Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Is Blue Mountain the Next Drive-Up Adirondack Summit?

Newly Improved Blue Mountain Access RoadPart of the Adirondack Park’s vast infrastructure of outdoor recreation options include two drive-up mountains – Prospect Mountain in Lake George and Whiteface Mountain in Wilmington – where one can drive an automobile to the summits. In all likelihood there will soon be a third drive-up mountain – Blue Mountain in Indian Lake.

The summit of Blue Mountain is a mix of public Forest Preserve and private lands encumbered by a conservation easement [map]. There has long been a firetower on the summit and a tower used by the State Police, Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), Department of Homeland Security, public radio, and local government emergency services, among other users. This tower has been rebuilt and made taller over the years. In 1995, a private tower for cellphone operators was approved by the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) on the private lands just below the Blue Mountain summit, the first of a Park-wide system. Finch, Pruyn and Company owned these lands then and the reconstituted Finch Paper owns the private lands around the cell tower today. Different cell phone companies were added to the tower over the years and its overall service area has greatly expanded.

Since World War II there has been a service road on the north side of the Blue Mountain. It was built for an early warning radar installation based on the mountain during the war and the subsequent red scare in the 1950s. This road runs from Route 28N/30, northeast of the Blue Mountain trailhead, to the mountain summit.

For the past year, crews have steadily worked to “rehabilitate” this access road, which is now paved nearly to the summit (see a video from above here and another here). The “rehabilitation” work included widening, reconstructing the road base with thousands of tons of rock and gravel, paving the road surface, digging ditches and lined with tons of riprap, and expanding the cleared areas on both sides by removing trees. With nearly all of this work completed, the road corridor is now 50 feet wide or wider.

The road is governed by a conservation easement that provides access for maintenance of the various facilities on or near the summit. This easement prohibits public use, though for years when there was snow the road was skied by backcountry skiers. The hiking trail from the Blue Mountain Trailhead to Tirrell Pond, part of a cross-country ski loop, crosses the maintenance road near Route 30/28.

Prior to the reconstruction, this had been a narrow gravel road. There was asphalt on some steep stretches, though it was deeply worm. The road was narrow and had long been in disrepair, accessed by various people using ATVs or 4-wheel drive vehicles. People would drive up as far as they could make it and walk the rest of the way to service the various installations.

I hiked the road in a drizzling rain on July 4th 2015 to watch fireworks from the Blue Mountain firetower in Indian Lake, Raquette Lake and Newcomb. In the rain that night the road was a treacherous and slippery streambed.

Blue-Mountain-Access-Road-2There was no public review for this project because it was a road reconstruction, not a new project. The conservation easement for the road references a 50-60 foot road right-of-way, but it does not appear that this means that the ROW should all be cleared space. The APA said it did not need to get involved in any regulatory review of the lands under easement, which is the majority of the road, as long as the reconstruction remained within the right-of-way.

The cost of this project must be immense. Involved parties at the state and local level say that the Department of Homeland Security, which has emergency communications facilities on the summit, footed most of the bill. It is doubtful that we’ll ever get a full accounting of the total costs of this project.

The reconstructed road is significantly different from what was there for the last three decades that I have been hiking Blue Mountain. Near the top are three small parking areas, which were not part of the original road.

The picture of the road on the summit shows the hard packed road reaching the broad slabs of bedrock on the Blue Mountain summit. The short stretch of several hundred feet of road through the Forest Preserve on the summit was heavily built up with several feet of new material, is now fully ten feet wide, with extra spaces for riprap, but is not paved. The decision not to pave was a nod towards it being forever wild, though the Blue Mountain Wild Forest Unit Management Plan (UMP) does not classify this corridor as a formal road.

The APA determined that no UMP Amendment was necessary, nor was a public hearing, though there was an Environmental Notice Bulletin about tree cutting on the Forest Preserve. The rebuilt section through the Forest Preserve removed many trees. Many others will die in the years ahead as the roadbed gravel and hard packed materials cover their roots and lower trunk areas.

This project would have benefited from public review and formal public hearings. There were none. The powers that be determined that public review simply was not something they were interested in. A public discussion about the costs and necessity of this project would also have been beneficial. Decisions were made behind the scenes and work was undertaken out of sight. Public scrutiny would have produced a better product. The road now is overbuilt, a visual blight, and will be challenging and expensive to maintain.

I expect that in the months and years ahead we’ll also hear a variety of proposals for various kinds of motorized access for the public in one form or another to help people reach the summit by utilizing this new road. The argument will go something like this: Now that we have such a fine road, certainly the public, especially those who cannot hike to the summit of Blue Mountain, should be able to use it. Will these proposals receive public scrutiny? While the easement on the road limits access to services now, the DEC has shown an appetite for changing easements and the Cuomo Administration has show an appetite for public motorized access to the Forest Preserve. Will we see a new mountaintop shuttle service? Will a golf cart or ATV outfit shuttle visitors to the summit?

