Ever since the state announced that it had closed on its purchase of the Essex Chain of Lakes and sections of the Hudson River — part of the property formerly owned by Finch Pruyn — there has been much preliminary discussion for how these lands should be classified under the State Land Master Plan (SLMP). What you are about to read is one more such proposal. This one, though, is not from the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) or any conservation group. Rather, it is my own personal, independent proposal.
Since 1972, all state-owned land in the Adirondacks has been classified under one of several management categories listed within the SLMP. The major categories are Wilderness and Wild Forest, but others include Primitive, Canoe, and Intensive Use. Each one carries its own set of management guidelines, which largely deal with recreational access. Whenever the state buys new land, as it is doing now, the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) is required to classify the property. It consults with DEC, makes a recommendation, invites public input, votes on a resolution, and obtains the approval of the governor. The very first stage of this process has already begun, even before the public at large has had a chance to explore the new land.
For many people – and I unashamedly include myself in this camp – the pinnacle of these classifications is Wilderness, which is defined in part by its poetic preamble: “A wilderness area, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man — where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” This SLMP description is modeled after the 1964 Wilderness Act, and its primary goal is to preserve the larger tracts of Forest Preserve in a primitive state, free of motorized intrusions.
Under other circumstances, I might be persuaded that the new Essex Chain property and the existing Hudson Gorge Primitive Area could be combined into an attractive new Wilderness Area. But lately I have been wondering if Wilderness really would be the best option for this region, and if instead there is an opportunity here to go in a new direction. The property seems to contain too many potential compromises that would make the Wilderness designation an uncomfortable fit — not only because of the expected floatplane use at First and Pine lakes, but also because Wilderness guidelines would eliminate the option of allowing bike use of the road system, as well as apply group size restrictions on the Hudson River’s whitewater rafters.
Wilderness is regarded as the highest of the land categories, and it is usually a newsworthy event when new acreage is added: the governor’s office issues a press statement praising his environmental policies, with the conservation groups chipping in a few lines of support. Since a new designation is worth a moment of positive press, this may explain why there have been a series of new designations over the last decade, some of the parcels advanced to the highest category before they probably deserve to be. The William C. Whitney Wilderness, Five Ponds Wilderness expansion near Lows Lake, and Hurricane Mountain Wilderness were all designated with exception zones or corridors that have allowed otherwise non-conforming uses to continue, like flaws in an otherwise precious gem. Very few have been “true” Wilderness additions, uncompromised and fully compliant with the SLMP, the way designations used to be in prior decades.
Hurricane Mountain is a good example of a flawed Wilderness with a recent vintage. I am not going to tell you that the fire tower on Hurricane Mountain is damaging to the surrounding forest, but the APA’s decision in 2010 to spot-zone the tower’s footprint was what can only be described as burst of cartographic creativity. It tells me that our politicians and bureaucrats still want that positive buzz from designating new Wilderness acreage, but they don’t want the controversy of bringing these areas into full compliance — such as by removing a tower that had been slated for relocation. So in the last decade we have seen new Wilderness acreage complete with snowmobile trails, access roads, bicycle corridors, and fire towers. Everybody supposedly comes away happy because they all get something. But with each of these split designations the Wilderness designation is becoming increasingly bastardized.
Recently, DEC has created conceptual maps for the Essex Chain and nearby stretches of the Hudson River that outline a conceptual scheme for their designation. Under this proposal, part of the property would be designated as the Hudson Gorge Wilderness, and the rest would be Wild Forest. Some of these Wild Forest lands would be overlaid with a smaller zone called the Essex Chain Canoe Recreation Area, presumably as a “special management area,” since there is no such thing as a “Canoe Recreation Area” listed in the SLMP. This is a complex package, and therefore a difficult proposal to describe succinctly. It requires a somewhat more advanced understanding of the SLMP to see what the DEC is trying to accomplish.
The essential problem with the Essex Chain and Hudson Gorge is that there appear to be simultaneous desires to provide opportunities for motorless recreation while also allowing bicycle use of the former Finch Pruyn logging roads, floatplane access to First and Pine lakes, and even motor vehicle access in certain places. No single classification in the SLMP accommodates all of these management goals obviously, so the department is therefore seeking to manufacture one by piecing together a variety of designations: Wilderness here, Wild Forest there, a special management area on top of this over here.
Mix it all together, and the result would be a very colorful map.
