DEC Planners Allow Six Weeks to Comment on Adirondack
ADIRONDACK STRETCH OF NORTH COUNTRY NATIONAL SCENIC TRAIL PLANNED
27 Years to Finalize Plan for 140-Mile Adirondack Portion of 4,600-Mile Trail to North Dakota
In March 1980, the United States Congress Authorized the North Country National Scenic Trail from Crown Point in Essex County on Lake Champlain to Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota. With approximately 625 miles through New York State, the National Park Service trail would traverse seven states: North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. The 4,600-mile trail would ultimately be the longest continuous hiking trail in the country.
The trail would initially be completed through the already begun 390-mile Finger Lakes Trail from the northern edge of the Allegany National Forest at the Pennsylvania border through central New York. About 253 miles of the Finger Lakes Trail are now certified by the Park Service as official sections of the North Country trail. As was the case with the well-known Appalachian Trail, the many segments required to complete the North Country trail are expected to take decades. The Appalachian Trail took about 80 years to complete, according to a source quoted in the Glens Falls Post-Star in November. That trail has never really been finished, however, considering that widening of the trail by one or two hundred feet and regulation of viewsheds from the trail continue to the present time. Currently, over 1,700 miles of the North Country trail are in place and certified to meet Park Service standards.
Knowing that the intention was from the conception to traverse the Adirondack region from some point on the southwest boundary, or "Blue Line," to Lake Champlain at historic Crown Point and that only 40 percent of the land in the Adirondacks at that time was in government-owned hands, as State Forest Preserve, I had periodically expressed my concern for the property rights implications of a trail that crossed the mountainous region. When the final draft plan for the Adirondack section was published in November 2007, the route through the Adirondacks was revealed to be about 140 miles long, including various lengths through private and conservation easement lands. Over the more than 2-1/2 decades that have passed since 1980, the State had acquired additional land and easements on land, thereby increasing the proportion of the route in full or partial State ownership.
Private Property Concerns
Private property concerns arise mainly in the eastern section of the trail, but the trail winds through some private land that is not under State conservation easements in its meandering route here and there all across the Adirondacks. The track of the North Country trail across the Adirondack region follows mainly existing DEC trails, but will require 47 miles of new trail construction, according to the plan. The main concentration of potentially affected private land is along the stretch of the trail east of Interstate 87 as the trail approaches Crown Point, and from Crown Point north to the Crown Point State Historic Site on Lake Champlain.
Numerous official maps that are included with the full color, glossy Draft Adirondack Park Trail Plan published by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) in conjunction with the North Country Trail Association and the National Park Service depict a two-mile wide "opportunity corridor," where the new sections of the trail could be located, but not the precise route.
Several other important aspects of the potential impact on private property ownership are hazy. In spite of including numerous design standards for the trail construction, mainly of an environmental nature, the draft plan fails to disclose the actual width of the trail, either the constructed trail or the width needed to acquire title to the trail or for trail easements.
When government-owned hiking trails are going to be constructed, the question arises as to whether private property will be taken by eminent domain for the trail. The draft plan states that it will be the duty of DEC to "(a)cquire needed lands or easements from private landowners." A prominent stand-out box in the plan states:
"It is important to note that the trail route proposed in this Plan has made maximum use of existing publicly-owned (sic) lands. Placement of the trail on any private lands will only be done with the permission of the landowner. No significant amount of land acquisition is anticipated. In the few cases where lands may be needed, it is important to note that it is the policy of the DEC to only negotiate land or easement purchases on a willing seller, willing buyer basis."
This statement leaves several points of confusion. The word "significant" as to the "amount of land acquisition" is not consistent with the fact that for about ten miles in the vicinity of Crown Point the trail "opportunity corridor" is entirely through private lands in an area where there is a history of modest rural population as evidenced by a number of roads and a town center, as opposed to deeply forested timber company lands.
Also, it is unclear whether the mode of acquisition will be fee simple acquisition or easement, and what the criteria are for the choice of the acquisition mode. It is unclear what liability protections will be afforded to landowners who sell or donate easements for the trail. Under New York State court rulings, owners of property used for public recreation face serious liability concerns.
Although DEC states that it is its policy not to condemn land for trails, under statute the agency retains the power to acquire trail routes by eminent domain. In fact, DEC has refused to agree to drop its statutory power of eminent domain as a tool for land acquisition for trails. A "policy" to "only negotiate" land or easement purchases on a willing seller, willing buyer basis has little weight when the statutory power to condemn land for the trail is retained.
