One reason the Essex Chain Lakes and Pine Lake tracts are classified as Primitive rather than Wilderness is that floatplanes have deeded rights to land on First Lake in the Essex Chain and on Pine Lake.
Photos from above: Polaris Bridge over the Hudson by Nancie Battaglia; Essex Chain Lakes Complex Map by Nancy Bernstein; Cedar River by Carl Heilman II; mountain bikers courtesy of BigStockPhoto.com.
This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.
“DEC acknowledges that snowmobilers would be able to use this trail to travel from Indian Lake to Newcomb and eventually to Minerva. However, the department asserts in the UMP that relying on the older trail would result in “a more circuitous route … and would therefore increase the travel time between Indian Lake and Minerva.”
Since when are snowmobile trails meant to be as short and fast as possible? I thought the whole idea of trail-building was to get the user out in nature, not to speed travel from one destination to another.
Yes indeed…..one more one-sided “explanation” by Mr. Brown and Company. Hopefully DEC’s current plan prevails.
Would you mind explaining why you feel this is a “one sided explanation” of the lawsuit?
Simply making disparaging comments about an author that you always disagree with isn’t very productive. Exactly what do you disagree with and why?
“that complies with all applicable laws, rules, and guidance.” Meaning according to Protect and Adirondack Wild’s interpretation of the law, bypassing the legally constituted authority of DEC and the APA.
The position of the claimants is that Primitive amounts to De-facto Wilderness, yet the SLMP doesn’t really say that. According to the SLMP, Primitive can remain primitive, without ever being changed to Wilderness.
“blatantly illegal.” An opinion being used as a catchy buzz-word.
The lack of balance approach by Protect and crew is the reason they have lost my support,
Does it bother you that snowmobile clubs lack balance? So why expect it of environmental advocates?
Once again the eco-freaks want to deny the public access. There is no wilderness there. None of these lands qualify for wilderness status. But these haters of public access keep twisting forest management to deny the public access and use. They continue to destroy all winter tourism and recreation. One more reason to abolish the forest preserve or at least restrict it to above 3,000 feet elevation. One more reason to reopen every road closed by these prejudice, narrow-minded [redacted by the moderator – no name calling!] and their lackeys in Albany.
You draw me in every time with your evaluational threshold for Forest Preserve classification. I so wish you would explain that rational sometime….
I must have had some auto correct there…Elevation threshold…is what I meant.
At 3000 feet, Lake Colden wouldn’t qualify. Neither would the Elk Lake trail almost all the way to PG L/T. None of the LGWF would.
I know and ADKerDon writes this all the time but there is never an explanation…I understand some wish to harvest and manage state lands but I would like to know why he thinks at 3,000 feet the Forest Preserve is a good idea and below that it is a bad idea. Maybe he is a birder and wants protection for the Bicknell’s Thrush only.
It’s just more troll bait, try not to take it too seriously.
“They continue to destroy all winter tourism and recreation.”
You might be surprised to see just how much winter tourism and recreation exists in the Adks, Don. Apparently you never drive past trail heads on winter weekends. And despite the lousy snow this winter, there was still a fair amount of snowmobiling. Then there’s all the ice fishing and cross country skiing. You really need to get out more.
Forget about the issues here.
I am simply opposed to lawsuits for any reason whatsoever.
If something is not a crime that puts you in jail or gets you executed, I am not in favor of being punished with a lawsuit.
I’m curious Pete, you’re closer to this than I am, do these groups actually put these kinds of things to a membership vote? Since this is a civil lawsuit against the state it probably wouldn’t apply, but in the UK, if you bring a civil lawsuit against someone and lose, you pay the costs on both sides. Personally, I think it’s a better system.
both systems have flaws; the UK system discourages frivolous lawsuits. But it also decreases the ability of poor plaintiffs to file justified lawsuits, knowing that if they lose (and sometimes the party in the “right” does lose) they’re on the hook for their opponent’s costs.
Of those two errors (Type I and Type II, to use the technical schema), I favor our system more.
Some things require a lawsuit in order to get clarified.
The proper application of a law to one’s circumstances is the kind of thing that can’t be voted upon by a legislator or dictated by a government executive. It requires the judicial branch. And the judicial branch isn’t allowed to decide anything that isn’t in court, duly argued by both sides.
In other words, when applying or obeying the law is an issue, sometimes ya gotta sue.
