Environmentalists wanted the Essex Chain Lakes region classified as Wilderness. Local government leaders wanted it classified as Wild Forest. And the state Department of Environmental Conservation proposed classifying it as Wild Forest with special regulations.
Yet the staff of the Adirondack Park Agency rejected all three options in favor of a Primitive designation. The APA board is scheduled to discuss and vote on the staff’s recommendation this week.
Why did the staff opt for Primitive? The answers—or some answers—can be found in the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement that the board has been asked to adopt.
Before we analyze the APA’s reasoning, a little background:
All told, the board is charged with classifying more than 22,000 acres that the state purchased in the past year from the Nature Conservancy: the 18,320-acre Essex Chain Tract, the 2,823-acre OK Slip Falls Tract, and the 923-acre Indian River Tract. In addition, the board is being asked to reclassify about 20,000 acres of adjacent Forest Preserve.
The bulk of the reclassified lands lie within the 17,000-acre Hudson Gorge Primitive Area. Under the proposal, virtually all of the Hudson Gorge Primitive Area and the OK Slip Falls Tract, along with some other state land, will be combined to create a 23,574-acre Hudson Gorge Wilderness Area.
The Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan has long mandated that the Hudson Gorge Primitive Area be reclassified as Wilderness once the OK Slip Tract is acquired. Hence, all seven of the classification options weighed by the APA called for establishing a Hudson Gorge Wilderness.
In contrast, the classification of the Essex Chain Lakes and neighboring lands is not clear-cut. Rather, it depends largely on one’s interpretation of the State Land Master Plan.
The Wilderness Options
The APA considered two options for classifying the Essex Chain as Wilderness, the most restrictive and hence most protective of the agency’s classifications. Motorized recreation and motorized access are prohibited in Wilderness Area.
Under one option, known as 1B, virtually all of the new state lands would be designated Wilderness, meaning people would have to hike or portage for miles to reach the Essex Chain Lakes and the newly acquired stretch of the Hudson River.
None of the environmental groups pushed for 1B. Rather, they backed a proposal, called 1A, which was touted as “Wilderness with access.” It would designate the Essex Chain itself as Wilderness and the lands north of the lakes as Wild Forest. This would allow people to drive fairly close to the lakes and river, while leaving a Wilderness buffer between the parking areas and the waterways.
In rejecting both Wilderness options, the APA staff notes in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that the Gooley and Polaris clubs will continue to lease land on the Essex Chain Tract though September 2018 and that their lease includes the right to drive to their camps and use motorboats. In addition, the Nature Conservancy will have motorized access to the Essex Chain until October 1, 2019 to police the leases and remove any remaining buildings. “These reserved rights preclude a Wilderness classification for the area until these leasehold rights expire,” the EIS states.
But the APA staff says other considerations argue against a Wilderness classification even after the leases expire. Chief among these is that the Nature Conservancy donated floatplane rights on First Lake in the Essex Chain and nearby Pine Lake to the towns of Minerva and Newcomb. “The presence of floatplanes in such close proximity to the Chain Lakes would defeat the sense of remoteness expected in Wilderness,” according to the EIS.
In addition, the staff notes that local towns have the right to mine two gravel pits on the periphery of the Essex Chain Tract (a third is located on the Indian River Tract). The gravel can be used only to maintain roads on the tract. Hence, if the roads were closed, as they would be under 1B, this would not be an issue. Also, the pits cannot exceed one acre and must be closed when they are exhausted. Thus, they are at most a temporary obstacle to a Wilderness classification.
Following the APA’s logic, then, the Essex Chain cannot be afforded the most-protective classification largely because the organization that bought the land to protect it, the Nature Conservancy, deeded away floatplane rights on two lakes.
For the same reasons, the staff opposes designating the Essex Chain region a Canoe Area, which is essentially a Wilderness Area for paddlers. (There were two Canoe options in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement.)
The Wild Forest Options
The APA also looked at two options for classifying the Essex Chain as Wild Forest. The first, called 4A, would be a conventional classification. Under this, the state Department of Environmental Conservation would have the authority to open the region’s network of logging roads to motor vehicles, snowmobiles, and mountain bikes, to allow motorboats on ponds and lakes, and to allow floatplanes to land on the biggest lakes, including Third Lake in the Essex Chain.