Moreover, this issue remains as a matter of national policy, considering that the North Country trail is being created through many "partnerships" across its entire length to North Dakota with localities which could use the threat of eminent domain to coerce landowners. Statutory protection is needed for landowners requiring that neither the National Park Service, nor any government agencies from which it is accepting completed segments of the trail have the power of eminent domain to acquire land or easements for the trail.
Other Unanswered Questions
The question remains as to who will ultimately own the trail. Will title to lands and easements acquired by DEC to complete the trail be transferred to the National Park Service? The plan refers to the National Park Service as "the lead administrator for the trail." In fact, Thomas L. Gilbert, who was at the December 2007 hearing at the DEC office Warrensburg, is the National Park Service Superintendent, based in Madison, Wisconsin, for the North Country National Scenic Trail. The plan speaks of the Park Service certifying each trail segment, but what will happen when all segments are certified?
Although use of the Adirondack countryside by hikers is treated with favoritism by DEC, it is the many hunters who get into the forest and have consistent, significant, positive economic impact on the localities. But, after the hearing in Warrensburg, a hunter raised the concern that, once the trail is built, either the DEC or the Park Service might prohibit hunting for a regulatory width along the trail. A DEC official assured him that he had nothing to worry about. But hunting is not permitted in National Park Service units.
The Park Service's glossy brochure for the North Country trail has a qualified reassurance related to hunting:
"Many public and private lands through which the North Country Trail passes are legally open to hunting during the proper seasons. It is not intended that passage of the trail through these lands should in any way lead to their closure to hunting. In general, the trail will remain open to use during hunting seasons. However, some segments of the trail may be closed to use during some hunting seasons by the managing authorities responsible for those segments."
The question of impact on trapping has arisen, also, considering that the DEC issued new restrictions on body-gripping traps during 2007 in response to public ire because, according to DEC, "a few dogs" have been killed during recent years on public and private land. New rules prohibit body-gripping traps within 100 feet of trails on public lands. Unfortunately, although contacted privately by a trapper in connection with the issue, I witnessed no trapper speaking at the suddenly announced Warrensburg hearing or voicing concerns in the press.
In fact, neither hunters nor trappers made their voice heard for the record at the hearing. Only two minutes were allowed per speaker during the ultra-short hearing; so with so few members of the public speaking, it was not surprising that no issues related to dogs or hiker-hunter conflicts were raised by speakers who might have had broader concerns.
The Voices that Count
Planning for the section of the North Country National Scenic Trail through the Adirondacks languished for over two decades for a reason. The initial thinking featured a route through the High Peaks region, which was strongly advocated by the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK).
Charles R. Embree, who represented ADK at one of the early public meetings held to assess the feasibility of the trail and determine a route, wrote an article in the September-October 1971 issue of Adirondac which reflected his strongly argued view at an earlier meeting that the North Country National Scenic Trail should follow a northern route through the Adirondacks, one that would afford views of, but not pass through, the High Peaks. Mr. Embree's remarks are recorded in a document entitled, "New York Summit Meeting - December 11, 1992 - Notes," which is a formal summary of a meeting of the National Park Service and Adirondack Mountain Club in Albany on December 1992, provided by Thomas L. Gilbert, Superintendent of the North Country National Scenic Trail, with a letter to me dated October 30, 1997. In his 1971 article, Mr. Embree wrote:
"The entire North Country Trail should be a national scenic trail, seeking out the best of scenic interest, natural wildlands, and hiking adventure. Trail hikers want ridge routes, vista and interesting slopes. If forced to trudge along miles of canal in populated valleys or endless railroad beds through level forest, they would feel cheated, knowing that there's much better hiking country not far away Our region is so rich in quality hiking adventure that its rugged topography should have priority for a scenic trail, with historical and cultural points secondary. A North Country Trail route laid out according to these principles, I assured the Task Force, would earn a high rating in ADK's view, and therefore certainly would be a desirable trail."
Later the Adirondack Mountain Club's view changed. "It expressed the view that the designation of the National Scenic Trail in the Adirondacks will result in a level of use that will cause additional deterioration of the park's trail system. Agency and volunteer resources to maintain existing trails at current levels of use are already deemed to be insufficient," according to the meeting notes sent by Mr. Gilbert.
