Thursday, December 23, 2021

DEC Organizes Working Group For Forest Preserve Trails Stewardship

The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has organized a working group to assist the department in revising and amending a series of policies for Forest Preserve trails stewardship. The DEC organized this working group through the membership of the longstanding Forest Preserve Advisory Committee (FPAC). The working group includes members from trails building organizations, local government, and the environmental community. DEC stressed that this is a unified management effort for the entire Forest Preserve, and the working group includes members from the Adirondack and Catskill Parks.

DEC is embarking upon this effort largely in response to losing an 8-year lawsuit with Protect the Adirondacks where both the Appellate Division, Third Department and the Court of Appeals, New York ‘s highest court, ruled that the DEC violated Article 14, Section 1, of the State Constitution, the famed “forever wild” clause. The Court of Appeals ruled in early May, and the DEC spent the summer obstinately denying the reality and substance of the Court’s decision. Calls by Protect the Adirondacks, and others, for Forest Preserve management reforms at the DEC were resisted and unheeded for months.

Of course, the big change that came about was with the resignation of Andrew Cuomo as Governor, under a swirl of sexual harassment and toxic workplace allegations and damning investigations, and Kathy Hochul taking over as New York’s Governor. In the weeks after Hochul took the helm, her professed goals for new levels of transparency and openness in state government and her belief in the rule of law trickled down through the ranks of the Team Cuomo appointees at the DEC and forced the department to change direction.

The DEC is now facing reality, and the formation of this working group is a healthy sign that it is serious about finally embracing reforms. The working group holds the possibility that these reforms could be consequential. Unlike other advisory bodies that made recommendations to the DEC about ways to improve its Forest Preserve management, that we’ve seen with the High Peaks Strategic Advisory Group and the Catskill Park Advisory Committee, DEC is focusing the work of the new working group on revision of a discreet set of Forest Preserve management policies. These revised policies will be subject to public hearings and formal adoption by the DEC and Adirondack Park Agency (APA) in 2022.

The working group’s focus is on how the DEC administers trail building and maintenance on the Forest Preserve. The courts struck down extra-wide Class II Community Connector Snowmobile Trails as illegal. The courts also made rulings about the meaning of Article 14 for language long argued about for “wild forest” and “timber.” Historically, the 1930 “MacDonald” decision that struck down construction of a bobsled track on Forest Preserve, and the 1993 “Balsam Lake” decision that authorized the expansion of a cross-country ski trail in Catskills, have provided legal standards for tree cutting on the Forest Preserve and guidance for allowable uses. The recent “Protect” decision provides additional legal tests and considerations for state management of trails.

The DEC-APA now has to amend tree cutting and snowmobile trail construction and maintenance policies. They also have to develop a new trails manual for hiking and mountainbiking trails, among other trail types. How the DEC-APA develops work plans and undertakes work in the field also needs upgrading. The DEC-APA has set an ambitious plan for this working group over the next six months. The DEC wants to have these things in place by the 2022 trail building season. It’s too bad that the DEC chose to waste the last six months denying reality and resisting reforms.

The 13 member of the working group includes Peter Bauer, Protect the Adirondacks; Jackie Bowen, Adirondack Council; Jerry Delaney, Local Government Review Board; Bill Farber, Hamilton County Board of Supervisors; Dave Gibson, Adirondack Wild; Julia Goren, Adirondack Mountain Club; Josh Howard, NY/NJ Trail Conference; Sean Mahoney, Town of Hunter; Kathy Moser, Open Space Institute; Pete Nelson, Adirondack Wilderness Advocates; Jim Rolf, NYS Snowmobile Association; Jeff Senterman, Catskill Center for Conservation and Development; Josh Wilson, Barkeater Trails Alliance.

The working group held its first meeting in December, which covered ground rules and process. The DEC stressed that it is not looking to the working group to draft new policies on its own but to review and react to DEC/APA-generated drafts. As such, it will be a tightly controlled and focused process in the first half of 2022. The next meeting is not until January.