In rejecting 4A, the staff concluded that this option would not adequately protect natural resources—especially marshes on the Essex Chain. There are concerns that motorboats would stir up sediments, damage aquatic vegetation, pollute the water, and bring in invasive species. The EIS points out that the marshes provide nesting habitat, food, and cover for wildlife and spawning habitat for fish. The document says the marshes deserve “wilderness-type protection.”
The DEC proposal, 4B, seems to address these concerns by placing the Essex Chain in a Special Management Area within the Wild Forest classification. Special restrictions for the Special Management Area would be written into the State Land Master Plan—including, presumably, a ban on motorboats.
The staff, however, concluded that this would violate State Land Master Plan guidelines. “A Special Management Area may not be used as a substitute for classification or a classification category,” the EIS says. It adds that Special Management Areas are created only after DEC writes a management plan for a Forest Preserve unit, which is done after classification.
The Preferred Alternative
The rejection of the Wilderness, Canoe, and Wild Forest classifications leaves only one option: Primitive. The State Land Master Plan defines Primitive as “essentially wilderness” in that motorized recreation and mountain biking are generally prohibited. The staff’s recommendation (termed “the preferred alternative”) is a modification of the Primitive proposal in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement.
The original option called for an 11,743-acre Essex Chain Primitive Area west of the proposed Hudson Gorge Wilderness. The preferred option (2A) scales this back to 9,894 acres. The main difference is that the land north of the Essex Chain would be classified Wild Forest.
In many respects, option 2A resembles the Wilderness proposal favored by environmentalists (1A). Under both, motorboats would be banned as would floatplanes (except on First and Pine lakes). Both would allow hikers and paddlers to drive most of the way—but not all the way—to the Essex Chain and Hudson River.
Yet there is one crucial difference: the APA’s preferred option calls for a Wild Forest corridor between the Essex Chain Primitive Area and the Hudson Gorge Wilderness Area. This would enable snowmobilers to ride between Indian Lake and Newcomb. The exact route is undetermined, but it would follow logging roads for much or all of its length.
The snowmobile trail also could be used for mountain biking. Bikers also could ride within the Primitive Area on any roads that DEC might designate state truck trails for official motor-vehicle use. It’s uncertain that any of the roads will be so designated. However, DEC officials say they might push for an amendment to the State Land Master Plan to allow mountain biking on roads in the Essex Chain Primitive Area.
In its analysis, the APA staff does not set forth an argument as to why the 2A option is better than the seven contained in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. Perhaps the staff felt that, since the Wilderness, Wild Forest, and Canoe options were all rejected, no such argument is needed. OK, but why is 2A better than the original Primitive option?
Although the change is not explained, the clear rationale is to provide easier access to the Essex Chain and Hudson and additional recreational opportunities, including snowmobiling and mountain biking. Indeed, the staff asserts that 2A will allow for “the most extraordinary recreational opportunities” on the new state lands.
The most controversial aspect of the preferred option may be the proposed snowmobile trail as it cuts through the heart of the Essex Chain Tract and may require the construction of a bridge over the Cedar River. Local leaders lobbied hard for the trail, and it may be justified. However, it would have been nice if the APA made a stronger case for such a trail in this location. After all, DEC’s snowmobile guidelines discourage placing snowmobile trails in the interior of the Forest Preserve.
One advantage of Primitive over Wilderness is that it would put the entire Essex Chain in one classification, which will simplify management (and just seems to make sense). Because of the deeded floatplane rights, First Lake could not be classified Wilderness. However, a Primitive classification does allow for uses that are “non-conforming” in Wilderness. Indeed, that is one of the chief raisons d’etre for the Primitive classification. Usually, though, Primitive is a temporary classification, a steppingstone on the way to Wilderness. In the case of the Essex Chain, the APA is contemplating a more or less permanent Primitive Area. [Note: after rereading the State Land Master Plan, I find that there are two types of Primitive Areas. One is transitional. The other is an area “where eventual wilderness classification is impossible or extremely unlikely.” In short, the master plan does allow for a permanent Primitive Area.]
The map shows the land classifications under the APA’s Preferred Alternative. The blue region is the proposed Essex Chain Primitive Area. The dark green is the proposed Hudson Gorge Wilderness Area. The light green represents Wild Forest.