Seeing the Forest for the Trees

What is a tree? The answer to this question determines the fate of the 40-mile snowmobile community connector trails, which would link the towns of Minerva, Newcomb and North Hudson. It’s a legal battle that is currently being fought between environmentalist group, Protect the Adirondacks and the DEC. Snowmobile trails are important to the economic viability of the communities they connect, but it is unclear if these trails are constitutional under the “forever wild” clause of the NYS constitution.

The 9 to 12 foot-wide snowmobile community connector trails were in the process of being constructed on state land until Protect requested an injunction from the court. Once granted all trail work was halted. During snowmobile trail construction, tree removal was necessary. According to NYS, a tree includes any flora larger than 3 inches diameter at breast height (DBH). Protect the Adirondacks believes anything larger than 1 inch DBH should be considered a tree. Due to these differing definitions, there is a major discrepancy in how many trees need to be cut down during trail construction. The DEC estimates around 6,500. Protect estimates tens of thousands. Protect claims that cutting down such a large amount of trees violates Article 14 of NYS constitution, more commonly known as “forever wild clause.” ”It’s a road through the woods. The state won’t admit that’s what they are,” says Protect board member Phil Terrie. “Our suit is justified. The DEC is stretching the [NYS] constitution beyond its reasonable limits.”

So what are the “reasonable limits” based on the constitution? Well, they’re vague. The landmark tree removal case occurred in 1930 – The Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks vs. Macdonald, which declared the creation of the 1932 Olympic Bobsled track unconstitutional. What’s important for our purposes are the two parts of the NYS constitution that were referenced during the case: 1. The constitution won’t allow “any cutting or any removal of the trees and timber to a substantial extent,” and 2. The state can create or maintain trails “which do not call for the removal of timber to any material degree.” These are the vague legal limits we’re working with here. As a result, the current case will likely set a precedent.

Unsurprisingly,  Franklin County Director of the New York State Snowmobile Association, David Knapp, expressed that the snowmobiling community is frustrated. For them, the goal of the connector trail is “multifold.” It’s a way to “connect communities to communities, which provides an economic benefit for these towns. But it also expands the networks with which riders have access.” In this way, the trails are seen as a benefit for both those inside and outside of the park. Knapp thinks environmental groups have stronger lobbying power and a “greater ability to get their voice out.” When talking about snowmobilers, he said it’s ”hard to get them motivated and understanding to these issues.” He went on to say that it’s not that there is no involvement from the snowmobiling community, it’s just not as visible. “The snowmobile association gets more responses via letter and email, not where public can actually see them or that the media can capture.” Interestingly, Terrie thinks snowmobilers have the upper hand in terms of lobbying because of Governor Cuomo’s views on the park. “The governor’s office sees their role in promoting recreation that will help the economy. For them, the reason for forest preserve is economic and not necessarily preserving wilderness”

What both groups can agree upon is the uncertainty of the outcome. ”I don’t have any idea how it’s going to go. I could imagine it going either way,” says Terrie. Knapp echoed this sentiment, saying, ”I’d like to be optimistic, but we’ll have to wait and see.” The first of the hearings was this past Monday, December 5th.

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