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Adirondack Council Seeks O.K. to File Amicus Brief in Wild Rivers Lawsuit vs. NYS

Disappointed State is Compromising River Protections & Integrity of Legal Safeguards

INDIAN LAKE, N.Y. – The Adirondack Council today applied to New York’s highest court for permission to file a “friend of the court” (amicus curiae) brief on the side of conservation organizations in a lawsuit challenging a state decision to build a snowmobile trail next to a protected “wild river.”

“A new public snowmobile trail doesn’t belong inside a wild river corridor that, by law, must be managed as Wilderness,” said Adirondack Council Executive Director William C. Janeway. “Despite the longstanding ban, two state agencies have approved a snowmobile trail in the Upper Hudson Wild River corridor.” 

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“That decision violated state law and will cause harm to the Upper Hudson Wilderness, which these agencies are obliged to protect,” said Janeway.  “This failure to obey previously agreed upon rules for wilderness management violates the public trust and sets a precedent that could allow similar encroachments on more than a thousand miles of Wild, Scenic and Recreational rivers throughout the Adirondack Park. The trail can and should be relocated.”

About 1.2 million acres of the six-million-acre Adirondack Park (20 percent) are managed as “wilderness” where motor vehicles are not allowed. The NYS Constitution requires those lands to be “forever kept as wild forest lands.”  The state’s Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act and Adirondack Park State Master Plan prohibit motor vehicles within half a mile of a river classified as “wild.”

Janeway noted that the lawsuit seemed simple and clear when it was first filed by conservation organizations Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve and Protect the Adirondacks!  Somehow, the case was misunderstood by three of the five justices on the NYS Supreme Court Appellate Division’s Third Department, he said.  Tat court ruled 3-2 against the plaintiffs in May of 2018.

“We were surprised when the court misinterpreted both the facts and the law,” Janeway said. “We are hoping that our brief will help clear up the misunderstandings and bring a halt to this plan to brush-aside the Rivers Act and state laws protecting wilderness.”

In question is a one-mile stretch of Chain Lakes Road South in the Town of Indian Lake, near the Hudson Gorge Wilderness Area. The state’s new Essex Chain Lakes Complex Unit Management Plan proposes to use one mile of the road as a snowmobile trail open to the general public. It would be part of a longer trail to connect the hamlets of Indian Lake and Minerva. The plan was approved by the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) and Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Adirondack Wild and Protect the Adirondacks sued to overturn the approvals.

The 3-2 split-decision in the Appellate Division provided an automatic right to appeal to the state’s highest court, the New York Court of Appeals. The Adirondack Council today asked the Court’s permission to file an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs’ arguments. 

The Appellate Division majority erred in several respects, and some of those errors were noted in the dissenting opinion filed by the other two judges, Janeway said. Thus, he is hopeful that the Court of Appeals will reverse the Appellate Division decision.

The Council’s brief argues that:

  • The court had no basis for ruling that DEC’s general authority over rivers preempts existing state laws such as the Rivers Act or the State Land Master Plan (Executive Law, Sections 801, 816);
  • The court should have recognized that “prior use” considerations within the Rivers Act only apply to what is permitted on private lands within a protected river area. They don’t apply at all when lands and waters become part of the state-owned Forest Preserve;
  • The court should have recognized that classification as “Wild River” and/or as “Wilderness” under the State Land Master Plan requires any non-conforming uses to be extinguished within three years of classification. They cannot be made permanent as the APA and DEC have done;
  • The court should have rejected DEC’s argument that the public had been allowed to ride snowmobiles on the road by the previous owner. The previous owner was The Nature Conservancy and the route was open to members of private hunting clubs, not the public.

“The Adirondack Council has supported, and continues to support, the establishment of this community-connector snowmobile trail, if the trail and any bridges are established in compliance with all applicable legal requirements,” said Janeway.

“Some ask why we would worry about legal requirements if we support the trail,” Janeway noted.

“First, these legal protections exist to safeguard the globally-unique natural resources and wild character of the Adirondacks, which are a national treasure,” Janeway said. “The legal safeguards are promises from one generation to the next. Promises should be kept. These promises preserve clean water and clean air, 87 rare species and a host of other wildlife including moose and loons, public health and communities, and wilderness. The Adirondack Park is healthier today than it was a century ago, but it can and must be better, for nature’s sake and for ours. Honoring and not weakening the legal protections in the Adirondacks is the key to making the Park better for all.”

“Second, there remains an alternative, such as the option of establishing the trail on lands not protected as ‘Wilderness’ as part of the Wild River Corridor,” he said. Instead, “what the DEC has proposed is precisely what the People of this State intended to prevent when the Forever Wild clause was adopted in 1895 and then later implemented through the Rivers Act and the Master Plan,” the Council’s brief states.

The Adirondack Council is a privately funded not-for-profit organization whose mission is to ensure the ecological integrity and wild character of the Adirondack Park. The Council envisions a Park with clean water and clean air, comprised of core wilderness areas, surrounded by farms and working forests, as well as vibrant communities.  The Adirondack Council carries out its mission through research, education, advocacy and legal action to ensure the legacy of the Adirondack Park is safeguarded for future generations.  Adirondack Council members live in all 50 United States.

For more information:

John Sheehan, Adirondack Council, 518-441-1340 cell

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019

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