A path to common sense

The Youth National Seeding Races and Championships at the Mount Van Hoevenberg Sports Complex in Lake Placid. File Explorer photo by Mike Lynch

By Phil Brown

I have never heard anyone utter a bad word about the state Court of Appeals killing a plan to build a bobsled run in the Sentinel Range.

I do have a critique, but not because I disagree with the result.

The high court opined in 1930 that cutting in the Forest Preserve “to a significant timber extent” or “to any material degree” would violate the forever-wild clause of the state constitution. “To cut down 2,500 trees for a toboggan slide, or perhaps for any other purpose, is prohibited,” the court declared.

Of course, a bobsled run has no place in the Forest Preserve even if zero trees are cut for it. Perhaps you’ve seen the bobsled track on Mount Van Hoevenberg all lit up against the night sky. Now imagine it transplanted to the wild and rugged slopes of the Sentinels outside Lake Placid. What an abomination.

Yes, the court made the right call. At the same time, it led to our obsession with counting trees as a measure of constitutional fitness. As I suggested in my prior column, this is a feckless exercise.

The phrases “to a significant extent” and “to any material degree” are so vague as to be almost meaningless. And yet court after court totes up the number of trees to be cut for a given project to determine whether it is “substantial” or not.

We can deduce no general principle or formula from the few cases on the issue. Clearing 2,500 trees for a bobsled is impermissible. Cutting 350 trees to relocate trails in the Catskills is OK. Cutting 6,184 trees (what exactitude!) for 27 miles of snowmobile trails is prohibited—even though the trees exist in different parts of the Adirondack Park.

Just for perspective: based on federal data, it’s likely that the Adirondacks contain more than 3 billion trees of at least one-inch diameter. A conservative estimate is that a billion of these stand within the Forest Preserve. In the grand scheme, the number of trees cut for any trail will be inconsequential.

The courts, however, make judgments based on a project’s local impacts. This is sensible, but tree counts tell us little about those impacts.

Let’s say you want to build a 10-mile hiking trail. You have two potential routes. In one, you’ll need to cut 500 trees; in the other, 1,000 trees. Once the trail is built, does it really matter how many trees once existed along its path? In either case, the result is an artificial corridor where no trees will grow for as long as it is used and maintained. And the effects on the surrounding forest are the same. In fact, the greatest impacts come not from the loss of trees but from the trail itself. The trail brings humans who make noise, litter, defecate, cut branches for firewood, carve initials in bark.

What’s more, raw counts say nothing about the nature of the trees to be cut. Are they mature yellow birches, majestic white pines, or saplings that might not survive anyway?

I don’t say we should stop tallying trees, but the importance assigned to these counts by judges, policymakers and environmental advocates is misguided. Inasmuch as we don’t know what the numbers mean, the whole business borders on irrational.

There are more important questions to ask about a trail: Is it safe for the intended purpose? Is it laid out to avoid or minimize ecological damage to wetlands and other sensitive areas? Is it designed to sustain years of use?

These questions can be answered objectively. Although there may be room for debate over details, the criteria for building safe, sustainable, and environmental sound trails are well known. Books have been written about proper trail design.

Safe, sustainable, sound—I hope we all can agree on these three principles.

The thorniest issue probably concerns to trail width. In the Adirondacks, we tend to recoil at any trail wider than a footpath. Yet ski trails on steep slopes as well as snowmobile trails need to be wider for safe use. Some might complain that such trails are unsightly, but that is an important aesthetic matter and should not be prioritized over safety.

In the 1930s the state conservation department promoted and built a number of down-mountain ski trails with turns 15 to 20 feet wide. State Attorney General John Bennett Jr. signed off, saying the tree cutting would not violate the constitution. “Travel upon skis requires paths of greater width than ordinary footpaths or snowshoe trails,” he noted.

It was common sense then. It’s common sense today.

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