Sure, a car crash can be “settled out of court,” because the insurance company will compromise whenever it maximizes their profits to settle instead of getting sued. But medical malpractice involves the principles and reputations on both sides, and no party or insurer can see all the facts unless there is court-ordered “discovery” (depositions, etc) and sometimes expert-witness opinions given in court.
So, on some things, a lawsuit is the way to get as close as one can get to real justice.
(I’m not a fan of criminal prosecutions to remedy things. Prosecutions may protect the public, but they do little or nothing for victims, and the standard of proof is so high that justice is often not done at all – in the real world, there’s too often scant or conflicting evidence.)
OK, so you can tell I’m a lawyer. But mostly, I just love the Adirondacks. This is about something that’s irreplaceable, as principles and reputations are, so a lawsuit is the best way to get a fair ruling on how the law rightly applies to that snowmobiling and mountain biking. Lawsuits don’t have to be nasty, just as elections don’t have to be nasty – at least, not until TV cameras show up, clamoring for sound-bites and goading everyone into “highlighting” their position for show.
I think Phil Brown did a fair job of stating what the arguments on both sides are, regarding each of the five aspects of the lawsuit. (Yeah, he’s not equally enthusiastic and persuasive about each side’s arguments. But expecting that of him, or of the DEC for that matter, is unfair. Go read what each side says!)
My inclination is to preserve the wilderness. But now I’m persuaded that there are arguments to be made. And I’m relieved that if the proposed snowmobiling and mountain-biking passes Court muster, it’ll at least be for good reasons that withstand scrutiny.
Like I said below it seems like these groups seek clarification in the courts when they don’t like the flexibility in the law. When the APA amends things to tighten regulations the law is as flexible as necessary, when it goes the other way then it is a problem. You have to be careful about what you ask for. The flexibility is there or it isn’t. In many cases the agencies (especially the APA) are looking to use the regulations to enhance forest protection. For example in the ACR case the APA is requiring that development be well below what it could be if the place was fully developed according to the regulations. They are requiring that development be tightened beyond the current rules in exchange for allowing some development now. They do this and they get demonized. They are trying to look to the future often people now are just looking to how it might affect their next hiking or camping trip.
These discussions don’t sit well with me. Lots of legalese and rhetoric. Hair splitting. What is “is”? Not being allowed to say “shit” yet having a mouth full of it. It’s why the Sanders’ and Trumps of the world are getting noticed. We know we are being bamboozled on a daily basis, yet often engage in it. Against something unless it works in our favor. Us and them. The others. The throttle twister that knows he/she has a right to ride every square inch of earth without question. The commerce mogul that believes there is no end to consumption. The rabid environmentalist that wants humans (except themselves and a select few) removed from existence. The vegan that wishes they did not need to eat. The atheist that “practices” atheism. All are ignorant of their folly. None will compromise. Their worlds are twisted.
We are truly out of balance.
Just to comment on something different for once…
What’s with the atheist blast? Atheism is nothing like theism, and certainly not its opposite. I myself know no atheists who “practice” atheism, which is eminently logical since atheism isn’t practiced at all. It’s not a belief system.
Not a “blast”. Unfortunate you took it that way. But helps prove my point. I’m very well aware it is not a practice. Subtlety was lost, I suppose.
You know, I suspected that I might have it wrong. Proved my own point too, right, at the same time? Subtlety is often lost these days.
I have many friends who are self labeled atheists. During debate I’ve often joked they have “nothing” to defend. I am not fond of labels, but if pressed would label myself agnostic/atheist/zen? The lazy man’s religion. Noncommittal. I’ve found wisdom in most religious/spiritual teachings. As a “recovering Catholic” of childhood, I could just have easily presented a Christian paradox. But that is too trendy these days. The atheists got the ribbing today.
I happen to know a number of atheists who deserve a good ribbing! I get hives and nausea from dogma no matter what the source.
To quote Ferris Bueller. “isms in my opinion are not good. a person should not believe in an ism, he should believe in himself”!
“…such a permit would be illegal “for the simple reason that DEC cannot lawfully issue itself a permit and variance allowing a use that is prohibited.”
If DEC can simply issue itself permits and variances at will for things that are in opposition to the rules that govern them, the rules are pretty meaningless IMO. I would expect that they would at least have to get a court to rule on that.
