Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Adirondack Maps: Evolving Land Classifications

The other day at a recreation planning meeting in Lake Placid, I participated in a time-honored Adirondack meeting ritual. It goes like this: someone at the table brings up the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (SLMP), the document that defines land classifications (wilderness, wild forest, etc.) and lists the guidelines for their use. Next, nearly every stakeholder at the table agrees that the SLMP is outdated and that a major review is long overdue. The ritual concludes with everyone agreeing that meaningful review of the SLMP is unlikely, and probably not worth pursuing. The conversation then moves on to other topics.

The SLMP states “Major reviews of the master plan will take place every five years by the [Adirondack Park] Agency in consultation with the Department of Environmental Conservation, as required by statute…” but the last review was in 1987. I wondered how implementation of the relatively static SLMP has evolved over the years, and how these changes have manifested themselves on maps.

I found an old APA land classification map layer from 2001 and uploaded it to our Adirondack Regional Geographic Information System (ARGIS) so that I (and anyone else) could easily compare it to the more recent 2011 map. To do this yourself, watch this brief video tutorial or follow these simple steps:

1. Visit the Adirondack Regional Geographic Information System (ARGIS).

2. Turn on the historic “2001 Land Use/Development Plan Map (APA)” at the bottom of the layer list. Check out the legend with the “Map Legend” tab.

3. Turn on the recent “2011 Land Use/Development Plan Map (APA)” under the “Administrative Boundaries” heading.

4. Right-click on the 2011 map layer in the Table of Contents, and select “Properties & Display Options.

5. Use the “Opacity” slider to turn the 2011 layer on and off, revealing the 2001 layer underneath it.

Most of the differences between the 2001 and 2011 versions are due to new acquisitions or to improved mapping accuracy – if you zoom in, you will see many small adjustments to boundaries. However, there are also areas where significant land reclassification has occurred. Here are three such areas you can easily find using the “Unit Zooms” tool, located in the upper right-hand portion of the ARGIS site

Hurricane Mt. Wilderness: until recently, this unit was classified as a Primitive Area because of the existence of the non-conforming fire tower atop Hurricane Mt. This non-conformity was “removed” from the unit by designating a tiny area around the fire tower itself as a Historic Area. (If you zoom in on Hurricane Mountain, you will see this tiny Historic Area.)

Moose River Plains Wild Forest: The Cedar River Road was reclassified as a “Intensive Use,” and a large section of Wild Forest reclassified to Wilderness.

Round Lake Wilderness: Once a patchwork of Primitive Area & Wild Forest, creation of the Round Lake Wilderness was made possible by creating “Primitive Corridors” around several non-conforming roads that thread through the unit.

These changes are the result of a Unit Management Process that is designed meet the needs of a diverse array of stakeholders while staying within the constraints of the definitions established by the SLMP. For example, the SLMP does not allow fire towers or roads in Wilderness areas, so units with these features are often classified as Primitive Areas until the non-conforming features can be removed. But features such as fire towers are very popular, and as I discussed at the top of this article, revising the SLMP to change what is allowable in Wilderness is not widely seen as a viable option. Cartography can provide one solution to this dilemma – by drawing lines around non-conforming features, one can simultaneously remove them from a unit while leaving them physically in place.

What is the trade off between using cartographic prescriptions vs. pursuing systematic changes in the SLMP? How do you think the SLMP should be changed, if at all? Are there other “out of the box” ways of thinking that would also work?

I encourage you to zoom in on your particular area of interest and see what changes have occurred in the last 11 years. I look forward to hearing your comments.

Steve Signell

Steve Signell

Steve Signell is the owner of Frontier Spatial, L.L.C., an Adirondack-based company offering mapping and data services. He splits his time between Schenectady and Long Lake, where he punctuates his time at the computer with stints on the fiddle and banjo.

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9 Responses

  1. Bill Ingersoll says:

    What you consider innovative ideas, i.e. drawing wilderness boundaries to maximize acreage by excepting anything that doesn’t meet wilderness criteria, some might call “spot zoning” or “gerrymandering.”

