When snowmobiling arrived in the Adirondacks in the mid-1960s, the question of where to ride became the single most important issue faced by both new sled owners and advocates for the protection of the wild character of the Adirondack Forest Preserve.
As a result of efforts by the state’s Conservation Department and lobbying by the snowmobile industry, snowmobilers are today wildly over-represented in terms of access to trails. Although they represent less than 1% of the 7-10 million people who visit the Adirondacks each year, there are currently at least 3 to 4 thousand miles of snowmobile trails in the Adirondack Park,* compared to about 5,000 miles of roads. How this happened is a story that began 50 years ago with what is known as the Wilm Directive.
In 1965, New York State was the largest snowmobile market in the United States with an estimated 8,000 snowmobiles in the Adirondacks alone, and more between there and the Canadian border. As the snowmobiling fad became widespread in the early 1960s, the industry grew from $3 million in sales in 1965 to $30 million in 1967. Sales then doubled from 120,000 sleds per year in 1967 to 240,000 in 1970.
By 1972, the New York State was home to about 180,000 snowmobiles, a massive industry expansion created through racing promotions, increased advertising and establishing dealerships, and more than 100 new snowmobile makers entering the market. By way of contrast, there were 106,678 snowmobiles registered in New York State (17,088 from out of state) for the 2018-2019 season (down from 121,539 for the 2014-2015 season); 51,036 new snowmobiles were sold in the entire U.S. last year.
One of first snowmobile clubs in America was founded in Saranac Lake in 1963 over the issue of access to public lands. At its core was a committee of men who organized what may have been the first snowmobile race in the Adirondacks, at the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival the previous February. The club was founded when the dealers and racers, together with some owners from Saranac Lake, Lake Placid, and Tupper Lake, met at the Saranac Lake Fish and Game Club to fight regulations limiting the use of motor vehicles from some areas of the Adirondack Forest Preserve.
On September 11, 1963, snowmobile enthusiasts from Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake and Lake Placid, turned out to fight new regulations for roads in the Adirondack Forest Preserve. The previous July, Conservation Commissioner Harold G. Wilm (1959-1966) had issued an order opening hundreds of miles of “truck trails” for public use with motorized equipment, while closing 76 other roads and banning the use of motorized equipment on hiking trails and overland in the Forest Preserve. This order, known as the “Wilm Directive,” was announced in the August-September issue of Conservationist magazine.
The meeting was chaired by Saranac Lake Fish and Game Club President James Latour. Among the first to speak was James Bickford of the Conservation Department (forerunner of today’s DEC), who said he believed limiting motorized vehicle damage to trails during the summer was the main reason for the new rules. Hiking trails could easily become off-road motorcycle trails he said, which would keep hikers away and damage the local economy. The rules, Bickford said, were aimed at the jeeps and tote-goats and were an attempt to “nip the problem in the bud.” The difficulty was that if the new snow machines (which were faster and could more easily go overland) were allowed in the Forest Preserve generally, jeep and tote-goat owners would complain of unfairness.
Those at the meeting were not so much interested in access for motorcyclists or jeeps. Snowmobile dealer and racer Sonny Moody echoed the general consensus of the room by agreeing, in the words of the reporter that night, “the summer scooters have ruined much in the woods.” The main argument for the snowmobilers at that meeting was not so much the reopening of a few newly closed forest roads, but gaining permission to use snowmobiles on foot trails, canoe carries, and overland. According to the newspaper report the following day, John Pedroni (who had chaired the first snowmobile race in Saranac Lake) “noted that the department [administrative] roads were already forbidden to motorized public traffic but [snowmobilers] wanted to use their small vehicles on trails and in the woods.” The snowmobilers most immediate concern was that the new rules would go into effect on October 1, and they moved to form a committee to do something about it.
