Saturday, February 6, 2021

When is a tree a tree?

Peter BauerIn the midst of our cold winter, a debate has been heating up around tree cutting for trails.

With the NYS Court of Appeals set to hear a case next month, environmental groups are taking sides. See this recent article by Adirondack Explorer’s policy reporter Gwen Craig:

From the article, here’s an overview of the issue:

“Protect the Adirondacks, a nonprofit, sued the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Adirondack Park Agency over the construction of snowmobile trails on the state forest preserve. They’re called Class 2 community connector trails, and are 9 feet wide with some 12-foot-wide curves and slopes. The amount of tree cutting involved in the first 25 miles of these trails, Protect the Adirondacks has argued, violated the “forever wild” clause in the state constitution. That clause ensures that millions of acres of forest preserve lands are protected for future generations, and prevents the harvest and sale of timber.

Recreation and environmental organizations disagree on how this case could influence trail work and maintenance. Supporting the DEC are the Adirondack Mountain Club, Nature Conservancy and Open Space Institute, who all believe the case goes beyond snowmobile connector trails and bleeds into any trail work, including maintenance of hiking trails.

Siding with Protect the Adirondacks is a similarly formidable list of environmental organizations including the Sierra Club, Adirondack Council and Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.”

At issue is the definition of what constitutes a tree, and whether small trees/saplings are counted in the tally of what gets cleared for trail development/maintenance. The DEC has set those that “count” at 3 inches in diameter at breast height, a definition that’s being challenged in this lawsuit.

From the Almanack archive, a commentary by former Explorer editor Phil Brown about the issue that dates back to 2016:

Let’s hear your thoughts. Which side are you on?

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Melissa is a journalist with experience as a reporter and editor with the Burlington Free Press, Ithaca Journal and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. She worked as a communications specialist for the Adirondack North Country Association and is currently digital editor for Adirondack Explorer, overseeing both the Explorer's website and its community forum the Adirondack Almanack. She enjoys hiking, camping and other outdoors activities, and spending time with her husband, their twin daughters, and rescue animals -- two dogs and two cats.

34 Responses

  1. Pete says:

    Article 14 of the state constitution does not say “trees” can not be cut. It says “timber” shall not be sold, removed or destroyed. The definition of “timber” is “trees that are grown so that the wood from them can be used for building” or “trees that are grown so that the wood from them can be used for building” or “the wood of growing trees suitable for structural uses” or “wood that is used for building houses and making furniture” or “trees that are grown for this purpose.” The widely-used measure of when a tree becomes potential timber is when it is more than 3″ in diameter. This is the standard DEC has used and there is no reason to change it. Twigs and saplings are not timber. In fact, one could argue that there is no “timber” in the forest preserve, because there are no tress that have been grown for or are available for the purpose of building anything. Also, New York Consolidated Law § 9-0301 says “All lands in the Catskill park and in the Adirondack park… shall be forever reserved and maintained for the free use of ALL the people…” Building and maintaining trails is maintaining for use of the people.

  2. Steve B. says:

    Legal scholars have already determined that the use of the term “timber” as per Article 14, and when this amendment was added to the NY State Constitution in 1894, means trees. The word timber was the common nomenclature for that period. This has been discussed here previously.

    A sapling less then 3” in diameter is a tree and will become a larger tree, if the DEC doesn’t cut it down first.

    • Steve Hendershot says:

      You must either be from the city or originated from the city. Tourism is the biggest employer and it is necessary to wisely develop trails to sustain people’s livelihood.

  3. Jim S. says:

    From the moment of conception.

  4. Hurricane Hiker says:

    Follow the money…. ADK, Open Space and TNC all accept state money. They side with the state and DEC. SHOCKER….

  5. Linda Smith says:

    I don’t know regulations and scientific data but my definition of a tree is any time between seedling, as in emerging from the seed pod and taking root, and death.

  6. Bill says:

    This such a typical Adirondack story. Only lawyers get into this, but it has effectively stopped trail work and improved parking along rt73.

