The Adirondack Park Agency (APA) has promulgated seven “alternatives” for public hearing for the official classification of new and existing Forest Preserve lands on the Hudson River and around the Essex Chain Lakes. But these public hearings seem like pure theater because one of the alternatives is the preferred option of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and it sure seems like a sure thing that the APA will end up approving the DEC’s plan.
The DEC’s preferred option is alternative 4b [pdf] in the APA classification package, centered on a “Wild Forest Special Management Area” around the Essex Chain Lakes. The other six alternatives, which include two Wilderness options, one Primitive option, two Canoe options and one other Wild Forest option for the Essex Chain Lakes, are mere props to the DEC’s preferred alternative. These six alternatives were created by the APA staff through the usual process, but in reality they all revolve around the DEC preferred option like planets around the sun. (In the interest of full disclosure Protect the Adirondacks supports alternative 1a.)
DEC has been out for a year meeting with stakeholders and cutting deals during the state’s purchase of the former Finch Paper lands and in advance of formal Forest Preserve classification hearings. Never before has the DEC engaged in this kind of advance political work. While some would say this outreach is a good thing and shows savvy political sensitivities, it also has the appearance of creating foregone conclusions for official classification and for ignoring public comment.
The DEC preferred option, and the decision by the APA to include it in its classification hearing package, has created an unusual process. For the past 40 years the APA held classification hearings after the state purchased lands for the Forest Preserve. The DEC’s recommendations were well known during the process. After the lands were classified, DEC would then set off to draft a Unit Management Plan (UMP) where public recreational use and natural resource management issues were planned. (Well, not exactly. Some newly purchased lands, such as the William C. Whitney Wilderness Area, around Little Tupper Lake, purchased in 1997, doesn’t yet have a UMP; nor does the Round Lake Wilderness, which isn’t even listed on the DEC UMP website.) The APA reviews all draft UMPs for compliance with the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan.
What’s unusual now with the first round of the new state lands classification hearings of the former Finch lands is that the DEC has merged classification and UMP planning into one process by insisting that the “Wild Forest Special Management Area” be featured as alternative 4b in the land classification public hearing.
That the DEC would propose this as its preferred option shows that it’s pretty far along in both its planning and deal making. That the APA would depart from 40 years of practice and allow this speaks volumes about the APA’s loss of independent oversight authority and checks-and-balances responsibilities over the Forest Preserve. That the APA would even allow this alternative in its public hearing package says pretty loudly that this is a done deal.
Here’s how a Special Management Area works. The Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan authorizes enactment of these areas “where certain parcels of land often require special management to reflect unusual resource or public use factors.” It’s important to note that the Master Plan says that “in no instance” should a Special Management Area be “less restrictive” than the classification. They have generally been used to set management guidelines for an area stricter than those provided by the Forest Preserve classification, be it Wilderness or Wild Forest or any other. They have been used in a number of UMPs to organize public use and protect natural resources.
From 1972–2013, Special Management Areas have been utilized in the UMP process, but always following the official classification process. A Special Management Area is a subset of a larger Forest Preserve unit. UMP development includes things like biological inventories and various other natural resources analyses that inform a decision about whether a Special Management Area is needed and is a good idea. These inventories and assessment are important because good natural resource data drives good management. None of this has yet occurred for the lands in question.
I’m not sure if this public hearing is tragedy or farce in its theatrics. But I do know that the DEC’s decision to game the hearings, and the APA’s decision to give away its independent review authority, reveals that these cards are marked.
The only thing transparent about these public hearings is the end result.
We should all be rejoicing about this historic expansion of the Forest Preserve, but instead we’re left to chew on a stacked deck. The lands in question are truly extraordinary. We’re protecting 22 miles of the Hudson River in the public forever wild Forest Preserve. The public now gets to go to amazing places like OK Slips Falls and camp at beautiful spots, such as where the Cedar River enters the Hudson River. The Essex Chain Lakes is a recreational and wild gem akin to Lake Lila, Little Tupper Lake-Rock Lake, Henderson Lake, Round Lake or Lows Lake.
But the process has been gamed. Important decisions have already been made. Public servants have giddily become political servants.
