“Newcomb to Minerva Multi-Use Trail; Application ID 5-1599-00019/00001; Permit(s) Applied for: Article 15 Title 27 Wild, Scenic & Recreational Rivers; Project is Located: Newcomb, Essex County;
Project Description: The Department of Environmental Conservation proposes to construct a multi-use recreational trail within one-half (1/2) mile of the Boreas River, which is designated as a Scenic River by Environmental Conservation Law Title 27, Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Systems. The total acreage of the trail within the River corridor is approximately 1.1 acres, or approximately one (1) mile of trail, located within the 92,000-acre Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forest.”
The notice is incomplete and misleading. Here we have the DEC applying for a permit from itself to build a 9-12 foot snowmobile route from Newcomb to Minerva through undeveloped forest preserve, a route which will intersect the Boreas River just upstream of the Route 28N bridge. At this location, the Boreas is a designated Scenic River under the state’s Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act. The DEC’s route requires a new steel bridge over the river here to safely accommodate two-way snowmobile traffic. The route also requires cutting 1,676 trees on the Forest Preserve from the river to private land in Minerva. Cutting across private lands will require landowner agreements which may or may not be in hand or forthcoming.
An incomplete, misleading notice is not the greatest problem – the project is illegal.
DEC cannot issue itself a permit to construct a public motorized recreational use within or across a Scenic River corridor like the Boreas. The Wild and Scenic Rivers law and regulations prohibit it. This is most clearly stated in the DEC’s own documents, a 1986 Environmental Impact Statement for the regulations implementing the Rivers Act, whereby DEC prohibited “motorized open space recreational uses in scenic river areas.” It did so because “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.”
DEC is attempting at the Boreas River some of the same legal end-runs it’s employing at the Cedar and Hudson rivers where new motorized corridors and bridges in these Scenic River Areas were given the OK by APA in November. Adirondack Wild and Protect the Adirondacks have taken both agencies to State Supreme Court over this and other illegal management activities in the Essex Chain of Lakes unit management plan (a ruling may come this summer). APA State Land Chairman Richard Booth, whose term expired on June 30th, warned his colleagues several times during 2015 that DEC was relying on legal fiction to justify its actions in the Essex Chain of Lakes. Now, the pattern continues in the adjoining Vanderwhacker Wild Forest.
Booth also made clear to his colleagues that violations of the Rivers Act presume violations of the State Land Master Plan since the two documents are consistent and complementary. The SLMP states that “no river or river area will managed or used in a way that would be less restrictive in nature than the statutory requirements of the …Rivers Act, Article 15, title 27 of the Environmental Conservation Law…but the river or river area may be administered in a more restrictive manner.”
In the project file, DEC includes a short-form Environmental Assessment (EA) of the “multi-use trail” project. The EA form asks and answers a number of questions. One question: “is the proposed action consistent with the predominant character of the existing natural landscape?” DEC answers “yes” when, in fact, the building of a motorized 9-12 ft. wide, two-way connector and bridge one-half mile from both banks of the Boreas River represents a substantial change in this thickly forested area.
The EA form also asks: “would the proposed action physically alter or encroach into any existing wetland or waterbody?” DEC answers “no” when it is obvious that the Boreas River is a waterbody and the snowmobile trail and bridge construction project will encroach upon it and its wetlands along the river.
What must DEC do to legally authorize new and expand public motorized uses and bridge crossings in Scenic River corridors?
Amend the statute and the regulations in the plain light of day involving the State Senate, State Assembly and public hearings. In other words DEC, stop these legal end-runs and enforce your Environmental Conservation Law, or explain to elected officials and the public why the law needs to change.
Photo: The Boreas River just upstream of the Route 28N highway bridge.