Public wild lands protected by law in New York State can fall under the public jurisdiction of a variety of state agencies. Some of them are part of the system of state parks administered by the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP). In northern Saratoga County and across the Hudson River in Warren County lie more than 4,000 acres of beautiful and protected public wild land, part of the Moreau Lake State Park. Much of this land was acquired by the nonprofit Open Space Institute from Niagara Mohawk, and then sold to the public in 1998.
Moreau Lake State Park tripled in size at that time, and is now the largest state park in the region. The six million-acre Adirondack Park north of Moreau Lake, of course, has a completely different legislative history and legal context. It is not part of the OPRHP system of state parks.
This past week, I joined an enthusiastic group of state park officials, staff, park friends, volunteers and concerned citizens at Moreau Lake State Park. The occasion was an Earth Day ribbon cutting at the park’s new nature center, led by NYS Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey. Moreau Lake State Park’s director, his educational staff and the volunteers of Friends of Moreau Lake were given appropriate credit for this new space and added capacity to work with school groups, some of the 400,000 annual visitors to this park. The facility “showcases State Parks’ commitment to environmental education…shared by experienced and passionate outdoor educators,” said the Chair of the Saratoga-Capital District State Park Commission Heather Mabee.
This was visible progress. I once worked as a part-time naturalist and recreation staffer at Moreau Lake and Saratoga Spa State Parks, so it was gratifying to see the greatly improved educational facilities, interpretive exhibits, and dedicated staff that did not exist in the mid-1980s. On the other hand, even in those days I experienced a strong connection to the Adirondack Mountains and the solitude and beauty of the wilderness each time I went to Moreau for a program or a hike. The forests at Moreau do, in fact, act as a transition between the Appalachian oak-pine forests and the northern mixed hardwood forests of the Adirondacks, while the elevation gains to the park’s ridge trails resemble those on many Adirondack hikes.
I was invited to the ribbon cutting for a different reason. Four years ago, Saratoga County Water Authority’s water intake and pipeline from the Hudson River were constructed through a section of Moreau Lake State Park, in violation, we felt, of our State Constitution’s “forever wild” clause that protects the Forest Preserve as defined in State law. Saratoga County is one of 16 counties in the state that fall within the legal definition of Forest Preserve. The vast majority of Forest Preserve lies within the boundaries of the Adirondack and Catskill Parks, but some falls outside these boundaries in the named counties.
Moreau Lake State Park was no legal exception, and it certainly has public wild lands characteristic of the Forest Preserve, so we challenged OPRHP’s allowance of the county water line’s construction through parts of this park. As readers know, the State Constitution’s Article 14 states that lands constituting the forest preserve “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands,” and “shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private…” The Saratoga County Water Authority, a public corporation, had, in our view, unconstitutionally taken parts of Forest Preserve at Moreau Lake State Park.
Ultimately, the water line was constructed. Although the coalition did not go to court on these grounds, we came to a legally binding agreement with OPRHP that commited $300,000 of public funds to build educational facilities, like the park’s nature center; other funds to add to the park’s wild land acreage; and a commitment to manage large segments of the park as if it were Forest Preserve – although OPRHP is reluctant to name it what I think it truly is. A professional management plan is in place at Moreau, most of the wild land is managed appropriately as Park preserve land, and there is a visible educational and passive recreational emphasis at the park. There are well-advertised hikes, an educational staff is in place, and an active friends group helps the small staff serve the public, including area schools and youth groups.
In short, I am glad we reached the agreement we did. On the other hand, vigilance is still called for. All state agencies responsible for New York’s “wild forest land” should understand and embrace those responsibilities, and resist any kind of taking and exploitation of our wilderness for commercial or expedient ends. After all, our wilderness is a big part of what distinguishes New York State; and our “forever wild” Constitution is the envy of every other state, and every other country on earth.
Photos: Hemlock grove; springtime on the trails; nature center at Moreau Lake State Park.