“At first, dealers were suggested,” the newspaper reported, “but Charles Keough, dealer himself, suggested that the dealers not serve on the committee so there could be no charges of financial interests.” In their place were named snowmobile racing enthusiasts Don Carter, John Pedroni, and Arnie Woodruff of Saranac Lake; Ronnie Ryan, Peter Trombley, and Clifford Bishop of Tupper Lake; and Charles Gallo and Charles Gallo Jr. of Lake Placid. Assemblyman Hayward Plumadore agreed to act as an adviser. Their first meeting was the next night and their first move was to seek a delay in enacting the new rules, and then a change in the policy. If that failed, they agreed they would seek legislation to affect the change. The group began calling itself the Forest and Wildlife Protective Patrol and it was the first effort by snowmobilers to lobby New York State legislators.
At Saranac Lake several days later Jim Latour presented the Protective Patrol bylaws. Members, they said, would be “dedicated to the progress and welfare of New York State Forests.” The objectives were:
- To preserve, protect and provide for the multiple use of the Forest Preserve.
- To assist in emergencies at the request of the duly constituted authorities such as Conservation Department, State and local police, Director of Civil Defense, branches of the military service, American Red Cross, etc. Included in such matters of assistance would be Forest Fire Control, Preservation and Protection of deer and other wild life; Eradication of predators, Rescue and search operations.
- That the effective date of this directive be changed from October 1, 1963 to May 1st, 1964, (This delay is requested for the purpose of mediation in regard to this directive.)
- That an exception be made in the order, allowing the use of exclusively for use on ice and snow. It is expected that said equipment will be limited in some reasonable manner as to weight, size and horsepower. It is further suggested that said mechanized snow and ice vehicles be limited to use only when sufficient ice and snow covering exists in the various districts of the forest preserve, and subject to the exclusive determination of climatic conditions by the District Forester or the Conservation Commissioner.
- We further request an opportunity for a meeting with you in regard to this matter.
- We, also respectfully request a full public hearing on .the matter, in this area so vitally affected by this order.
In closing, Mr. Commissioner, we wish to reaffirm our position as true conservationists, with the vital interests in the welfare of the Forest Preserve and the state of New York. We feel, however, that the prohibition in regard to the power propelled snow sleds is an undue and unrealistic imposition.
Yours respectfully, Forest and Wildlife Protective Patrol.
Bill McLaughlin, a local reporter sympathetic to the use of snowmobiles in the Forest Preserve, described the meeting. “Many salty comments punctuated the meeting and none were complimentary to the conservation department though all agreed that the best way to win the fight was by using reason and logic over hot headedness and imagined wrongs,” McLaughlin wrote. “The Forest and Wildlife Protective Patrol was founded in this premise and will set about immediately in an attempt to gain ground against the Wilm directive.” Several petitions were already being circulated, he reported, and people from Star Lake, Tupper Lake, Lake Placid, Bloomingdale, Malone “and several scattered communities” were active in opposing the new Forest Preserve rules that affected snowmobiles.
Over the next few days, members of the patrol fanned out to build support. At a meeting of the Adirondack Conservation Council, many of whom were reportedly unaware of the new directive, “some voices were raised in dissent of Mr. Latour’s appeal [on behalf of snowmobilers] but the main body of delegates was in agreement with the Patrol’s anticipated accomplishments.” “Mr. Latour spoke heatedly,” McLaughlin reported, “on the state’s trend in accumulating land, taxing the public and then refusing access to the acreage by motorized vehicle at a time of year when ingress and egress is otherwise impossible.” Council President Ed Morette said the Adirondack economy was in a precarious state, and the new rules would be ruinous. Others on the board argued that Wilm was only doing his job in protecting the “forever wild” Forest Preserve, to which Morrette suggested that a small area should be left alone and the rest opened for recreation.