Over time, ADK's view evolved further. It opposed any route through the High Peaks area, objecting to overuse of the routes to the breathtaking views in this region. Numerous meetings and studies over the next decade resulted in a plan through the central Adirondacks, and well south of the High Peaks area, to which ADK and other groups could agree. This is the preferred route in the draft plan released to the public in November 2007.
The maintenance of the trails through the Forest Preserve is indeed "insufficient." The hiking tail to Mt. Marcy, the highest peak in the Adirondacks, is already badly eroded. Adirondack activists who point to the irony of the opposition by environmental groups to motorized vehicle use have been harping on this for years, but I had reservations as to whether they, also, were exaggerating. I was assured that these were no exaggerations when out-of-state environmentally oriented relatives of mine who visited during November 2007 and hiked on the trail to Mt. Marcy told me about their shock at the trail's condition. They said that the trail is in reasonable shape until it starts to climb, and thereupon becomes a narrow track of loose, eroded stones with water beneath. They did not discern the supposed volunteer maintenance of the sloping trail.
Trails that I have hiked in the Adirondacks were eroded to narrow gullies in many sections, especially on the slopes. On a hike to the Hadley Mountain Fire Tower with some of my family several years ago, extreme erosion was an impediment to footing and safety. Erosion, caused by DEC's ripping out culverts and failing to establish other routes for water flow, has severely damaged an old, rather level, former town highway known as John's Pond Road that I hiked with Susan Allen to an eradicated settlement called Little Canada. Mud and water-filled gullies the width of travel of just a single hiker, with brush and trees grown to the edge of the gullies, had replaced sections of the once well-built town highway under DEC's "maintenance."
Considering the consistency with which DEC and its cadre of volunteers (which are said to be members of the Adirondack Mountain Club) have poorly maintained the Adirondack trails over the years, the question arises as to whether the issue over the location of the North Country trail in the High Peaks was really related to genuine concern about maintenance issues, such as erosion and safety, and environmental impact, or whether unstated reasons, such as philosophy, are involved.
But there is no dispute that the Adirondack Mountain Club was heard when their leadership changed its viewpoint about the original location planned for the trail.
The Squelched Vision for the North Country Trail
The Park Service's glossy foldout brochure for the North Country trail gives a different impression than the final draft plan about the stretch of the trail through the Adirondacks. The brochure states:
"From the grandeur of the Adirondack Mountains in New York, it meanders westward through the hardwood forests of Pennsylvania, through the countryside of Ohio and southern Michigan, along the shores of the Great lakes, and through the glacier-carved forests, lakes, and streams of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. Its western terminus lies in the vast plains of North Dakota."
Yes, the southern ranges and peaks of the Adirondacks are beautiful, rolling on and on across the landscape like an endless green ocean, but the grandeur of the High Peaks is surpassing, even breathtaking, and these peaks will not be visible from the Adirondack segment of the North Country trail.
Charles Fiegl's article in the Glens Falls Post-Star at the end of November quoted Neil Woodworth, the executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club. Mr. Woodworth said that the proposed "central" route (the final preferred route to replace the rejected route through the High Peaks area) goes through northern Warren and southern Essex Counties (presumably mentioned because these areas are served by the newspaper).
"'Those parts of the Adirondacks get very little use,' Mr. Woodworth said. 'It would be nice for this scenic terrain to get some attention and provide a tourism boost.'"
Before leaving the Adirondack Park, the trail works westward through Hamilton County into Herkimer County, where the mountains fade into a westward sloping plateau known as Tug Hill.
Mr. Woodworth's pronouncement of economic benefit to the area does not jibe with the assurances in the draft plan. Under "Frequently Asked Questions," is noted the query, "Will there be substantially more hikers using the Park and these trails?" The stated answer is:
"It is not likely that there will be a substantial amount of increased use on existing Park trails that are included in the route of the North Country NST. Currently, there are no 'hard' numbers for long-distance use on NST's or on the increase in use when a NST overlaps an existing trail. It is expected that there will be some increased use because the North Country NST route will be linking numerous existing trails into a single long distance trail. It is expected that trails that normally get minimal to no use will see a small increase in use."
One explanation could be offered that the environmentalists advocate this route because of the oft-stated desire by DEC and others that the hiking focus, which is on the High Peaks, should be shifted southward to distribute use of the Adirondacks to lesser used areas to the south. Another explanation would be that the southern areas of Adirondacks will not draw hikers in any significant number, and therefore these areas are a better location for the cross-Adirondack trail segment, considering that use of the Adirondack forests is simply undesirable in the eyes of the environmentalists.