From a recreational perspective, it would be a nightmare because few members of the public will have the patience to learn which activities are being allowed on which acres. For instance, someone seeking to travel the old roads from Indian Lake to the Goodnow Flow would pass through all three management zones: Wild Forest near the Gooley Steps, Wilderness near the Cedar River, and the Special Management Area near the Essex Chain. Unless such a visitor was an expert at interpreting the SLMP and its associated map, he might not know where these zones are or why bikes might be allowed on one side of a river but not the other. He might question why there are even three separate sets of rules for a single section of Forest Preserve. Simply stated, a split designation this complicated would be unworkable.
And frankly, it’s not what the SLMP is about. What is a state land classification but a set of expectations? When the provisions of the SLMP are split too finely on a facility-by-facility basis — placing multiple sets of expectations for the same geographic area — the designations will become so blended that any distinctiveness between them is lost. I would not expect to find Wilderness conditions in a place with road access into the interior, for instance, or solitude on a chain of lakes with floatplanes on one end and a boat ramp at the other. What counts is not what clever things an APA cartographer can do with GIS software, but the on-the-ground reality of the subject property.
Take a look at this downloadable version of the original SLMP map from 1972. The dark green shapes are Wilderness, light green are Wild Forest. Note that they were applied in broad strokes to large areas. Forty-one years ago, a Wilderness designation was a bold statement, applied wholesale with few reservations and doubts. So were the Wild Forest designations, for that matter. You don’t need a magnifying glass to see where the corridors and fire tower footprints are, because there aren’t any.
Getting back to the Essex Chain, I do not dispute that bicycle use of the old road system or use of the Hudson River by large groups of whitewater rafters may be legitimate activities. I only fear how the state may bend the SLMP in the interest of accommodating these uses. So rather than trying to piece together multiple designations into a complex pattern like a jigsaw puzzle, I am suggesting that we have perhaps reached a point in the year 2013 where we need to add another tool to the SLMP toolbox – one that allows us to incorporate a variety twenty-first century requirements, draft a single set of corresponding guidelines, and apply them to the largest possible area. What DEC is proposing to accomplish with three designations, we could create much more cleanly with one new one.
In my view, this “missing link” in the SLMP is a semi-primitive non-motorized designation that would accomplish many of the same preservation goals as Wilderness, but provide an alternate set of management guidelines. It would be a useful tool in situations like the Essex Chain, where the qualities of the subject parcel warrant a stronger designation than Wild Forest, but where existing features could allow types of recreational access that wouldn’t otherwise be compatible with Wilderness. The name of this new designation should reflect similar values as Wilderness while at the same time being distinct from it. I propose the name “Backcountry.” And finally, the bulk of the lands that include the Essex Chain, Hudson River, and adjoining state lands (a total of 69,000 acres) should be designated as the Adirondack Park’s first Backcountry Area.
This is something that I have given much thought towards recently. I am convinced that this approach – or something very similar to it – is the only elegant solution to not only the Essex Chain and Hudson Gorge, but to Forest Preserve units throughout the park. I have even put together a detailed proposal document that I have recently submitted to the APA (with beautiful maps by Teresa DeSantis, by the way). It outlines how I think Backcountry should be defined, the basic guidelines for how it should be managed, and the manner in which it could be applied to the Essex Chain as the “Six Rivers Backcountry Area.” I will let this file go into the specifics without the need for me to rehash it here. Download it, read it, and if you like, support it.
The problem with any new idea is that to come to life it requires a larger acceptance. So what if Bill Ingersoll has this clever little proposal? Until someone at the APA decides to adopt it as a valid option worthy of further exploration, the Backcountry Area concept will remain little more than pieces of paper and bits of data. I am under no illusion that any of my proposals would be simple actions to execute. They would require the involvement and support of many people, with a sequence of required actions to make the idea a reality. The implementation of the Backcountry Area designation would be a major adjustment to the SLMP and possibly to the way much of the Forest Preserve is managed. There would of course be much debate and public scrutiny.
At the moment there is no official public comment period on the classification of the Essex Chain or the Hudson Gorge, but there is never anything to prevent concerned citizens from corresponding with our state land managers. If by some chance you support my proposed amendments to the SLMP, including the concept of the Backcountry Area designation, then a show of support couldn’t hurt at the moment. I suggest addressing comments to:
Adirondack Park Agency
P.O. Box 99
Ray Brook, NY 12977