A few weeks ago, Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) submitted an amicus brief in Protect the Adirondacks! Inc. v. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Adirondack Park Agency, wherein Protect challenged the constitutionality of the state’s decision to cut down thousands of trees while building new snowmobile trails in the Forest Preserve. (I am on the Board of Protect the Adirondacks! and testified as an expert witness in the trial for this litigation. What I am saying here is not endorsed by Protect.)
This litigation began in the Supreme Court in Albany and was appealed to the Appellate Division, where a crucial element of Protect’s interpretation of Article 14, section 1, of the NY Constitution, was upheld. Then the state appealed to the NY Court of Appeals, our highest court, where oral arguments will be heard on March 23. The ruling there will be final and cannot be appealed further, although it’s possible the Court of Appeals could return the matter to the lower courts. This is a historic case and will determine the future of state policy with respect to the Forest Preserve and the viability of wilderness in the Adirondacks.
A major point of disagreement between the DEC and Protect involves interpretation of the word “timber,” which, as everyone familiar with the Forest Preserve knows, is a crucial element of Article 14: “nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.” The state insists on a narrow understanding of this word, asserting that it means only those trees large enough to be of market value. Protect has shown and I testified that this is a naive and selective reading. With numerous examples–from sources commonly available in the era when it was first used in the constitution–we showed that the word “timber” has historically been used interchangeably with “trees” and was often used to mean the entire forest, regardless of the size of individual trees. At the Appellate Division this argument was persuasive.
Now ADK has entered the fray, adopting the state’s interpretation and supporting its case before the Court of Appeals. If the state’s understanding of “timber” prevails, with ADK’s help, it will mean that we will have in the future a very different Forest Preserve from the one we have cherished since 1894, when the operative protections were first included in the state constitution. What’s particularly disappointing about ADK’s decision to support this radical revision of what the constitution has meant all these years is that it violates much of ADK’s own history, a century of defending the Forest Preserve and the monumental protection in Article 14.
Bob Marshall, the greatest twentieth-century defender of American wilderness, was a charter member of the Adirondack Mountain Club. Marshall’s devotion to wilderness and its protection began in the Adirondacks and was profoundly influenced by his father’s life-long defense of the forever-wild provision. Louis Marshall, Bob’s father, also a charter member of ADK, voted for constitutional protection of the Forest Preserve at the 1894 convention. At the next convention, in 1915, he led the resistance when logging companies tried unsuccessfully to weaken it. The Marshalls, father and son, knew that the forever-wild provision was the essential tool for guarding wilderness in the Adirondacks.
Over the decades, the standard set by the Marshalls has been passionately carried forward. John Apperson, Paul Schaefer, Dave Newhouse, Bill Verner–these are a few of the ardent conservationists who worked with and for ADK to defend the sanctity of the Forest Preserve.
It is a sad day indeed when ADK, after ninety-nine years of defending the constitution, decides to reverse course. ADK argues in its brief that Protect’s suit could somehow interfere with foot-trail construction. This is nonsense. Previous judicial rulings have confirmed that foot-trail construction is perfectly legal, and Protect’s suit does not challenge that. With the construction of Class-II community-connector snowmobile trails, the state is building what are essentially roads for gasoline-powered vehicles that can travel 75 miles per hour. This involves heavy earth-moving machinery and sturdy bridges capable of supporting the equivalent of an automobile. Nothing in the current suit or in previous rulings could be interpreted by any reasonable observer to suggest that maintaining or rerouting old foot trails or building new ones would be threatened by a decision for Protect at the Court of Appeals. In fact, the March-April issue of Adirondac boasts of ADK’s recent trail work in the High Peaks and the additional work planned there for 2021.
How, why, when, and by whom was this position adopted by ADK? They won’t say. I wrote to ADK’s Executive Director to inquire about the process. He refused to answer. I tried to ask the Director from my chapter. He ignored me. I wrote to the current President. He declined to say how or by whom this decision was reached. ADK used to be a grass-roots, member-controlled organization.
If I had been able to establish a dialog with the club’s leadership, I would have asked this further question: Was the decision to enter this suit the result of pressure from the state? In the recent past, ADK has had a multi-year contract with DEC for trail work worth over a million dollars. State grants have also supported work on ADK’s facility at Heart Lake. Did someone threaten to cut them off unless they supported state policy?
I first joined ADK in the 1960s, as a charter member of the Cold River Chapter. For a few years in the ’90s, I was that chapter’s only officer, organizing the annual meeting and handling its newsletters and modest treasury. My earliest contributions to a lifetime of researching and writing about Adirondack history were published by ADK: articles in Adirondac and a reprint, for which I wrote the Introduction, of Russell Carson’s Peaks and People of the Adirondacks, a 1927 book based on Bob Marshall’s The High Peaks of the Adirondacks, published by ADK in 1922. In 2018 ADK honored me with the Eleanor F. Brown ADK Communication Award. Over the years, I have considered many ADK staff, officers, and members to be my friends. I still do.
I have been a faithful supporter of ADK for over fifty years. The club’s abandonment of a century of defending the constitutional provision that protects wilderness in the Adirondacks leaves me sad and perplexed. What would Bob Marshall think?
Please note that comments and commentary included on the Adirondack Almanack are those of the individuals and not the Adirondack Almanack or Adirondack Explorer. Photo at top: A 12 ft. wide snowmobile connector bridge on trail under construction to Lake Harris, Town of Newcomb. Almanack file photo.