Conservation Council officer Paul Cobane of Lake Placid expressed, in the words of reporter Bill McLaughlin, “some alarm at the inroads made by the snow vehicles and the disrupting of established game patterns, especially beaver.” Cobane was particularly concerned that there were not enough law enforcement officers. “He said there was a crying need for additional men as more and more hunters and sportsmen invaded the deeper areas of the Adirondacks,” McLaughlin wrote:
“At present there are only men enough in conservation law enforcement to present token protection. One man must be responsible for 400 square miles under the present setup… Several delegates spoke on the special bear season being just another illegal deer season in effect, with hunters flocking in without adequate supervision from game protectors and wardens. The special bear season was put forward as an example of the states taking liberties with its game resources. The Forest and Wildlife Protective patrol has been formed to add strength to the thin ranks-of enforcement personnel through the use of snow vehicles in the preserve.”
At the Queensbury Hotel in Glens Falls a few days later the Wilm directive was soundly denounced by members of the Adirondack Park and County Federations of Fish and Game Clubs. A representative of International Paper noted that the new rules would close off roads they had built on the Forest Preserve in order to access their lands. Adirondack county officials were asked to consider legal action and it was announced that the Saranac Lake Protective Patrol had grown to 200 members who had collected 400 signatures on a petition to Commissioner Wilm. On October 3, a delegation headed by Jim Latour attended the meeting of the Racquette Valley Fish and Game Club to enlist their help, but the Conservation Department sent word that a deal was in the works.
To the dismay of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks and the Adirondack Mountain Club Commissioner Wilm issued an amendment of his July 1963 directive which exempted “vehicles designed exclusively for travel over snow and ice” from most motor vehicle rules. This allowed snowmobiles to ride on hiking trails and carries, and on lake, ponds, and rivers in the Forest Preserve.
A small band of snowmobilers centered in Saranac Lake had won for themselves special motorized access to the Forest Preserve. Assemblyman R. Watson Pomeroy of the Joint Legislative Committee on Natural Resources said that the restriction of some motorized access into the interior had been a positive step which had become a “faltering limp.” It was, according to one observer friendly to the Protective Patrol, “interesting what the righteous indignation of North Country sportsmen can do.”
With the immediate battle won in favor of the club, the Saranac Lake Forest and Wildlife Protective Patrol returned to snowmobiling, but not before making it clear that they were “active” citizens ready to take up the fight again if needed.
“Our aim is to solidify action and present a cohesive force whenever we feel that our rights are being tampered with,” Latour said. The club also issued a statement offering help to the State Police, the Conservation Department, the United State Air Force, the Red Cross, state fire control officials, “and all clubs or organizations devoted to aiding wildlife.”
“The club officers were insistent that the Patrol be placed on instant alert to aid in any effort where these organizations might be concerned,” the Saranac Lake paper reported. They also pointedly offered help in fighting forest fires, feeding whitetail in winter deer yards, and apprehending violators of the game laws.
That January the Protective Patrol held their first official outing, a four-hour ride “to help build the sport and friendship of the area” among snowmobilers. A week later the Patrol sent Al Cherise, Wes Moody, Bob McCasland Howard Elethorpe, Ken Seymour, Mr. and Mrs. Marvel Clark, Jim Latour, Mr. and Mrs. Bill Vaughn, Carl Hathaway, Ed Duso, Morse Vibert, Don Carter and Arnie Woodruff on their sleds to pack the snow at the Mt. Pisgah Ski Center. The next weekend members attended the snowmobile races at the Malone Winter Carnival to drum up support for their upcoming races at the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival.
In the fall of 1964 the Adirondack Mountain Club, the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, and the Constitutional Council for the Forest Preserve won a reversal of the Wilm directive allowing “snow and ice vehicles” to ride on hiking trails, carries, and overland in the Forest Preserve. Now the Department’s intention was to post certain roads and trails where snowmobiles were not allowed (the vast majority in areas being considered for a pre-APA wilderness designation).
