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Adirondack Council Cheers High Court Ruling

High Court Protects Forest Preserve from Road-like Snowmobile Trails

Tuesday, May 4, 2021 

ALBANY, N.Y. – The Adirondack Council today praised a 4-2 decision by the NYS Court of Appeals to protect the “forever wild” public Forest Preserve from destruction by state actions to build road-like snowmobile trails without permission from the voters. 

“We congratulate Protect the Adirondacks for its victory in this vital case,” said Adirondack Council Executive Director William C. Janeway. “We have agreed for more than a decade now that the state’s plans to build road-like snowmobile trails exceeded its authority as stewards of the Forest Preserve.  It took 11 years and six trips to court – two by us, rejected as not-yet-ripe, and three by Protect! (the last one supported by the Council as an amicus). We applaud Protect!, others who joined us in supporting Protect!.  We also thank the four judges who defended the Forest Preserve.” 

In addition, the court rejected the state argument that only trees narrower than three inches at breast height should be considered trees. Rather than accept the state’s count of roughly 8,000 mature trees it expected to destroy to create the trails, the high court repeatedly referred to the number of trees as more than 25,000, which included 18,000 narrower than 3 inches.  

“That intentional language extends the court’s protection to millions of mature high-elevation trees on Adirondack slopes and summits,” Janeway said. “Mature spruce and fir trees growing just below the tree line – known as the krummholz zone – are critically important to birds and other wildlife, but many never grow to more than knee-high.” 

Yet, the decision didn’t make the state’s management harder than it was, Janeway said.    

“We want to make it clear that this decision in no way affects the state’s rights and authority to build and maintain hiking trails and snowmobile trails the same way it has done so in the Adirondacks for more than 100 years,” Janeway said. “The court drew the line at trails that are really roads, even when the state calls them something else.” 

Conservation Wins vs. Recreation  

“In sum, the court said that the public right to protect the Forest Preserve from destruction outweighs the state’s desire to improve public recreation. That’s what we have been saying since 2010 when the state first published its plans,” Janeway said. 

 “The state had the option of reworking its plans when the lower court ruled against its justifications for wider, straighter, flatter trails,” Janeway said. “Instead, it opted to charge ahead with this plan. When we sued, the courts told us back then that the people must wait for the state to start building the trails before anyone could judge their constitutionality. So, our lawsuits never got far enough to argue the merits of the state’s plan.  Protect! picked up where we had left off, bringing its action once the construction began. We filed a friend of the court brief to support Protect when this case reached the Court of Appeals.” 

Even the dissenting opinions rendered by judges Leslie Stein and Chief Judge Janet DiFiore agreed with the Adirondack Council’s contention (explained in its friend of the court brief) that the two sentences of the New York State Constitution’s “forever wild” clause were meant to be a single idea. So, any violation of any one part renders an action unconstitutional. Plaintiffs need not prove that both sentences had been violated to prevent the state from acting, Janeway explained. 

“The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.” 

Forever Wild Clause, Article 14, Section 1, NYS Constitution  

A lower court had held that the state’s plan would clearly cause the destruction of timber, but the court also felt that the destruction might not be substantial enough to impact the Forest Preserve’s character as a wild forest.  

Precedent Set a Century Ago 

The Court of Appeals – New York’s highest -- had set a standard a century ago in a case involving the state’s plan to build a bobsled course on the Catskill Forest Preserve (MacDonald case). The high court said today that it was using that precedent in this case, judging that the new trail system was more destructive than the bobsled run that the court had rejected in MacDonald.  

The Court of Appeals judges said today: “Improving recreation and the use and enjoyment of the preserve are laudable aims, but they were insufficient in MacDonald to obviate the need for a constitutional amendment.” 

“The plain language of the forever wild clause says the state shall protect the forest, and shall not destroy the forest,” Janeway said. “It doesn’t say balance the health of the forests against the desires of any particular recreational user group. We urge the court to reject that new interpretation. If the state wants to change the rules, they need to change the Constitution. And for that, they need permission from the people of this state.”  

Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve and Sierra Club had also filed a friend of the court briefs in support of Protect the Adirondacks!’s lawsuit. 

The Adirondack Council’s Janeway was a regional director for the NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation and oversaw the Catskill Forest Preserve before joining the Adirondack Council in 2014. Earlier he worked as the New York Director of Government Relations for The Nature Conservancy and as the leader of the Adirondack Mountain Club’s trails and other North Country programs and staff. 

State’s Actions Must be Lawful  

Janeway noted that environmental organizations had agreed to allow the state to pursue a system of snowmobile trails connecting communities inside the Adirondack Park. But the Adirondack Council -- and others -- admonished state and local officials that the state’s plans had to be “lawful.” 

The Adirondack Council and Adirondack Wild are represented in the case by Philip H. Gitlen (a former DEC General Counsel) and Robert S. Rosborough IV, both of Whiteman Osterman & Hanna LLP.   

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.  Adirondack Council advocates live in all 50 United States. It is the largest environmental organization focused solely on the Adirondack Park.  

For more information: John Sheehan, Director of Communications, 518-441-1340 

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