Snowmobile trails stir conflict

INLET -?For Dick Rosteck, a new snowmobile trail through the Adirondacks is “the greatest thing since homemade apple pie” and volunteering his time to groom it with a tracked vehicle is a labor of love.

But some environmental groups see such trails as snowmobile superhighways cut through the woods at the expense of habitat and the tradition of trails scaled to leave little mark on the wild lands. They’re suing to stop the state from downing what they claim are too many trees to make way for them, and they also want to ban the use of tracked groomers, which drag a heavy steel frame to smooth trails for a safer, more comfortable ride.

At stake is continued work on a network of new trails linking tourism-dependent communities in the park, a project that has taken years to plan and collaboration between regulators, environmentalists and snowmobile enthusiasts.

Snowmobilers say the legal attack comes from a group of environmental purists who have little tolerance for motorized means of enjoying the backcountry.

Among those disputing that characterization is Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, one of the groups that has sued.

“We are in no way looking to end snowmobiling or grooming on the Forest Preserve,” Bauer said. “It is about making state agencies obey state law and protecting the Forest Preserve from further damage from the construction and grooming of excessively wide roadlike trails.”

He said tracked groomers are illegal under the Adirondack State Land Master Plan, which governs activities on the 2.6-million-acre patchwork of state-owned Forest Preserve within the 6-million-acre Adirondack Park.

For towns across the central Adirondacks, the winter economy depends heavily on snowmobiling. Jim Rolf, trail coordinator for the New York State Snowmobile Association, said the group estimates that snowmobilers bring $260 million to Adirondack communities each winter.

The epicenter of Adirondack snowmobiling is in Inlet and the neighboring town of Webb along the Fulton Chain Lakes 90 miles northwest of Albany. Last year, 17,000 snowmobiling permits were sold to access the 165 miles of professionally groomed trails on town and private land there. Thousands of others use the surrounding Forest Preserve trails for free.

This is where the first so-called community connector snowmobile trail was completed last year – the 13-mile Seventh Lake Mountain Trail, which doubles as a hiking and biking trail in summer and fall.

It was the first new snowmobile trail built in the Forest Preserve in decades. In exchange for the new trail, the state Department of Environmental Conservation closed 46 miles of snowmobile trails in the adjacent Moose River Plains and created a new 15,000-acre Little Moose Wilderness where motors are banned.

“Snowmobiling is a magnificent resource that gives us a four-season economy,” said Mitch Lee, Inlet’s parks supervisor. “If there is no tracked grooming in the Forest Preserve, it will kill snowmobiling.”

Bauer said the trails can be groomed with a drag pulled behind a snowmobile, which is the only type of motorized vehicle explicitly permitted on such trails under state law. Towns and snowmobile clubs commonly groom their own trail systems with bulldozer-sized machines.

Bauer also said the connector trails are supposed to be 9 to 12 feet wide but are up to 20 feet wide in places. While they’re supposed to have the character of a foot trail, Bauer said they’re more like roads.

Rosteck said the snowmobile trail construction crew followed strict rules set by the state. On a recent walk along the new trail, he pointed out numerous large boulders that the trail builders couldn’t remove because they’re only allowed to use hand tools. In one case, a stone mason hand-chiseled higher areas off an angular boulder.

“There’s no way they cut 2,000 trees, unless you count everything bigger than this,” Rosteck said, holding up a finger. Protect’s lawsuit says more than 2,200 trees were cut.

Grooming the new 13-mile trail by pulling a drag with a snowmobile is an arduous task, Rosteck said. It takes 10 hours to complete the job with either a snowmobile or tracked groomer, and it must be done overnight so the trail has time to firm up before snowmobile traffic resumes. The tracked groomer, with its heated cab, makes the job easier.

Protect the Adirondacks’ legal challenge is before a state court, which has no timetable for a decision. The state DEC has said it lacks merit.