At a meeting on January 18, 1965, about 50 people – in a show of the rising popularity of snowmobiles, more than twice the number as the year before – gathered at Veterans Club in Saranac Lake on invitation from the Protective Patrollers and Conservation Department representatives from Ray Brook. James Latour, who chaired the meeting, stressed that their complaints were not with the Department’s Ray Brook staff, but with the rules coming from Albany. Latour “pointed out that the way the directives were coming out of Albany was actually an insult to the tax-payers and to those who live here and try to enjoy the reserve the year round,” according to Bill McLaughlin.
To the suggestion from someone in the crowd that they simply refuse to follow the law, District Forester William Petty said the Department would enforce the current rules, and make arrests and levy fines on chronic offenders if necessary. He called the situation a “complex problem” and suggested the snowmobile club meet with officials in Albany about their concerns rather than ignore the law or fight them in court. At the end of the meeting another committee was organized to lobby in Albany.
In 1965, the Protective Patrol was increasingly described as “fighting to make the woods accessible in the winter time.” “It’s difficult to see what good an empty wilderness is in the winter time,” Blue Line Sports Shop owner and Adirondack Daily Enterprise columnist Al Homburger argued. “If people could come up here in the winter and go to their camps via snow buggies it would help the economy of the entire area besides giving everyone more use of their camps.”
“We think the snow buggy issue will not be settled for some time and its implications will spread to the entire field of motorized transportation in the Forest Preserve, including motor boats. The real question with the snow buggies, as with motor boats, is not what they do now but what they might do in the future. If there is a policy against motorized vehicles, it means all motorized vehicles. If there is only a policy against vehicles other than snow buggies, then who is to determine what constitutes a snow buggy? How large is a snow buggy? What horsepower may it have? How many snow buggies may be allowed in the Forest Preserve? We think this is why the Conservation Department put the ban on snow buggies. We do not like the way they handled the entire affair but we can see their reasoning; they were worried about the future. If the snow buggy enthusiasts want to be allowed to use this method of travel through the Forest Preserve, what constitutes an acceptable motorized vehicle and when it may be used must be carefully defined. But more important, how do they answer the question of the man who owns a scooter and wants to use it in summer when he says, “If they have the right to use their vehicles then I have the same right to use mine in the Forest Preserve.” It is a tough question to answer. Another problem will be the spread of motor-boats. We think most users of the Forest Preserve will agree that there are some ponds too small to allow motorboats. But such policy should be made now for the longer the wait, the more difficult it will become.”
The Enterprise’s admonition that the “the longer the wait, the more difficult it will become” was prescient. Throughout 1965 the snowmobilers hardened and organized against the “padlock policy,” which according to Bill McLaughlin was “a list [of closed truck trails] which covered four or five pages and left very little to the snow buggy traveler.” “The general feeling with the sportsmen’s group is that the state is further tightening up its controls rather than giving any leeway,” McLaughlin added.
Conservation Commissioner Wilm announced in early December 1965 that the Department would begin posting certain roads and trails in the Forest Preserve where snowmobiles would be prohibited. “Based on last winter’s study of public use of snowmobiles in the Forest Preserve,” he said, “rules and regulations have been established to provide reasonable recreational opportunities for snowmobile enthusiasts with minimum impact on the character of the Forest Preserve.”
As a result of the Conservation Department directives of 1962-1965, more than 300 miles of roads and jeep trails were opened outside a proposed wilderness area, while the Department closed about 100 miles of roads within it. It continued the ban against overland travel however; as an effort to keep new unauthorized trails from developing, which the Department was finding difficult to enforce.
“Sportsmen this winter are going to be on a sort of hit-and-miss basis in finding out which roads and trails are closed and which are open,” Bill Roden, who wrote the “Adirondack Sportsmen” column for the Ticonderoga Sentinel, complained. “In other words, it looks as though you’ll pretty much have to take a run to your favorite trail and see if the barriers are up.”