    It’s not that the SLMP shouldn’t be reviewed and perhaps amended, but state land classifications should never be applied on an acre-by-acre basis. If a tract of land has a fire tower that no one wants to remove, then it fails to meet the Wilderness guidelines, plain and simple. There are other classifications that would apply to this situation, namely “wild forest.” The tactic used by the APA to designate the Hurricane Mountain Wilderness in 2010 was a “paper tiger” solution that was not unanimously supported by all, including some APA staffers, I am told. It was a political solution intended to please as many critics as possible, and not a real direction we want to go.

    Otherwise, by extending this “out of the box” soultion, we could declare the entire Adirondack Park to be a designated Wilderness Area, and use “cartography”, as you put it, to draw boundary lines around all the businesses, homes, roads, villages, hamlets, Interstate highways, snowmobile trails, forestry tracts, fire towers, and whatever else doesn’t “conform”.

    The end result would be “Yay, lots of wilderness!” because every undelevoped plot of ground in the Forest Preserve would be designated. But it would be absolutely meaningless.

    The point of a wilderness designation is to protect the best of the best. Either an area fully conforms, or it doesn’t. When it comes to the quantity of wilderness acreage versus the quality of wilderness acreage, quality should ALWAYS be the primary consideration.

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  2. Steve Signell says:

    Perhaps I did not make myself entirely clear in my post– I did not mean to imply that the examples cited were cases of “out of the box” thinking. Rather, I was trying to give Almanack Readers a tool with which to explore zoning changes within the Park, and solicit their perspectives, including any “out of the box” ideas they might have. Your perspective is certainly a valid one, I’m sure shared by many.

    Your point about cartographic solutions not changing reality on the ground is well taken.

    One follow-up: There are currently many non-conforming structures (dams) in established wilderness areas such as the High Peaks. In your opinion, should the High Peaks be reclassified Primitive Area, or are dams somehow fundamentally different than fire towers?

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  3. Bill Ingersoll says:

    Thanks for the response, Steve.

    In regards to your follow-up question, I believe the premise is false. I would not say there are “many non-conforming structures” in the existing wilderness areas. Those that do exist are clearly listed in the SLMP description for each unit… and it’s a short list.

    Off the top of my head, the non-conforming structures for the High Peaks Wilderness include South Meadow Road and the ranger stations at Marcy Dam and Lake Colden.

    In regards to dams, the SLMP clearly states that “existing dams on existing impoundments” are conforming structures in designated wilderness areas. That said, in the case of Duck Hole, I would argue that the dam and the impoundment ceased to exist when Irene restored the pond to its native configuration. I’ve been there, I’ve paddled the “new” pond and examined the wreckage of the dam, and I would say that nature has settled that argument once and for all.

    But to get back to your original points:

    Previous generations of Adirondack stewards always made a point of leaving behind a landscape that was better protected than what they inherited, along with a legal framework that was increasingly strengthened over time. It wasn’t simply about buying more public land.

    Discussions such as this one seem to suggest that THIS generation could be the first where the historic trend is reversed, where the emphasis is not on increasing protections but on rolling back the ones that are inconvenient to certain user groups.

    This disturbs me to the core.

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  4. Mick says:

    One must first consider The New York State Open Space Conservation Plan. Here is a link to it:
    http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/47990.html

    It is a moving target, and the priorities change as The Nature Conservancy makes large tract purchases in the Adirondacks. I find this very suspicious: A tract becomes available, TNC buys it, the the OSP is amended to include that tract as an acquisition priority.

    This is no way to plan equitable conservation or sustainable economics. It is ludicrous.

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  5. Mick says:

    I’ve read some of the UMPs and they all basically declare the conservation objective as failed, and that DEC is far behind on maintenance programs, there is littering, there is trail abuse, there is in-fighting amongst user groups. Trails are neglected then closed. Forest health is jeopardized. Etc.

    Everyone should read at least one UMP; they are quite telling about DEC’s deficiencies.

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  6. Paul says:

    Why is one man-made structure okay in a Wilderness and one not? People this is all Wild Forest if we have to give it a label. There is nothing “Wilderness” about the High Peaks Wilderness. This is all just money wasted on lawyers that could be used for maintenance.