A third drive-up mountain summit, which very few of us ever envisioned, may soon be a reality.


Peter Bauer

Peter Bauer is the Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks.

He has been working in various capacities on Adirondack Park environmental issues since the mid-1980s, including stints as the Executive Director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and FUND for Lake George as well as on the staff of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century and Adirondack Life Magazine. He served as Chair of the Town of Lake George Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on numerous advisory boards for management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve.

He lives in Blue Mountain Lake with his wife and two children and enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities throughout the Adirondacks.




50 Responses

  1. Scott says:

    A radio tech was badly injured traveling to the top via UTV last year…maybe partly the reason for the road improvement. Maybe they also plan this for disabled person access ?

  2. Larry Roth says:

    Funny how it works, isn’t? For 20 years the state was supposed to be building trails around the rails of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, but couldn’t figure out how to do it because of all the restrictions on the land – or so the state claimed. Build a highway up Blue Mountain? No problem. And with no formal hearing process, no way to protest or file a legal challenge. Nice. Amazing how the state can do stuff when somebody wants it bad enough.

  3. Joe Hansen says:

    Hope I don’t get turned around at the summit and accidentally ski down the road! But on a more serious note,isn’t most of that right of way on private lands?

  4. Faith Turner says:

    NO!! please keep Blue Mt road free!!!! i have completed the Firetower Challenge and Blue was done in 2007 by my husband ( his first significant mountain) and my two daughters who were 13 and 8 at the time. the beauty of the adirondacks and particularly the Central region is the remoteness of it. I sure hope this doesnt happen. Lake George and Old Forge are sooo touristy as is Lake Placid, please, keep something wild!!!!

    • John Warren John Warren says:

      The road has already been built.

      • Joe says:

        It has been a road for a long time. Perhaps you didn’t notice it? It is hard to miss the antennas. I’m wondering if you are confusing Blue with another peak?

        Because of its purpose I don’t imagine it open to the public, or golf carts or horses in any manner. The antennas are likely permanent along with their power lines, fiber, etc.

  5. Greg M. says:

    The sky is falling! The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

    “This project would have benefited from public review and formal public hearings” and “a public discussion about the costs and necessity of this project would also have been beneficial.” — What legal basis does the APA have to change this project? None that I’m aware of. Why does the APA care what the cost is? It shouldn’t. It seems it’s a road being maintained, nothing more.

    If you have a legal stance that something was done wrong, state it, otherwise get off the soap box of saying how the APA and others are doing their jobs wrong. As you always state, the APA should live by the laws, not their personal opinion of a project. Soon the trees will begin re-encroaching on it and in 30 years it will need another overhaul.

  6. Todd Eastman says:

    Peter, nail them on stormwater construction practices and appropriate BMPs…

    … they can do lots without a permit, but the runoff can’t discharge into state waters without meeting standards…

    … monitor the early big flushes!

  7. Bruce says:

    “50 feet or more.” Did Mr. Bauer actually measure this or is he just guessing as a way of exaggerating his position? Standard two-lane rural highway rights of way are generally 40′.

    Rather than concern himself and the public with questions concerning an existing long-used and maintained service road, I believe Peter has far more weighty issues to embroil us in. Since the road and parking areas already exist and are likely to remain, what is the problem if the public were allowed to use them?

  8. Ann MacBride says:

    First..there are many towers up on Blue. Stste Police, Dec, NYSEG, county sheriff, DOT…they do not run off the fire tower…but different towers have multiple antennae on them. Second, the road being built is not for public use. It is for maintenance access for the workers that need access to the summit to maintain the public safety equipment. Many times these worker need to bring heavy test equipment up to the summit to get their jobs done. Third and most important, this road is being improved because last year a state worker got seriously injured trying to navigate that poor excuse of a road. This road is being built for the safety of the workers which in turn will ensure the safety of our police officers, Forest Rangers and other public workers which in turn ensure the safety of the public…like the author of this article.

    • Bob Bradley says:

      Thanks for pointing out the real reason this access road was improved…..for the safety of the workers who maintain the communications facilities. The next time we read about a lost/hurt hiker, just remember that the rescue effort made to bring them out relied on radio signals transmitted through these towers…..

  9. Walt says:

    “Will we see a new mountaintop shuttle service? Will a golf cart or ATV outfit shuttle visitors to the summit?”