Some advocates for snowmobiles in the Forest Preserve were more strident. Adirondack native Dick McCormick wrote to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise to argue that tourists did far more damage to the Forest Preserve than snowmobilers. “The Sportsmen (and that’s what they are) who use snow travelers on the forest preserve in the winter are among those who in the summer go boating, camping and canoeing and see the litter, garbage and damage left behind by tourists,” he wrote. “Preserve the forest for tourists, nuts!!”
In the closing years of the 1960s conservationists secured two more lasting changes in how snowmobiles could operate on the Forest Preserve. First, they persuaded the Conservation Department to mark trails that were open to snowmobiles, rather than the trails that were closed to them. This made it much more clear to snowmobilers where they could ride in the Preserve, but did little to stem the tide of snowmobiling on Adirondack Forest Preserve lands. They also persuaded the Department to no longer allow snowmobiles to travel along streambeds. This reduced the use of frozen streams as trails to remote lakes and ponds.
By 1970, controversy over snowmobiling in the Forest Preserve was subsumed into larger questions about the role of local governments in the Adirondack Park. After the establishment of the Adirondack Park Agency in 1971, the Agency wrote the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan. This enshrined the rules limiting snowmobile travel on Forest Preserve lands to designated snowmobile trails. It also was supposed to focus all forms of motorized recreation into Wild Forest and Intensive Use Areas, which today make up more than half of all Forest Preserve lands. Recently, the use of spot zoning has made these designations much less effective. More recently, in its management guidance document, Snowmobile Trail Siting, Construction and Maintenance on Forest Preserve Lands in the Adirondack Park (2009), the Department of Environmental Conservation has claimed that snowmobiling is an appropriate use in Wilderness Areas as well.
The first controversy over snowmobiling on Forest Preserve produced a number of lasting effects beyond simply where snowmobiles could ride. Significantly, it was the impetus for the first attempt to organize snowmobilers on a statewide level. The Adirondack Snow Travelers Association (ASTA) was largely organized by John Knox of Piseco and Dean Lane of Lake Pleasant who were angered by the closure of some trails in their area. ASTA organizers had a vision for statewide advocacy for the snowmobile community from the start, one of the lasting legacies of the dispute over snowmobiles in the Forest Preserve in the 1960s.
Another important result of the Forest Preserve controversies was that snowmobilers began to organize their own trail networks, which now total more than 10,000 miles around the state. The introduction of snowmobiles into the Forest Preserve also inspired the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) to begin promoting cross-country ski touring as a way for people to enjoy the Forest Preserve without motor vehicles. In Gabriels in 1967 ADK published the first guide to cross-country skiing and since 1968 has annually promoted cross-country ski events, contributing to the popularity of backcountry skiing today.
A few die-hard snowmobilers kept the fight for outright overland access on the Forest Preserve alive, but largely the state took over and began aggressively promoting snowmobile trails on the Forest Preserve which made the previous arguments moot. Indeed, creating new opportunities for snowmobilers to ride in the Forest Preserve began in earnest at the Conservation Department. The first major area the Department opened to recreational snowmobiling was the Moose River Plains, which continues to be among the most popular snowmobiling areas in the Adirondacks.
* Note: DEC performed a survey in 2001 using GPS which reported that that there were 840.97 miles of designated snowmobiles trails on the Forest Preserve. The Snowmobile Plan For The Adirondack Park (2006) concluded that there were an additional 1,172 miles of “funded snowmobile trails” in the Park (those maintained with state funds by the snowmobile clubs); 500 miles in the Webb and Inlet systems; and “several miles” on Canal Corporation, Department of Transportation, and State University of New York lands, for a total of about 2,525 Adirondack Park miles. Added to that are trails on municipal roads open to snowmobiles, and an unspecified “substantial mileage of trails that provide secondary trails.” Additional significant mileage includes new snowmobile trails on more than one million acres of easement lands and the new connector trails being built each year. These estimates taken together suggest there are easily over 3,000 miles of snowmobile trails.
This essay is part of an occasional series on the history of snowmobiling, especially in the Adirondacks. You can read the entire series here.