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For the disabled, the only way they have in there is by seaplane. They took that right away...

Lawsuit challenges access to Adirondack wilderness for people with disabilities

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The state of New York plans to ask a Federal judge to throw out a lawsuit which claims that environmental laws and regulations in the Adirondack Park violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The lawsuit, filed last summer, challenges rules that ban floatplane and motorized access to wilderness areas inside the Blue Line.

But as the plaintiffs look to expand their suit to target more conservation laws, the Attorney General is preparing to ask that the case be dismissed. Chris Morris has details.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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In June 2009, Maynard Baker of Warrensburg announced he would sue the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Adirondack Park Agency for allegedly violating laws designed to protect disabled persons by assuring them access to parks and wilderness areas.

Last summer, Baker joined four other men in filing a federal lawsuit with the U.S. Northern District Court in Albany.

He says disallowing floatplane access to remote Adirondack lakes and ponds bars the disabled from enjoying wilderness areas in the same manner as the able-bodied.

“The able-bodied can still walk in,” he said. “For the disabled, the only way they have in there is by seaplane. They took that right away from our veterans and left it open for the able-bodied. That’s discrimination, and that’s my reason for suing the state.”

The lawsuit came on the heels of a lengthy and contentious debate over floatplane access to Lows Lake near Tupper Lake. The DEC and the APA adopted a new management plan phasing out floatplanes next year.

Lake Placid attorney Matt Norfolk is representing Baker in the case.

Last month, Norfolk amended the suit to challenge a broader array of laws, including DEC regulations, the State Land Master Plan, Environmental Conservation Law, and the APA Act.

“Looking at the complaint after I filed it, I had some concerns that I should have attacked the very statutes that created these rules and regulations,” Norfolk said. “The statutes allow the state to put these rules in place, and while we take issue with how they are administered and enforced, we also need to take issue with the actual statute.”

In their response to the suit last fall, the state attorney general’s office claimed that the Americans with Disabilities Act does not mandate APA or DEC to provide motorized access to all state lands inside the park.

 John Caffry is an attorney with the environmental group Protect the Adirondacks. He too believes that the Americans with Disabilities Act does not require motorized access to all locations inside the Blue Line.

“There are other places in the Adirondack Forest Preserve that are accessible to people with disabilities by motors, so I don’t think this case is going to succeed,” he said.

Caffry says people with disabilities have other options for accessing remote areas besides floatplanes.

“There are plenty of people with disabilities who have no interest in using floatplanes to access wilderness lakes,” he said. “They can access them by canoe and by other means, perhaps with some assistance. There are organizations out there that are, in fact, set up to assist people with disabilities to gain access to wilderness without motors. Many of them prefer that.”

Neil Woodworth with the Adirondack Mountain Club predicted that claims of bias in the suit would be rejected.  He pointed to a similar case back in 1985.

“In that case, a federal judge held that the state was not required to open lakes and wilderness areas up to floatplanes that were allegedly being used by persons with disabilities,” he said. “The judge, in that case, ruled in favor of the state and in favor of the State Land Master Plan.”

Norfolk says the lawsuit will also attempt to address the state’s own use of floatplanes to access lakes in the forest preserve for research purposes.

“That’s important because one of our arguments is, while the state is prohibiting floatplanes on remote lakes and ponds on one hand, on the other hand they are allowing their own staff and members of the private sector to use floatplanes and other motorized vehicles to access remote areas for non-emergency purposes,” Norfolk said.

But Neil Woodworth says the state isn't following an unfair double-standard.

“The occasional use – they don’t do this all the time – is quite different than basically opening up all wilderness lakes to floatplane use by practically anybody,” he said.

DEC Region 5 spokesman David Winchell turned down a request for comment on the lawsuit because the matter is currently in litigation.

According to Matt Norfolk, Assistant Attorney General Susan Taylor wrote to U.S. Magistrate Judge Randolph Treece last month informing him of the state's plan to seek dismisall of the lawsuit. The judge set a March 28 deadline for the state to file the necessary paperwork.

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