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  7. Fred says:

    The State Land Master Plan (SLMP) provides as follows:

    ‘Due to the importance of the forest products industry to the economy of the Adirondack region, bulk acreage purchases in fee should not normally be made where highly productive forest land is involved, unless such land is threatened with development that would curtail its use for forestry purposes or its value for the preservation of open space or of wildlife habitat. However, conservation easements permitting the continuation of sound forest management and other land uses compatible with the open space character of the Park should be acquired wherever possible to protect and buffer state land.”

    Notwithstanding the fact that several courts have held that the State Land Master Plan has the force of law, DEC and the APA have routinely ignored that provision in past massive land purchases. They plan to do so again in the proposed acquisition of the former 65,000 acres of the former Finch lands and the 15,000 acres of the former Follensby Pond lands.

    Experts report that the majority of the acreage of both properties are “highly productive forest lands.” No legal challenge to the failure of DEC and APA to follow the SLMP has ever been filed, so the violations continue without amendment of the SLMP, causing the loss of substantial numbers of logging, trucking and mill jobs, and the secondary jobs dependent on those jobs, to the perpetually struggling Adirondack economy, as well as the loss of 20 hunting and fishing clubs on the former Finch lands, and the proposed destruction of 200 hunting and fishing cabins. New York State taxpayers will be saddled with the tens of millions of dollars purchase price of those lands from The Nature Conservancy, and the payment of real property taxes on the purchased lands estimated at more than $1 million a year. Taxpayers will also incur the additional burden of maintaining those lands at a time when DEC budgets have been reduced.

    If past practice is any guide, substantial portions of the purchased lands will be classified as wilderness causing the loss of practical access by the majority of New Yorkers.

    Adirondack paper mills, which already import wood from hundreds of miles from their mills, will be forced to further extend their supply chain, increasing their transportation costs and decreasing their competitiveness in the world market.

    The Review Board believes that the first order of business of the Regional Economic Development Councils should be to insure the retention of current jobs in the forest products industry and in the small businesses that depend upon the recreational leases by recommending the purchase of conservation easements on the majority of the lands.

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  8. Fred says:

    The State Land Master Plan (SLMP) provides as follows:
    Due to the importance of the forest products industry to the economy of the Adirondack region, bulk acreage purchases in fee should not normally be made where highly productive forest land is involved, unless such land is threatened with development that would curtail its use for forestry purposes or its value for the preservation of open space or of wildlife habitat. However, conservation easements permitting the continuation of sound forest management and other land uses compatible with the open space character of the Park should be acquired wherever possible to protect and buffer state land.”

    Notwithstanding the fact that several courts have held that the State Land Master Plan has the force of law, DEC and the APA have routinely ignored that provision in past massive land purchases. They plan to do so again in the proposed acquisition of the former 65,000 acres of the former Finch lands and the 15,000 acres of the former Follensby Pond lands.

    Experts report that the majority of the acreage of both properties are “highly productive forest lands.” No legal challenge to the failure of DEC and APA to follow the SLMP has ever been filed, so the violations continue without amendment of the SLMP, causing the loss of substantial numbers of logging, trucking and mill jobs, and the secondary jobs dependent on those jobs, to the perpetually struggling Adirondack economy, as well as the loss of 20 hunting and fishing clubs on the former Finch lands, and the proposed destruction of 200 hunting and fishing cabins. New York State taxpayers will be saddled with the tens of millions of dollars purchase price of those lands from The Nature Conservancy, and the payment of real property taxes on the purchased lands estimated at more than $1 million a year. Taxpayers will also incur the additional burden of maintaining those lands at a time when DEC budgets have been reduced.

    If past practice is any guide, substantial portions of the purchased lands will be classified as wilderness causing the loss of practical access by the majority of New Yorkers.

    Adirondack paper mills, which already import wood from hundreds of miles from their mills, will be forced to further extend their supply chain, increasing their transportation costs and decreasing their competitiveness in the world market.

    The Review Board believes that the first order of business of the Regional Economic Development Councils should be to insure the retention of current jobs in the forest products industry and in the small businesses that depend upon the recreational leases by recommending the purchase of conservation easements on the majority of the lands.

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  9. Paul says:

    Fred,the same folks that often say that the ASLMP should be inflexible when it comes to easements for timberland also say it should have that flexibility when it comes to fire-towers and other issues. Seems like they want to have it both ways. I agree with you on what should be done with this land but that also means that other parts of the law should be strictly adhered to as well.

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