But, whichever explanation for the desirability of the more southerly route, it is clear that, contrary to Neil Woodworth's quoted opinion, the writers of the final draft plan, which is depicted as a combined plan and generic environmental impact statement, were certain that little additional useand, by extension, little new tourismwill develop from the use of the uninterrupted trail route through the Adirondacks.
Little Public Participation
The North Country National Scenic Trail has been under consideration for over 35 years, according to written records. After enactment by Congress in 1980, 27 years passed before the final draft plan was released. For years, the Adirondack segment had been dormant.
"Between 1975, when the feasibility study was completed, and 1980 or 1981, when the Park Service was in the process of preparing the plan, ADK's position on a route through the Adirondacks changed and they began to oppose the suggested location," according to the issue paper, Analysis of Preliminary Trail Alternatives for a Trail Route across Adirondack State Park, prepared for the National Park Service by William R. Menke, Manager, and Thomas L. Gilbert, Superintendent According to the issue paper, the controversy centered over the proposed route which passed through the High Peaks area of the Adirondack Park.
With DEC's involvement, the Park Service developed the Comprehensive Plan for the Management and Use of the North Country National Scenic Trail in 1982. But in response to ADK's concerns about overuse of the High Peaks, no efforts were made to select a route through the Adirondacks from 1982 to the mid 1990's.
Beginning in 1992, the issue of the Adirondack Park route occupied significant meetings and formal exchanges related to alternatives to avoid the High Peaks region. By early 2005, the Park Service, DEC, and North Country Trail Association (the not-profit partner formally recognized by the Park Service to do trail development) were revitalizing the route planning project. Sets of maps soon were developed, and by the end of that year a consensus on a central route for the trail was being reached. By 2007, a draft plan was circulated to DEC and the Park Service for comment.
During this long period, only occasionally was the general public made aware of one of the deliberations. For instance, the Hamilton County News carried an article in 1997 discussing the Park Service issue paper. Another potential occasion for public attention was when Clair Cain, the Director of Trail Management for the North Country trail, gave a presentation nine years later, in 2006, to the Adirondack Park Agency in Ray Brook.
Finally, in November 2007, DEC invited the public to comment at three hearings on the draft plan for the Adirondack segment of the North Country trail. The announcement reached the southeastern and eastern Adirondack area through the Glens Falls Post-Star article on November 27. The first hearing was at the DEC office in Warrensburg in early December, when it was announced that the comment period was to be closed on January 4, meaning that most of the comment period was during the busy Holiday Season.
Not one local elected town, county, state, or federal official spoke at the Warrensburg hearing. After the presentation by the federally designated North Country trail association and DEC officials, each member of the public who asked to speak was allowed only two minutes.
Ted Galusha, the noted advocate for disabled access to the Adirondack Forest Preserve, was the first speaker. He had planned a statement on the issue of disabled access, but he was cut off quickly, and found it impossible to complete his comments effectively in the allotted time. Jim Jennings, the executive director of the New York State Snowmobile Association, stated his concern that the new trail would interfere with current use of some of the existing trail segments by snowmobilers when trails are connected to become the cross-Adirondack hiking trail. Maynard Baker, a former supervisor of the Town of Warrensburg, made a short statement on access issues for disabled veterans, a concern of his for decades. I disregarded the DEC official's interruption that my time was up, and completed my short statement related to private property rights issues.
The Adirondack Mountain Club did not address the hearing. Other environmentalist statements included that by Dan Plumley, the executive director of the Association for Protection of the Adirondacks, the "leading effort to protect the Adirondacks since 1901," as he said. He also said that the last time the association got involved in the trail considerations was during 1973 and he complained that the environmental planning was "very thin." Bob Harrison, the vice-chairman of the Residents Committee to Protect the Adirondacks, objected to new trails going through trailless areas. A soft-spoken man who identified himself as a trustee of the Association to Protect the Adirondacks questioned how wild lands would be protected.
I had the distinct feeling that the hearing was only a formality, and that ordinary citizen comment was irrelevant, because the Adirondack Mountain Club had achieved its goal of moving the trail away from the High Peaks However, it remains to be seen whether other powerful environmental organizations would also be on board, and that the entire cadre of environmentalists, in and out of government, would agree with this policy of no longer obstructing the long-sought hiking route through the Adirondacks.
Carol W. LaGrasse, January 1, 2008