I’m also puzzled at how the DEC can pick and choose what gets “grandfathered”. Snowmobile use of the Polaris bridge is okay because the owners of the camps have used the bridge, but other motor vehicles won’t be grandfathered even though the camp owners apparently also used the bridge for other vehicles? And vehicle traffic will be allowed on the Chain Lakes South Rd along with snowmobiles because both used it in the past? I’m not expressing either support or opposition, just puzzling the lack of consistency. I also wonder how they justify winter motorized use (snowmobiles) but not summer motorized use (ATVs), not just in these cases but also on the proposed rail trail from Tupper Lake to Lake Placid. I am neither a snowmobiler nor an ATVer and don’t much care to encounter either in the woods but I fail to understand the distinction that DEC and the APA is making in their decisions. Were I a lawyer I might be tempted to suggest that it was ‘arbitrary and capricious’.
James, DEC can allow or prohibit motorized uses on the Forest Preserve based on what it sees as fit to protect the resources (both natural and recreational). In this case, it deems a snowmobile trail OK, but doesn’t want to open up all the old roads to motor vehicles. This preference is reflected in the classifications of the land: motorized use is generally prohibited in the Primitive Areas, but the snowmobile trail is in a Wild Forest corridor, where motorized use can be permitted. ATVs are seen as much more damaging to the environment than snowmobiles. They are not allowed anywhere in the Preserve.
I think you’ve touched on something here. Both the DEC and APA have legal authority to decide what goes and what doesn’t. In addition the APA has amendment authority, which means they can amend (or change) the specifics of classifications to suit individual situations.
It seems to me that it’s the amendment power of the APA which is causing all the consternation. I’m sure some would like to do away with that power, and be able to apply the SLMP broadly to all future acquisitions.
It is funny it seems like there is only a suit when the law is amended in a way they don’t like. I didn’t see them file suit when the APA amended the APA act to limit the size of a boat house to 900 square feet. There wasn’t a suit when the APA amended the act to limit additions on pre-1973 structures to 25% (w/o a permit) from no restrictions?
Thanks for keeping us posted Phil.
This is already pretty long but some more explanation would be good. On the so called “duplicate” trail it is explained that some group say that it is and the state contends that it isn’t. But what is the real story? Isn’t the current trail one that runs on private easement lands in a number of sections. The newer trail would mostly utilize Forest Preserve land. A trail that runs on private land doesn’t seem like a duplicate for one that would run on public land. Just saying that one is longer than the other is only part of the story. It makes the environmental groups sound right but it doesn’t explain the states reason for the second trail.
Read the story again, Paul. The state’s reason for the second trail is given, namely that the existing trail is “more circuitous”–that is, longer. If and when the state makes the argument you are making, we will report that as well.
Phil, if you look at the maps that the state has supplied on this that argument is very well made – and visualized too. A trail that is at the whim of the landowner is not a duplicate for one that would run on Forest Preserve land. Just because the public has access to a trail on easement land is no guarantee that it would stay that way. Also, there are lots of “duplicate” hiking trails that go to the same place.
Paul, not all easements can be withdrawn at the whim of the landowner– DEC defines a conservation easement as a “permanent legal agreements entered into by a landowner and state or local government, or a non-profit land trust.”
And while there are, indeed, many hiking trails that go to the same place as other foot trails, hiking trails do not operate under the rules that the state has adopted for snowmobile trails: “The snowmobile guidance declares that community connectors ‘are not duplicated or paralleled by other snowmobile trails…'”
Has there been much mountain biking in there since they opened this up?
What have the hiker and paddler numbers been? This was billed as a huge draw. Maybe a followup story would be good.
Are you sure they’re talking about real mountain biking? Riding a bicycle on a pretty good gravel road is hardly mountain biking, because virtually any bike can be used by anyone who can ride a bike.
Real mountain biking is not done on roads, but trails which traverse any and all terrain presenting itself.
Throughout these discussions of Essex Chain and Boreas Ponds, I have gotten the feeling that a lot of people equate pleasure biking on various road surfaces with mountain biking, which can be another animal altogether. In neither case have I heard anything about bicycle “trails,” especially what’s referred to as “single track.”
Regardless of the outcome, I applaud the efforts from those who will continue to fight for motor-free environments within the Adirondacks, and those who keep us posted as to what’s going on regarding these controversial issues.