RAY BROOK — As a public recreation plan for state Essex Chain Lakes lands moving toward final approval, a group of environmental advocates say it’s not legal.

Adirondack Wild, Protect the Adirondacks and Earth Justice filed a lawsuit Monday.

Their primary concern is proposed construction of a new snowmobile bridge over the Cedar River and the reopening of another bridge for snowmobiles over the Hudson River. The bridges would connect Primitive Area with a narrow band of Wild Forest corridor. 

But environmentalists say both rivers are protected under the New York Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers System Act, which creates an envelope a half-mile wide around the river corridor.

The dispute gets very specific as to land-use jurisdiction and preexisting conditions.

“We’re referring to an area where the Wild Forest corridor overlaps with the Cedar River and the Hudson River in two places,” Adirondack Wild co-founder Dave Gibson told the Press-Republican.

'NO VESTED RIGHTS'

State planners at the Adirondack Park Agency and the Department of Environmental Conservation claimed a “preexisting use” for the bridge structures.

The Unit Management Plan looks to rebuild a bridge over the Cedar River where one was destroyed decades ago. 

APA and DEC want to repurpose another bridge in use by the Polaris Hunting Club, which has access to central portions of the Essex Chain complex through 2018.

“At the Polaris Bridge over the Hudson River — about 9 miles south of Route 28N — there is an existing steel bridge where the road base and bridge would be classified as Wild Forest,” Gibson said.

The Wild, Scenic Rivers Act of 1972 forbids the employment of a grandfather clause, he said.

"The act does state that preexisting use can continue, but that applies only to private land. Once it becomes state land, there are no vested rights," he continued.

“Even if you accept preexisting use, there is another clause in Wild, Scenic Rivers law that says any 'significant expansion' of such use is prohibited," Gibson said.

“The public has never had access before, and the state is trying to argue that — because one segment of the public has had access (the Gooley Club leaseholders), it applies to all. They are using that as a blanket for permission up and down that corridor.”

Court documents say that Wild, Scenic River “regulations specify that bridges are allowed over a scenic river for ‘public roads or for non-motorized open space recreational uses."

SNOWMOBILE TRAIL

Filed in Supreme Court in Albany County, the Article 78 lawsuit also challenges the addition of a snowmobile trail “1/10th of a mile wide," alleging that APA’s approval of a segment connecting Minerva and Indian Lake was “arbitrary and capricious.”

The proposed new snowmobile trail, court papers say, is a duplicate, aside from an original connector that is already built, joining Indian Lake to Newcomb.

“The direct north-to-south route that we’re talking about was not part of the Nature Conservancy deal,” Gibson said of early land-use planning done in 2005 after that organization bought the property from Finch, Pruyn and Co.

“That original snowmobile connector — from Indian Lake to Blue Mountain Lake and then northeast to Newcomb — was accepted by the state and the towns and is in place,” he continued.

“One of the arguments we’re making here is that the state may have described that route in the Essex Chain Unit Management Plan but didn’t really assess it with regard to the north-south route (Minerva to Indian Lake) now proposed.

“And we don’t think the UMP gives it much thought,” Gibson said.

'HEADLONG RUSH'

A Supreme Court judge in Albany will determine next steps in the DEC/APA Unit Management planning process for Essex Chain recreation.

“The state will probably raise some technical objection, but we can’t predict what’s going to happen. We’ve not filed anything that would prevent the state from moving ahead (with the UMP review),” Gibson said.

“We are asking the court to annul the UMP and put it back into the hands of the agencies to write in a legal way."

According to Earthjustice attorney Hannah Chan, the nonprofit law firm that brought the case to court, “this illegal agency action threatens not only the Essex Chain Lakes complex, but the integrity of the entire legal framework that is in place to protect the Adirondack Park Forest Preserve.”

“In a headlong rush to introduce mechanized and motorized recreational use, the state has turned its back on the very laws that are in effect to preserve these special, wild places,” she said in a news release.

APA could not weigh in on the discussion, said spokesman Keith McKeever, as it "does not comment on pending litigation.”

Email Kim Smith Dedam:

kdedam@pressrepublican.com

Twitter: @KimDedam

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