  7. Pete says:

    The Adirondack “Park” is huge – bigger than Yellowstone, Everglades, Glacier, and Grand Canyon National Park combined. Trails of any kind take up a minuscule amount of the total land area. “Trees” of any size are a renewable resource. Cutting .0000001% of them to build and maintain trails for the use of the taxpayers who fund land purchases, forest rangers, and all other aspects of the park is completely insignificant. Article 14 was approved by the people of the state to stop the wholesale lumbering. Sportsmen wanted it because to stop destruction of the forest. Business and industry people wanted it to stop destruction of the watershed of the Erie Canal and Mohawk and Hudson Rivers. By in large the supporters of the amendment did not intend that it prevent constructing and maintaining trails to allow people to use and enjoy the ‘park’ for recreational purposes.

    • Steve B. says:

      I agree with you Pete on a practical level. Very few trees are getting removed in terms of percentage of what exists in the park.

      Thing is, Article 14 saved the Adirondacks and will continue to do so. The DEC needs to be reminded that they too need to abide by the State constitution. If they want to enlarge or expand or create new trails for whatever purpose, parking lot or snowmobile trail, they need to get a voted on variation to Article 14. That’s the way it needs to happen, the DEC knows this and chooses instead to willingly violate the law. That really annoys me and any practical thoughts I might otherwise have, go away when they pull this kind of BS.

  8. Steve Hendershot says:

    More of the people from the city trying to tell everyone what is best for the Adk Park. There is a fine balance between setting laws to protect the park and what is needed to provide livelihoods for the people living within the park.

  9. Steve B. says:

    You need to be reminded that the “people from the city” are NY State residents and they too have a say in what happens in the Adirondacks on land owned by the state. It’s not a private reserve for the locals.

  10. Zephyr says:

    It’s not just people from the city and people who live within the Blue Line, but every single citizen of New York State that has an equal say in what happens on this public property. Conveniently, we have a state constitution which governs everyone in the state instead of relying on whatever the local good ol’ boys want to do in their backyards. When the forever wild clause was written they had no idea that some day snowmobile superhighways would be built across these public lands, but I have no doubt they would have been prohibited. The idea of forever wild and 12-foot wide snowmobile superhighways are incompatible.

  11. Curious to hear thoughts on whether the 3″ diameter at breast height standard employed here to determine whether a tree gets counted when removed/cut down should be continued to be the rule? Or should it not apply to forest preserve lands?

    • Boreas says:


      Let’s be honest – it isn’t about the size of a “tree”. If it were, it would have come up decades ago. Tree removal issues for Olympic venues in the past were usually cleared up with specific legislation/exceptions for the particular venue. Tree removal for hiking trail construction was often mitigated by not routing the trail into a large tree, but around it. Hiking trails meander and work their way around obstacles and new construction takes terrain contours into consideration, contrasted with obsolete “straight up the slope” trails that were basically maintained herd paths.

      Decades ago when snowmobiles were allowed in the preserve, snowmobile trails were expected to maintain the same character as a foot trail, but wide enough to allow snowmobiles to pass at low speed. So because they were narrow and still meandered around trees and obstacles, trail construction was not a huge objection. Often they were re-purposed foot trails.

      Class 2 connector trails are a different animal entirely. No character of a foot trail, obstructions removed, terrain mitigated with cuts in slopes, filling of wet areas, and large bridges. It isn’t simply about the number of trees removed, but disrupted terrain, noise pollution, and character of the forest in its vicinity.

      The legal definition of a tree by tree diameter is essentially a red herring. It is just a constitutional foothold to partially illustrate the difference between Class 2 trails and more primitive snowmobile, equine, and hiking trails. In my opinion, each Class 2 “trail” should have required an amendment before they were approved and construction started. So now it is being fought out in the courts. I do not believe it should have any effect on other types of trail maintenance and construction. Trails and roads to allow high-speed, wider, modern snowmobiles are two different things.

      • Boreas says:

        Sorry – make that “Class III Connector” trails above.