When Rob Davies, the Director of the Division of Lands and Forest at the DEC, was questioned at a recent Forest Preserve Advisory Committee meeting by members who objected to this process, he counseled “then don’t participate in the hearings.” The DEC Deputy Commissioner of Natural Resources also in attendance said nothing to Davies’ sage advice. Other DEC Forest Preserve staff tried to foist the blame on the APA by saying “it’s the APA’s hearing.”
Readers should know one thing. The APA has no political juice in Albany. None. Nada. Zippo. It never has and never will. There are more political appointees embedded throughout the DEC than there are total APA employees. DEC has lobbyists in the Legislature, the Governor recruited its top leaders personally, and its thick with staff in top positions throughout the Albany headquarters and the regional offices that were handpicked by a variety of powerful Legislators. DEC is wired to the Albany fuse box of power, whereas the APA wanders about with flashlights through forests and swamps, muck and bugs in the Dismal Wilderness 100 miles north of Albany. The only thing that the APA has ever had, and ever will have, is the APA Act and other laws, when it actually musters the courage and independence to go out and administer them.
Here’s how it works now. The DEC is not an independent actor these days either. The DEC does whatever the Governor tells it to do. Nobody at DEC is empowered to make an independent decision. Every action large and small is run through the Governor’s Office. DEC does what the Governor tells it to do.
When the DEC is told to bulldoze the APA, it bulldozes the APA, irrespective of the niceties of law, regulation or policy. When the APA is told to get bulldozed, it gets bulldozed, irrespective of the niceties of law, regulation or policy.
For its part the APA is generally pleased to get bulldozed, no matter how low the blade is set, if being bulldozed is the price of admission to be part of the team. Look at who’s running the APA. There are three state agency designees among the 11 APA Commissioners that vote on major decisions and set policy. They include a former career lobbyist for International Paper Company and a former career lobbyist for the Farm Bureau. Another is a career politician. These are political veterans.
Among the eight appointed Commissioners, five are “in-Park” Commissioners who must be residents of a county within the Blue Line. This includes the current Chair, who was appointed by the Governor, and serves at his pleasure. The other four commissioners from counties within the Adirondack Park are the Betty Little block; all handpicked and approved by the Senator. They all also happen to be darlings of local government groups long antagonistic of the APA.
The three commissioners from outside the Park could exercise independence of thought and action, but just one chooses to do so. Dick Booth is the only commissioner who shows any kind of independent thought, action or judgment, a trait that will likely to get him replaced by Governor Cuomo and Senator Little.
So, you’ve got the Governor’s block of four votes and Betty Little’s block of four votes. That’s 8/11 — a pretty clear majority running the APA.
If the APA staff shows a flutter of independent thought, the senior APA staff will quickly intervene.
The DEC “Wild Forest Special Management Area” in alternative 4b around the Essex Chain Lakes was developed to regulate a variety of public uses. DEC wants seasonal floatplane access in spring and fall and other measures for motor vehicle and mountain bike uses.
DEC has used its political muscle for years to run roughshod over the APA. This is not new. But, the decision by the APA to take a Special Management Area to a Forest Preserve classification public hearing shows that the DEC’s subjugation of the APA has reached an all time high.
The days of an APA that functioned as an independent regulatory agency upholding its laws are long gone.
My only hope is that the APA and DEC have gone too far in marking the cards and the public will howl. Such political decisions have a way of falling apart because they often create a big mess. DEC dictating decisions to the APA is why the two agencies broke the law when they classified Lows Lake; a judge reversed that decision. DEC dictating to the APA is how the APA approved an official “Management Guidance” that states controversial new snowmobile trail construction and management comply with the State Land Master Plan when they clearly do not. This has resulted in a court challenge. DEC dictating to the APA created messes with opening, then closing, dozens of Forest Preserve roads to ATVs, with the Bear Pond Road debacle, among other issues over the years.
The “forever wild” Forest Preserve is the finest state public lands system in the United States. It deserves management equal to its extraordinary natural resources and scenic beauty. The current Forest Preserve classification public hearings underway show the immense gap between the Forest Preserve’s beauty and the state’s management by the DEC and APA.
Photo of the Essex Chain Lakes by Carl Heilman II.