Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Tree cutting lawsuit: A timeline and background

Class II Snowmobile connector trailA timeline of events that lead to today’s court decision:

  • Protect the Adirondacks launched this lawsuit against the Department of Environmental Conservation and Adirondack Park Agency in 2013 alleging that Class II trails violated Article 14, Section 1, of the New York State Constitution due to excessive tree cutting and terrain alterations.
  • Protect the Adirondacks and its expert witnesses undertook extensive fieldwork in 2012-13 and in 2015-16 to document abuses to the Forest Preserve. Counts of over 16,000 tree stumps on Class II trails, with diameter measurements and GPS locations, including photographs of over 12,000 tree stumps, were made.
  • In the summer of 2016 Protect the Adirondacks obtained a temporary restraining order that stopped all tree cutting by the state on Class II trails after the first 34 miles of trails were in various stages of development. The DEC and APA had approved plans for a network of hundreds of miles of Class II trails in the Forest Preserve in the Adirondacks.
  • In early 2017, a 13-day trial was held in state Supreme Court in Albany. In December 2017 the trial judge ruled against Protect the Adirondacks. In 2018, Protect the Adirondacks appealed to the Appellate Division, Third Department, which in a 4-1 decision overturned the lower court’s ruling in July 2019. In 2020, the DEC and APA appealed to the Court of Appeals. Oral arguments were held in March 2021 at the Court of Appeals. Today, the Court of Appeals ruled 4 to 2 in favor of Protect the Adirondacks that the DEC and APA have violated the forever wild clause of the New York State Constitution.

The 2017 Trial Set the Factual Basis and Legal Record for this Historic Decision

In early 2017, a 13-day trial was held in state Supreme Court in Albany. This trial was important for setting the factual basis and legal record for the case. This was the first trial held on the forever wild clause in the state’s history, as the 1930 and 1993 cases did not go to trial. Protect the Adirondacks undertook months of fieldwork and provided expert witnesses to build the factual record.

Adirondack historian Dr. Philip Terrie testified about the historic meaning and use of the word “timber,” as used in the forever wild clause, and about the intention of the Constitutional Convention of 1894 to protect the Forest Preserve from abuse by the state agencies that had previously been charged with protecting it. Forest ecologist Steve Signell testified about the level of tree cutting and forest habitat changes that had occurred during the construction of Class II trails. Conservation biologist Dr. Ron Sutherland, from the Wildlands Project, testified about environmental impacts from Class II trails. Professional hiking trail builder William Amadon testified about the differences between foot trails and Class II trails. Peter Bauer of Protect the Adirondacks testified about tree/stump counting methods and photographic exhibits.

The testimony and admitted evidence established the factual basis used by the State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Department, and Court of Appeals, including:

  • Article 14 was added to the Constitution after a decade of abuse of the Forest Preserve by state government. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1894 realized that the legislative and executive branches could not be trusted to safeguard it.
  • The historic use of the word “timber” in the 1890s in the U.S. commonly referred to all standing trees.
  • The word “timber” by the framers of Article 14, Section 1, was used interchangeably with the words “forest” and “trees” at the 1894 Constitutional Convention.
  • There was no standard limiting the use of the word “timber” to any particular size of tree, or by commercial marketablility, by the framers of the forever wild clause in the State Constitution in 1894.
  • Counts of the actual or proposed destruction of 6,899 trees over 3 inches DBH, and over 18,000 trees between 1-3 inches DBH.
  • Counts of over 8,500 standing trees marked for cutting to build Class II trails.
  • Evidence of tree ring counts on tree stumps of less than 3 inches DBH on Class II trails showed that there were many older than 50, 60 and 75 years in age.
  • Evidence that many maple, white pine, yellow birch, beech, and ash, among other trees, that were only 1-3” DBH, could be 30, 40 and over 50 feet in height.
  • Evidence that the first 34.06 miles of Class II trails resulted in clearing over 37 acres of forest.
  • Evidence that on vast stretches of Class II trails extensive grass habitat had replaced intact forest habitat.
  • Evidence that long stretches of Class II trails on turns and slopes with extensive bench cuts resulted on clearing widths of up to 20 feet in some locations.
  • Evidence that Class II trail construction destroyed hundreds of trees per mile.
  • Counts of tree cutting on the newly built Coney Mountain and Goodman Mountain hiking trails that showed significantly fewer trees of all sizes were cut per mile as compared to Class II trails. (There were 13 trees of 1” DBH or more cut for the 1-mile Coney Mountain Trail, and 63 trees cut for the 1.25 miles of the Goodman Mountain Trail.)
  • Testimony that there was no scientific basis for the state’s current policy on tree cutting on the Forest Preserve, which only counted trees 3” and greater. It was based on past practices, not science.
  • Evidence that the supposed environmental benefit to the Forest Preserve of building Class II trails near the periphery of Forest Preserve areas, while closing interior trails, was actually only a benefit on paper because many of the interior trails remained open for motor vehicle use or other use, despite being closed to snowmobiling, so they would not revegetate. Some of those trails had already been abandoned years earlier.
  • Testimony that the geometric shapes of extensive large bench cutting on Class II trails introduced human shapes that disrupted the aesthetic natural wild forest setting.
  • Testimony about the significant differences between foot trails and Class II trails in widths, grading, flattening, clearing, root/rock/stump removal, the size and types of bridges, and the use of street signs with reflectors.
  • An extensive photographic record catalogued the level of tree cutting, environmental impacts, and supported the testimony of the experts.

At the conclusion of the 2017 trial, it was clear that Protect the Adirondacks had accurately interpreted the spirit, words and vision of the framers of Article 14, Section 1. It was also clear that Protect the Adirondacks had historic Forest Preserve case law and legal precedent, the facts, and science on its side, and its legal team and historian possessed the strongest understanding of Forest Preserve law and Article 14, Section 1.

For background information on Article 14 and the meaning of the word “timber” in Article 14: https://www.protectadks.org/forever-wild-and-the-word-timber/

For background information on Article 14 and the constitutional protection of small diameter trees: https://www.protectadks.org/article-14-and-cutting-small-diameter-trees-on-the-forest-preserve/

For copies of the briefs submitted at the Court of Appeals: https://www.protectadks.org/article-14-lawsuit-update/

For a recap of the trail and trial transcripts: https://www.protectadks.org/the-trial-over-the-future-of-article-xiv-section-1-the-forever-wild-provision-in-the-nys-constitution/

Photo: Seventh Lake Mountain Class II Snowmobile Connector Trail, file photo. This release was provided by Peter Bauer, Protect the Adirondacks. The information, views and opinions expressed by these various authors are not necessarily those of the Adirondack Almanack or its publisher, the Adirondack Explorer.

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at editor@adirondackalmanack.com

5 Responses

  1. Jim S. says:

    Congratulations and a huge thank you to Protect the Adirondacks. There is nothing more disheartening than stumbling upon a snowmobile superhighway while bushwhacking through a mature forest.

  2. Distant Reader says:

    The Court of Appeals’ decision in Protect v. NYS is the most significant accomplishment of the environmental community in a generation. Even if DEC& APA aren’t willing to do what’s needed to keep the forest preserve wild, judges in the courts can still read Art. XIV & the history, and have shown themselves willing to enforce it. A great day for the rule of law.

  3. Steve Signell says:

    Who wrote this and the other article about the court decision? All it says in my feed is ‘guest contributor’…

  4. Absolutely! much of the law concerning one’s responsibility for trees can be found at the state and local levels. These state and municipal codes and regulations can clarify a multitude of situations

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