      • Boreas says:

        standards as follows:

        Class I May be maintained to the width of the existing road

        Class II:
        II-a May be maintained to an 8-foot maximum
        cleared trail width and to a 12-foot maximum
        cleared trail width on curves and steep
        running slopes.
        II-b May be maintained to an 8-foot maximum
        cleared trail width

        Class III May be maintained to a 9-foot maximum
        cleared trail width and to a 12-foot maximum
        cleared trail width on curves and steep
        running slopes.

  12. Charlie Stehlin says:

    When is a tree a tree?

    “From the moment of conception.”

    “between seedling, as in emerging from the seed pod and taking root, and death.”

    > The moment light of day has taken hold of it in its minutest form.

  13. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “It’s not a private reserve for the locals.”

    > Tell that to a local!

    “a debate has been heating up around tree cutting for trails.”

    > The Earth has been heating up too! Has anybody heard! Trees cool the earth unless it gets to the point where it’s too warm and reverse osmosis settles the matter….then trees will stop cooling, they will start dying off instead along with all things else on this ever so shrinking fragile orb. Which is more important? Fleeting bouts of pleasure or trees? A momentary lapse of reason or trees? Trails or trees?

  14. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “connector trails are 9 feet wide with some 12-foot-wide curves and slopes.”

    9 feet wide by how many linear, or curved feet, of trails? Thems a lot of trees per mile!

  15. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “what constitutes a tree?”

    A lumbermen will tell you one thing, a hiker another, a trail blazer yet another. I suppose, in a relative way, we can ask, ‘what constitutes a human?’ An evangelical will say “Embryo.” We ‘too often’ don’t value life other than what is within the framework of ego. All life matters on planet Earth…else all life wouldn’t be existent! (we’re working on achieving that reality) If we could just come to that this wouldn’t even be on the table. Rationally-speaking though, a tree should be a tree from the moment of conception as Jim S. so thoughtfully proposes, from the moment it’s primitive organs began to take root.

  16. Pete says:

    The APA says there are about 766 miles of snowmobile trail on state land (2012 figures). I can tell you from personal observation that they are definitely not 12 feet wide on average. Many stretches are not even up to the allowable widths of 8 or 9 feet. The concept of 12 foot wide snowmobile “superhighways” all over the forest preserve is absolute nonsense.

    Using a generous average trail width of 10 feet, this means that there are (10x766x5280) / 43560 = 928 acres occupied by snowmobile trails, out of about 2.6 million acres. This is 0.036% of the Forest Preserve. The limit per the SLMP is 848.88 miles. If all the allowable miles of trails were built, this would mean an additional .0038% of land would be occupied by snowmobile trails.

    Compare this insignificant percentage to the fact that in many Adirondack communities, many businesses can only exist because of the winter income from snowmobile tourism. They can not survive on summer alone. The ‘park’ is a park of people as well. both resident and visitor.

    There may be cases where short sections of ‘new’ trail are needed to connect existing trails, but in general, snowmobile trails were and are generally not ‘cut’ through the woods where no trail existed. They generally follow existing trails and where ever possible old logging roads which had minimal if any trees on them before they were snowmobile trails. So the amount of tree-cutting is pretty minimal in most cases.

  17. ADKHikerChick says:

    Seems to me the ADK and others are not only following the money trail, but that the trail maintenance is being halted NOT because of the lawsuit itself but to garner public sympathy for the state. Where does the lawsuit prevent regular trail maintenance from occuring? Isn’t it about the violation of Forever Wild by cutting down trees to build snowmobile trails? Shame on you, ADK and Open Space.

    • Pete says:

      The ruling overturns 150 years of precedent whereby trails and other facilities have been constructed. It basically says any little sapling is a tree. It is not a ruling about snowmobile trails, horse trails, multi-use trails, or hiking trails. So basically either you can cut some wood growth you can cut none. If none, then the type of trail is irrelevant, it applies to all facilities on all forest preserve land. No more hiking or ski trail maintenance, improvement, or construction. I think this is absurd.

      The precedent has been set long ago for limited tree-cutting to provide for public recreational facilities. This includes over 50 years of snowmobile use. The intent of Article 14 was to prevent wholesale destruction of the forest by lumbering, not to prohibit reasonable use by the people. Had motorized vehicles been in common use when the amendment was written, I highly doubt any language to ban them would have been included.

