After months of negotiations and deliberation, the Adirondack Park Agency staff has come up with a proposal to designate the Essex Chain Lakes a Primitive Area, a classification that would preclude the use of motorboats.
In addition, the APA staff recommends establishing a 23,774-acre Hudson Gorge Wilderness Area, which would encompass about fifteen miles of the upper Hudson River.
The APA developed the proposal in collaboration with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The APA board is scheduled to vote on it next week. The final plan will require the approval of Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Joe Martens, the head of DEC, described the proposal as an attempt to satisfy all stakeholders, including environmental activists and local officials.
“What it reflects to me is a universal desire to provide a high degree of protection to the Essex Chain itself—the lakes and ponds—and the potential for diverse recreational opportunities and to connect the towns around the tract,” Martens said. “I think the plan does this very well.”
Although neither side got everything it wanted, some environmentalists and local officials said they can stand behind the proposal.
The Adirondack Mountain Club and Adirondack Council issued a news release in favor of the proposal. The chairmen of the boards of supervisors in Hamilton and Essex counties, where the lands are located, released a statement praising the APA plan, saying it promises to create “unparalleled recreational opportunities and spur important new economic activity.”
Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, praised the creation of the Hudson Gorge Wilderness Area, but he said he has “a lot of questions” about other parts of the plan. Adirondack Wild, another green group, also criticized elements of the proposal.
Environmentalists wanted the Essex Chain and adjacent lands classified as Wilderness, which would prohibit all motorized recreation, but the Primitive classification achieves essentially the same thing. Not only will motorboats be kept off the chain, but floatplanes will not be allowed to land on Third Lake, the biggest of the eight lakes in the chain. Initially, DEC proposed allowing planes to land on Third in spring and fall. Pilots will still be allowed to continue to land on First Lake and Pine Lake as local towns own the floatplane rights on these water bodies.
Local officials had pushed for a Wild Forest classification, which could have opened the door to a variety of motorized recreation. One of their major goals was to establish a snowmobile trail connecting the hamlets of Indian Lake, Newcomb, and Minerva. The APA proposal would allow for such a trail by creating a Wild Forest corridor between the Primitive Area and the new Wilderness Area. Depending on where the snowmobile trail goes, the state may need to build a bridge over the Cedar River. The APA also would leave intact a steel bridge over the Hudson for snowmobile use.
Local officials also want mountain biking to be allowed on a network of dirt roads in the vicinity of the Essex Chain. Generally, biking is prohibited in Primitive Areas, but state officials are talking about amending the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan to allow mountain bikes on the Essex Chain roads. Such a decision would not be made right away. Meantime, bikes would be allowed on the lands classified as Wild Forest.
In all, the APA staff proposes to classify roughly 22,000 acres that state acquired from the Nature Conservancy in the past year—6,166 as Wilderness, 8,111 as Primitive, and 8,072 as Wild Forest. (The lands were formerly owned by the Finch, Pruyn timber company.) In addition, about 20,000 of pre-existing state land would be reclassified.
Bauer said he is disappointed that the APA did not recommend incorporating the Essex Chain into the new Wilderness Area. “We feel that a historic opportunity was missed,” he said.
He also questioned the establishment of a Wild Forest corridor to accommodate snowmobiles and the creation of an apparently permanent Primitive Area. Usually, the Primitive classification is regarded as a temporary designation, a steppingstone to Wilderness in cases where a nonconforming use precludes a Wilderness classification.
“We’re concerned that you have a checkerboard of classifications that were created in order to support motor-vehicle use,” Bauer said.
He said he doesn’t know if Protect will support the whole proposal.
Adirondack Wild said it would press the APA board to include the Essex Chain in the Wilderness Area. “The APA and DEC appear to have compromised their mission by facilitating snowmobiles between the Hudson River and the Chain of Lakes all the way to the Cedar River,” the group said in a news release.
The APA staff had considered seven options. Its recommendation reflects an eighth option developed in talks with DEC and various stakeholders. The agency also took into account hundreds of comments from the public.
The APA’s discussion of the various alternatives is contained in a final environmental impact statement. Click here to read the document.
The map reflects the APA staff’s classification recommendations.