    That would be okay, but I’d prefer it be more like the Whiteface vehicle access. The forest is occupied by humans, too, and we are part of nature. Part of human nature is to make things that forests don’t make. If done in a responsible manner, a road like this can be a good thing that does not diminish the wilderness experience available in the region. People are part of the forest world.

    • John Warren John Warren says:

      Only in the Adirondacks will people argue that building a road to the summit of a mountain doesn’t take away from the wilderness experience.

      • Boreas says:

        EVEREST!! EVEREST!! EVEREST!!

      • Walt says:

        John, I said “available in the region,” not on that one mountain. That site is not wilderness, and never will be, no matter how it may ever be designated on a map.

        In this case, the issue appears to be not about just “building a road,” either, as you put it. The road is there. It’s about the author’s stated concern that it might become a public road, and, presumably, the environmental impact of that and/or the road’s recent and possible future improvement.

        BTW, is there anything in writing (public or otherwise, or in a public speech by an official) seriously contemplating a public road there?

        I’d like to see it be a public road, but I doubt it’s going to happen in my lifetime. It would take that long to get the matter out of court.

        • John Warren John Warren says:

          This is the third fully paved road to a mountain top in the last 75 years – which mountain would you like to see next have a road to the top?

          • Walt says:

            Gee, only three? I’d go for Lyon next.

            • Walt says:

              Because the road to Averill Peak (on Lyon) is already there as a good start, whether paved or not.

            • Walt says:

              And next, Terry Mtn.

              • Walt says:

                Because it also already has a road to the top. Suitable for truck traffic, and is currently used as such, passing entirely through Terry Mt. State Forest. It’s just not open to the public, but I drove up it in a Toyota Matrix a few years ago (from Peasleeville Rd.).

                Counting all that are not “fully paved” but usable for cars with a little improvement, there are plenty more than 3 summit roads, and it would be great to let the public use them … if we would hire enough DEC officers to enforce the laws on them, and could afford to maintain them.

      • Bruce says:

        John,

        How is it you feel the previous road was a “wilderness experience?” In spite of how the land around Blue Mountain may be classified, the top of the mountain is hardly a wilderness experience. Even though it was unpaved, it still had to be suitable for trucks carting equipment to the top. I don’t see how paving a dangerous road for safety reasons takes away from an experience that really wasn’t there in the first place.

        This is not Boreas Ponds we’re talking about where the existing roads aren’t likely to ever again be used for their original purpose.

    • Jim S. says:

      It’s a jungle out there!

  10. Rich Stevens says:

    What they have done is improve an existing maintenance road making it safer for those servicing the equipment at the top of the mountain. I think that the fears of the public using this as a public access road are way overblown. Where are all of these cars going to park once they get to the summit? I’m sure that there are no plans to pave the top of the mountain for a turn around and parking lot. I certainly have no problem with the less physically fit using the road as a hiking trail to more easily enjoy the view.

  11. Carl Goodhines says:

    While I’m not a fan of everything Protect the Adirondacks does or represents-nor a personal fan of Peter Bauer, I think this is a bad idea. Unless the road is gated with a Military Grade gate, and subsequent routes blocked off, any climbers/hikers at the summit are going to be greeted by ATV’s. Not carrying techs or test equipment either!

  12. John says:

    Alright! Now I have a place to go on my ATV.

  13. Ned says:

    I saw the road while going to camp the other day. This is fantastic, I’ll probably take my cross bike up it next time. Hopefully they’ll open the gates to the public soon. Thank god they didn’t let the tree huggers have a say or it never would have been built.

    • Boreas says:

      If Homeland Security has significant assets or interest up there, I wouldn’t expect the gate to be open to the public.

  14. Justin Farrell says:

    The name if this website should be changed to Adirondack Almasnark

  15. Emmett Hoops says:

    A public review should have been held prior to any work being done. It’s obvious that the work was necessary, but also obvious that many people have a visceral reaction to the encroachment of machines on the wilderness. I’ve heard from more than one person that this was an expensive waste of time. Such attitudes should have been foreseen — and that is why a public review should have been held. The last thing we need is another conspiracy theory or grist for the Adirondack rumor mill.

    • Boreas says:

      I am sure the cost was significant, but the cost of potential liability, injury and disability to employees required to service the towers must be considered. Also, if it means that during an emergency the communications network it back up an hour or two sooner because of easier/quicker access to the equipment, I am sure the public wouldn’t mind the outlay.

      • Todd Eastman says:

        Will the road be maintained for driving throughout the winter…

        … if not, then emergency service is not the issue as the entire set of services at the summit can be maintained by helicopter for emergency or routine maintenance.

  16. Charlie S says:

    ” is now paved nearly to the summit.”

