Public comments were illuminating at the public hearing in Raquette Lake on November 28th. Held at the Raquette Lake School, the hearing took comments on the state’s proposal to build a new 4-mile section of a 9-12-foot-wide community connector snowmobile trail through the northern edge of the Blue Ridge Wilderness Area where it borders NYS Route 28 between Raquette Lake and the Marion River Carry.
I attended the hearing and made comments. I was the only environmentalist among the crowd of 40 or so snowmobilers, local government officials, local residents and representatives of the NYS Adirondack Park Agency (APA) and Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
One avid snowmobiler talked about his disdain for the Seventh Lake Mountain Trail, the newly constructed community connector class II snowmobile trail, that was built in 2012-13 through the interior sections of the Moose River Plains Wild Forest Area for the purpose of connecting Inlet and Indian Lake to Raquette Lake. This snowmobiler said he refuses to ride the Seventh Lake Mountain Trail because of how it was built; too many turns, too many steep elevations, too difficult to effectively groom. To him it’s simply not a fun trail to ride. He said that the local snowmobile club refuses to regularly groom the trail because it’s too difficult.
Another snowmobiler urged the state to make sure that when it builds the new class II trail through the Blue Ridge Wilderness that it does so in a way that’s different from the Seventh Lake Mountain Trail. He too said that he does not like the Seventh Lake Mountain Trail and avoids riding on it. He said that as an older snowmobile rider he found the trail to be physically difficult.
Snowmobilers also expressed alarm that when state builds the new class II trail from Raquette Lake to Long Lake, through the Blue Ridge Wilderness, private lands, and through the Sargent Ponds Wild Forest, they fear snowmobile riding on frozen lakes will be banned. There are now two current snowmobile routes from Raquette Lake to Long Lake. One involves riding on a series of frozen lakes – Raquette, Forked and Long, with trails on roads and various other lands stitching the trail together. It was said at the hearing that for many riding snowmobiles on frozen lakes is what defines the Adirondack snowmobiling experience. The other existing route is a land route that takes one from Raquette Lake to Indian Lake to Newcomb and then to Long Lake. It’s near certain that even if the state builds the new land trail from Raquette to Long Lake, the existing trail over frozen lakes will remain the much more popular route. It’s prettier, it’s easier to ride, and snowmobilers can ride a lot faster on it.
The state is investing millions of dollars to build new class II snowmobile trails. These trails are controversial because of their construction methods, widths, and the number of trees destroyed to build them. By state policy, class II trails are to be 9-12 feet wide, but in reality, due to the extensive benchcuts and grading, they regularly see clearing to widths of 15 to 25 feet. Five years after the Seventh Lake Mountain Trail was built it is now a grassy corridor that runs through an intact forest. Few use it during summer months for hiking because it is unattractive and not pleasurable to walk on. It’s not only a bust as multi-use trail in spring, summer and fall, it’s also a bust as a snowmobile trail too in the winter.
The irony is that the state is spending millions of dollars to build these trails and inflicting serious environmental damage on the Forest Preserve in the process yet ends up with a trail that few snowmobilers find enjoyable or satisfying. The state is making a huge effort to build class II snowmobile trails, yet snowmobilers consider them duds.
The successful snowmobile trails are the trails that run on roads in Wild Forest areas, such as the Cedar River and Limekiln Lake Road through the Moose River Plains. These roads are wide and allow for consistent high speeds. The snowmobile trails that are built on thousands of acres of lands owned by the Town of Webb in Old Forge are popular because they too are wide. Trails on roads through conservation easement lands are also popular and have proven successful in St. Lawrence County, Speculator, and Newcomb. The new snowmobile trail from Newcomb to Long Lake is mostly on conservation easement lands and it was praised by Town of Long Lake officials. The trails in Tug Hill, which are also wide, and run on seasonal roads, through farms, and on conservation easement lands are also successful. These experiences can never be replicated on the Forest Preserve without changing the State Constitution. New class II snowmobile trails do not provide snowmobilers with the experience they seek.
Class II snowmobile trails are built at a high environmental cost. DEC work crews violated the standards and prescriptions of the APA-DEC “Snowmobile Management Guidance” (Snowmobile Trail Siting, Construction and Maintenance on Forest Preserve Lands in the Adirondack Park) from the beginning to the end of the Seventh Lake Mountain Trail. The APA was incapable of holding DEC work crews accountable. The DEC crews consistently violated the “Guidance” in their construction of the Harris Lake Trail and the Newcomb to Minerva Trail. They’ll do so again if they’re approved to build a trail in the Blue Ridge Wilderness, in the Sargent Ponds Wild Forest, or in the Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forest Area. Yet, even after bending the “Guidance” rules in Kafkaesque ways where they call a 6-ton groomer simply “low impact landscaping equipment,” or say that excavation and grading of the trail surface for miles at a time is “limited,” or say that a 20-foot cleared area is really an allowable 12-foot bench cut that runs for hundreds of yards because they don’t have to count the clearing done on the upslope or downslope of the benchcut, or that a 75-year-old 2.5 DBH tree is not a tree, or that a forest corridor turned into a grassy field or fern bed somehow still possesses “wild forest character,” the result is a trail that few snowmobilers, or anybody for that matter, use.
The sad reality is that the state refuses to learn anything from its failure on the Seventh Lake Mountain Trail. Refusing to take stock in any way, the state remains in high gear to double down on its failure and is planning to build many more miles of class II snowmobile trails that will inflict enormous environmental damage on the Forest Preserve and will be ignored by the communities and users they’re intended to serve.