Article 14, New York constitution:
“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.”
In 2019, an appeals court came to the conclusion that snowmobile connector trails the state Department of Environmental Conservation was building in the Adirondacks do not impair the “wild forest qualities” of the Forest Preserve.
The evidence presented in the case supported an earlier ruling that the trails are “more similar to hiking trails than to roads,” the judges wrote.
The trail-clearing and widening would not “disturb old growth forest to any meaningful degree,” they wrote.
Also, the construction of the series of connectors by DEC shifted trails from the interior to the periphery of the Forest Preserve, decreasing fragmentation of the wild forest, the judges wrote.
“Overall, plaintiff failed to demonstrate how the construction of Class II trails, which have similar aspects to foot trails and ski trails and have less impact than roads or parking lots, impairs the wild forest qualities of the Forest Preserve,” the judges wrote.
The ruling had two parts, however, and in the second part, the judges ruled that “the construction constitutes an unconstitutional destruction of timber.”
A long discussion follows on whether the state constitution, which uses the word “timber,” meant for it to be synonymous with the word “trees” or whether timber has its own separate definition — trees suitable for use by timber companies.
That question answers itself. If the authors of the constitution had meant to exclude all the trees in the Forest Preserve from sale, removal or destruction, they would have used the word “trees.”
But this is what can happen when cases go to court: You end up with rulings that make no practical sense. The sale, removal or destruction of timber is prohibited in order to preserve the “wild forest” character of state lands. If you have already determined the constitution allows these snowmobile trails, because they do not compromise the wilderness, it makes no sense to rule that the tree-clearing necessary for their construction is banned by the constitution.
We agree with the common-sense dissent by Judge Michael Lynch, who wrote: “Although these trails are designed for snowmobile use during the winter season, the State Land Master Plan points out that the trails are ‘of essentially the same character as a foot trail’ and ‘may double as a foot trail at other times of the year.’ These trails effect a reasoned balance between protecting the Forest Preserve and allowing year-round public access.”
Finding a “reasoned balance” in regard to public use of the state’s wild forest land has been the source of much argument, in court and out of it, over many decades. Generally, when the debate devolves into arguments over definitions — like what, if anything, distinguishes “trees” from “timber” — you are likely to end up with a bad decision.
The appellate judges were right when they said the snowmobile trails are consistent with preservation of the wild forest lands, taking into account all the work DEC has done to minimize adverse impacts. These are public lands and maintaining public access must be part of the state’s conservatorship.
Now the case is before the state Court of Appeals. Arguments were heard earlier this week, and a decision is expected in the next couple of months. We hope this last appeal is decided in favor of the DEC. The trails will boost snowmobile recreation and the financial benefits it brings to the region, while staying within the constitutional charge to preserve the land’s wild character. They should be built.
Local editorials are written by the Post-Star editorial board, which includes Ben Rogers, president and director of local sales and marketing; Brian Corcoran, regional finance director and former publisher; Will Doolittle, projects editor; and Bob Condon, local news editor.