    >> More artificiality to add to the wilderness experience! Trees cool the earth,pavement attracts and radiates heat,the earth is warming up.We need more trees not more pavement. There’s a new road been going into the woods on the north end of Rt. 30 between Long Lake and Tupper. Lots of road construction everywhere in the Adirondacks these years of late.It seems to me as time regressively moves along we’re finding more ways to accomodate the automobile.

  17. Charlie S says:

    Walt says: “we are part of nature. Part of human nature is to make things that forests don’t make. If done in a responsible manner, a road like this can be a good thing that does not diminish the wilderness experience available in the region. People are part of the forest world.”

    It’s a people world Walt. It’s all about us and what we can get out of it the hell with every thing else.

  18. jjc says:

    Hiked to Tirrell Pond with a group to fish in June and saw the construction. We had previously hiked the road up to the trail. And two years ago went to the top of BM on the washed out wreck of a road.

    This last June we were seriously unwlelcomed by the road crews. Blasting and huge constuction machines. They said something about access to towers for emergency communication and that last year one guy wrecked his shoulder when their vehicle overturned going up the bad road

    We stay nearby at Blue Mountain Lake and would find this drive-up horrible.

    https://www.facebook.com/james.lanthier

    Jim works nearby and has several videos (and drone) posted

  19. Bruce says:

    According to the May, 1995 UMP for Blue Mountain, page 3 describes the Blue Mountain Tower access road.

    http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/lands_forests_pdf/bluemt.pdf

    As indicated by Mr. Bauer, the right of way is in fact 50′, but that doesn’t mean it all has to be used every foot of the way. Based on the UMP, those who maintain that road can do pretty much whatever they feel is required without public comment.

    • Boreas says:

      A possible reason for keeping a wide ROW could be snow removal – perhaps they intend to keep it plowed throughout the winter. If so, the wide shoulders may help with pushing the snow back from the roadway. Just a thought. It also helps with visibility – deer etc.

  20. Joe Hansen says:

    Bruce,thanks for link to the ump. As I thought the road is on private land within a NYS state right of way. One may not like the roadway improvements but I don’t see any legal reason for prior public review or comments. This is not the Forest Preserve! The main trail which is up Blue does not intersect the roadway and most hikers will be unaware of the changes. I seriously doubt there will be any negative economic effect. Who knows this might be “outlaw” Whiteface style ski run.

  21. One leg says:

    I think making this road avalible to disabled people for the purpose of accessing the summit is a wonderfull idea. I would personally use it.

  22. Tim says:

    First, it seems like a giant leap to say this will be a tourist road to the summit, it is mostly private land, it is still extremely steep at least near the summit (says my memory from having skied this several times many years ago), and is probably not suitable for ‘normal’ cars.
    Secondly, The sky is falling indeed! Seems like we just need some a crisis!

  23. AdkPeakBoy says:

    Why do the Adirondacks need any towers or roads for the Department of Homeland Security? I’m not believing that terrorists will be coming soon to blow up a fire tower atop Blue…there are many more targets in other areas outside of the Adirondacks with a heck of a lot more probability of being a target. That said, a two lane wide, paved road is a complete waste of taxpayer dollars; a single lane road is all that is needed to access for repairs. Any new items that needed transport up there could easily be done by Helicopter like those that seem to fly through the High Peaks whenever I’m in that area of the Park. More departments of Government…more out of control spending – and to the loss of our Adirondack views. Brilliant!

  24. Rich Stevens says:

    I think that the fears of using this road for public access are way overblown. With a total of three parking spaces at the summit, it’s hardly suitable as access to a tourist destination. The road is clearly for maintenance of the existing electronic equipment and towers. Improvement or repair of an existing private road does not ordinarily require public hearings or notification.

    The road improvements at present are complete and the road is gated with a very large “Road Closed” sign.

    • Bruce says:

      Rich,

      Isn’t it interesting how our really unfounded fears quickly become, “hey we need more public participation”, or “this is against the law”, or “it’s going to ruin the wilderness experience”?

      Based on the UMP map and the comments of cooler heads, is the summit of Blue Mountain really a “wilderness experience”? Apparently, it hasn’t been one since before WWII, and will never be again unless they remove all the towers and take out the road.

  25. Paul says:

    Some of this may be because of DOT regulations. At some point they could require all roads to meet the proper safety standards. My guess is that many DEC administered roads do not. If you like lots of regulations and codes this may be part of what we get.

    Zoning agencies (including ones like the APA) often have to have you go well beyond what you might want to do if there are codes required for the safety of the road. The kind of roads I like to see in the Adirondacks are probably not very safe (narrow tree lined or even canopied lots of turns with limited visibility). Sorry those ones are probably not allowed.

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