Ripping up tracks would take decades

Local governments in the Tri-Lakes area seem to be in a big hurry to pull up the tracks on the Adirondack railroad corridor to make way for a brand-new trackless recreational corridor, judging by recent board actions.

Four of the town of Tupper Lake board members two weeks ago joined their counterparts in the towns of North Elba and Harrietstown in resolutions urging New York state transportation and environmental conservation officials to reopen the corridor’s 1996-vintage unit management plan, with an eye on getting the tracks out of there as soon as possible. None of the three boards wants to wait for the UMP deliberations to commence, so determined are they that the tracks must go.

We understand the frustration felt by many people here because the Adirondack Scenic Railroad hasn’t extended its operations to Tupper Lake yet, either from the south at Big Moose or from the north at Saranac Lake. We’re frustrated! There is movement, however. The volunteer railroad company has extended its original operations three times since 1996: twice in the south end and once to Lake Placid-Saranac Lake. We believe Tupper Lake is the next stop on the company’s expansion plan. We’ve been told that.

Since the inception of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, in countless letters to the editor, most of them published in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, the recreational trail backers have argued that the rail-and-trail proposal is “impractical” and “impossible.”

“Be realistic!” ARTA Leader Dick Beamish told us over a year ago when he visited our office one day. “It’ll never happen,” he said with the confidence of a man who has fought many Adirondack battles. Our readers will remember that Dick is the guy who campaigned for several years to remove motorized boats from the upper Raquette River. It puzzles us greatly that now the anti-motorized guy is tucked tightly in bed with strong snowmobile interests, who would love to see the tracks ripped up for better snowmobiling on the corridor. Be careful who you sleep with, is our warning to them.

Dick says he welcomes snowmobiles to the entire corridor, but it wasn’t too many years ago, in papers he’s published, that he said the opposite. Check out his piece, “Getting the Word Out in the Fight to Save the Earth,” published by John Hopkins University Press in 1995.

We agree with snowmobile fans that the corridor would be much better for riding each winter with the tracks gone. But can they be sure that if the tracks come out, the corridor won’t revert to “forever wild” in places – and particularly south of here, where the preservationists want to create the giant Bob Marshall Wilderness Preserve?

In 1996, after years of work, the framers of the current corridor unit management plan voted in favor of option 6, which was to permit a private business to try to resurrect the railroad line and to charge the Department of Environmental Conservation with building trails along the corridor where possible. The Adirondack Railroad Preservation Society has made many gains at living up to its end of the bargain. The state has dropped the ball largely with its trail development.

ARTA’s push, we believe, should have been focused on having the state do its job in the tasks laid out in the UMP of 1996.

ARTA leaders and the town boards that have fallen in step with them would have us believe that if the UMP for the corridor is convened tomorrow, the rip-out-the-tracks decision would come fast and furious, and by next year the contract would be left to hire a firm to pull out all the hardware, and with all that money from salvage, the state would move full speed ahead with the creation of a new recreational trail that would join Lake Placid to some point north of Old Forge.

Even if the state UMP drafters came to that decision, it could be decades before the tracks are ever gone.

First of all, unit management plans take years and years to complete.

After the corridor UMP is completed years from now, then will come the lawsuits. The preservationists are not the only people in the world who can sue the state for its actions. There is a strong railroad lobby in this country that understands the folly of tearing up railroads, that will obviously strongly object to any move to destroy an operating railroad in the Adirondacks.

Lawsuits could take years to resolve.

The Adirondack railroad was also placed some years ago on the state and federal historic registers. Prying it from those registers will be a massive task, an “Act of Congress,” so to speak. Ask any state Department of Transportation official how difficult it is to demolish a historic building for a new highway, and you’ll watch them wince at the prospect.

In recent months, through our association with a new Tri-Lakes group that is committed to the rail-and-trail strategy (Trail and Rail Action Committee or TRAC for short), we met a former railroad man, Bob Hest, who in his retirement is a freelance writer in the north end of the county.

Bob told us recently he made his living tearing up railroads for the Canadian National railroad company. Some of his projects included the removal of lines in the prairie provinces and in Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. He was apparently good at what he did, but he told us he didn’t like the job for how it affected people and places. He is working very hard these days to help save the Adirondack railroad.

He told us frankly it can take 10 or 15 years to remove an operating railroad, in the best of situations. If there is strong opposition and legal complications, it can take longer.

Quite frankly, at this time in our society when better and more efficient transportation systems are warranted, we can’t imagine any state or federal elected representative voting to rip up any railroad tracks that could prove important at some future time.

It would seem, therefore, that the best answer, and one that can be found in the near and not-distant future, would be our rail-and-trail scenario, where everyone gets what they want.

The ARTA leaders could do their supporters and the entire region a great service by embracing the rail-and-trail proposal, instead of refusing to consider it, and helping train supporters achieve the two primary goals of option 6 of the 1996 unit management plan.

Dan McClelland is owner, publisher and editor of the Tupper Lake Free Press. This is an abbreviated version of an editorial in this week’s issue of that newspaper.