The DEC working group process is not as open and transparent as I would like to see it. I would like to see a public process akin to the work of New York’s Climate Action Council, which has conducted an array of substantive meetings that have been open to the press and public. If the state’s draft climate change action plan can be negotiated in public so can Forest Preserve management. We are, after all, talking about the management of public recreation on public lands with public monies and public agency staff. Such policies and decisions should not be treated as state secrets, and state agencies should welcome complete openness and the public should demand nothing less. But, unfortunately, that’s simply not how the DEC and APA like to do things. Perhaps one day, the management of the public Forest Preserve in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks, the Peoples Land in every way, will truly be a public enterprise.

In the meantime, count on Protect the Adirondacks to stand up for Article 14 during the working group. You can also count on Protect the Adirondacks to make this process as open and transparent as possible. Bright sunshine on the workings of government at every level should be embraced and not resisted.

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Peter Bauer is the Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks.He has been working in various capacities on Adirondack Park environmental issues since the mid-1980s, including stints as the Executive Director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and FUND for Lake George as well as on the staff of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century. He also worked at Adirondack Life Magazine. He served as Chair of the Town of Lake George Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on numerous advisory boards for management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve. Peter lives in Blue Mountain Lake with his wife and two children, enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities throughout the Adirondacks, and is a member of the Blue Mountain Lake volunteer fire department.Follow Protect the Adirondacks on Facebook and Twitter.

9 Responses

  1. Todd Eastman says:

    It’s nuts to think any substantive guidance from this working group will be generated by the 2022 trail building season.

    Only one meeting so far and the next slated for January?

    Even with the talent in the group, the timeline seems unrealistic considering the range of trail issues…🙄

  2. Zephyr says:

    Unfortunately, “working groups” are often used to keep government critics busy, and then they become the justification for whatever the agency wanted to do in the first place. “We developed this plan in consultation with stakeholders.” Let’s hope this talented and knowledgeable group can overcome the usual pattern.

  3. George L says:

    Consider one or two carefully graded, artfully hardened, one-way trails to a couple of popular peaks. This is the experience many would be happy with.

  4. Frank Krueger says:

    There was a working group a couple of years ago that came up with standards for ski trails. I hope the new group will not reinvent what the ski working group did. The product from that group, which met over several years, seems to have fallen through the DEC rabbit hole.

    • Peter Bauer says:

      We think that cross-country ski trails/powder ski trails should be part of an overall trails management program in the Forest Preserve. The issue is trail widths/lengths and tree cutting to comply with Article 14 and historic case law. We think this can be done.

  5. Hawkeye says:

    Working groups are valuable if taken seriously. Peter, I hope your positive tone proves out over time, (and no, with the regulatory procedures this will not be finished by May unless the result is already determined) and this group can solve what the 2006 group couldn’t. My fear is that this new group has many of the same folks who were represented before, advocates, including one who was a senior DEC official at the time, snowmobile groups, and local government. Can we really expect a fresh look?

    • Peter Bauer says:

      If the NYSDEC and NYSAPA, and their allies in local government and motorsports, obey the law and work within the historic case law on Article 14 then there should be a viable product at the end. If we’re back in 2006 with the NYSDEC and NYSAPA, and their allies in local government and motorsports, coordinating to willfully misinterpret and violate the law, then this process will fail.

      NYSDEC and NYSAPA tried violating the law for the last 15 years. That did not work out very well. We hope that the leaders of these two agencies will take a new approach in 2022 and try obeying the law and see how that works.

      We think that a legal trails management program can be developed that meets most of the objectives of most recreational users in the Forest Preserve. But we need NYSDEC and NYSAPA to be honest brokers.

  6. Hawkeye says:

    The working group is made up of the same people who got us into this fix in the first place. Any notion that they can correct this problem by Spring is a pipe dream. that is, unless the group has already determined its recommendations. I’d share your optimism if the working group had fresh perspectives.

  7. Lee Nellis says:

    Peter’s call for even more transparency is valid and Hawkeye’s observation has merit. There are people on this committee who I know and like. There are people who bring “institutional memory,” which is a helpful ingredient. But it should be an explicit ground rule that every group like this include people who are not part of the clique. Progressive agencies and local governments always advertise the opportunity to serve broadly and take applications.

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