  18. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “Had motorized vehicles been in common use when the amendment was written, I highly doubt any language to ban them would have been included.”

    > As highly visionary as them thinkers were back in them days Pete I would bet you’re wrong on this.

    ADKHikerChick says: “Isn’t it about the violation of Forever Wild by cutting down trees to build snowmobile trails?”

    > It should be Chick! It just doesn’t seem right that we should be carving corridors in the Adirondack wilderness just so snowmobilers can get from one town to the other in the winter. It seems to be at odds with what the notion of the Adirondacks once stood for….a wilderness to be kept forever wild in which they made laws to back that. We have a history of adjusting laws to fit our needs, oftentimes in the name of economy. Even here in this case it’s about money. It really is a sad affair.

  19. Kristin Ames says:

    3” dia trunks on trees definitely define a tree, but I would suggest that trunk diameter may not be the best way to judge what makes a tree. Looking at the canopy and how mature to immature trees are growing in relation to each other and their expected lifespans, would give a better idea on how to preserve the forest. There are times when preserving saplings would benefit the future of the woods surrounding it. Taking the issue of all trail maintenance together with making new recreational atv trails seems like the problem that can’t be reconciled, here, however. Separate the issues and the solution may be easier to find.

  20. Pete says:

    “As highly visionary as them thinkers were back in them days Pete I would bet you’re wrong on this.”

    There were some ‘highly visionary thinkers’ pushing the idea of the park, but all the people of the state had to vote on the amendment. At that time the Adirondacks were a lot more far-off and difficult to visit place to most people. It is possible that the average voter wouldn’t care either way, but it also possible that enough of them would not like a restriction that would limit how they could visit the park that their taxes were paying for. It’s also highly possible that the sportsmen already using the park would not have been so supportive if one of their means of transportation were prohibited.

    • Zephyr says:

      Whatever you think about the intent of the people who created the law the wording is clear. Snowmobile superhighways are incompatible with “forever wild” because they require the cutting of hundreds of trees per mile, along with other wilderness degrading like the removal of rocks, the building of bridges, the grading of terrain.

    • Charlie Stehlin says:

      As I was writing the above I wasn’t thinking what the people were thinking, I was thinking what those who had sway (the State) in matters regards the preservation of the park were thinking. Also I was thinking about all of the literature the State put out back then, the “New York Forest Commission Reports”, the “Forest, Fish And Game Commission Annual Reports”, etc. It was voluminous all of the literature the State published back in the day, just amazing! They don’t do that anymore! They’ve downsized to “The Conservationist” and even that paper isn’t what it used to be like up until the early 1980’s….it’s grade-school now in comparison.

      I have a bunch of these reports and I’m here to say….reading them you get a good sense that their hearts and spirits were in the right place when it came to conservation back in them days. They followed science and were not led by a biased conscience, or their thinking wasn’t corrupted with ‘economy’ like it is too often nowadays. They knew the European history regards forest conservation, they had a model to measure with.

      Nowadays it’s a free-for-all compared to the way it was back then, grab as much land as possible and pour cement over it. I know this isn’t what we’re talking about here (we’re talking about corridors in the woods for noisy machines) but it’s the same concept generally, whereas back then it was truly about preservation. I doubt they would have allowed snowmobiles in them woods if those contraptions were existent back then. Maybe I’m wrong on this, but when you read the literature from back in them early days regards conservation in New York, you just know they had exceptional vision, which is a thing very much lacking today. I also have a Governors Commission Report somewhere in my heap dating back to the early 1900’s (1909 I think), where each governor from each state submitted reports on the status of their economies (I believe it was) back then and what stands out the most was that the main theme in all of these reports from every state was forest conservation, and the value in it. My, how things have changed!

  21. Ed Zahniser says:

    Why abort baby trees to make way for exhaust spewing, insanely loud snow machines on “forever wild” Forest Preserve lands protected by the NYState Constitution.

  22. JJ says:

    Does one count the growth rings of a tree from the center out? It was always a tree.