Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Phil Brown: The Future of Resource Management Lands

Environmentalists raised many objections to the Adirondack Club and Resort, but perhaps the biggest is that the project will fragment Resource Management lands on and near Mount Morris in Tupper Lake.

In hearings last year, Michale Glennon and other scientists raised concerns about the loss of wild habitat. The argument is that the construction of roads, driveways, homes, and lawns will change the suite of wildlife that now occupies the woods. We might, for example, see more blue jays and fewer hermit thrushes.

Yet Brian Mann reported last fall for the Adirondack Explorer and North Country Public Radio that it’s unclear whether the fragmentation will have much impact in the greater scheme of things, given that the lands in question are adjacent to tens of thousands of acres of protected forestland. In short, hermit thrushes are not about to disappear from the Adirondack Park.

Dave Gibson of Adirondack Wild and others contend that Brian gave too much credence to outside experts. One of these experts, Hal Salwasser, dean of Oregon State College of Forestry, called the proposed resort “a blip on the landscape in a regional scale.”

Reading that the biggest development ever reviewed by the Adirondack Park Agency is a “blip” is sure to rankle opponents of the project. But the man said what he said. Quoting Salwasser does not make Brian biased. Indeed, if he had not quoted him, that would have been evidence of bias. (Click here to read the story in question. You also can click here to read another story by Brian in the latest Explorer.)

As far as we know, there is nothing special about the woods where the developers want to build. They have been logged for decades. That said, it is shocking that the developers failed to undertake a comprehensive wildlife survey—and that the APA failed to require one. Even if there were little chance of finding anything significant, it should have been done.

Most people seem to think the APA will approve the project this week. If so, we hope it demands a wildlife survey as a condition of the permit.

Looking ahead, the bigger question—even bigger than this project—is what will become of the rest of the Resource Management lands in the Park. How many “blips” like the Adirondack Club and Resort can the Park withstand?

The Adirondack Park Agency Act defines Resource Management lands as “those lands where the need to protect, manage and enhance forest, agricultural, recreational and open space resources is of paramount importance because of overriding natural resource and public considerations.” Examples of “primary uses” of such lands include forestry, agriculture, hunting, and fishing.

Nevertheless, the construction of single-family homes is allowed as a “secondary use.” Under the law, landowners may build fifteen principal structures for each square mile, which works out to one every 42.7 acres.

The Adirondack Club and Resort falls well within the density guidelines: the developers intend to build 83 principal structures on 4,740 acres of Resoure Management lands—or one for every 57 acres. Still, critics say the resort’s design fails to meet the law’s requirement that homes on Resource Management lands be built “on substantial acreages or in small clusters.” Unfortunately, the APA has never come to grips with what this language means.

The Adirondack Park has 1.5 million acres of Resource Management land. Some of these lands are protected by conservation easements, and others might be undevelopable. For the sake of argument, let’s say that leaves a million acres of RM lands where a house could be built. According to the APA’s building-density guidelines, landowners could construct up to 23,255 houses.

In a 5.8-million-acre Park, each house would be a truly small blip, but if they all get built, these 23,255 homes, with their driveways, lawns, and lighting, would have a much bigger impact on habitat and wildlife than the Adirondack Club and Resort will.

Some would argue that it’s improbable that all the Resource Management lands will be developed, but it is undeniable that more of them will be developed in the years ahead. It’s time to take a hard look at the APA Act and ask whether it adequately protects the privately owned backcountry.

Photo by Carl Heilman: site of proposed Tupper Lake development.

Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.

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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

11 Responses

  1. Mick says:

    I wonder what a “comprehensive wildlife survey” would show; I’m sure it would be no different than other similarly used areas in the region. Naturally, the fauna and flora would change as the usage changes. Frankly, I would expect to see an increase in the Whitetail Deer population as the forest is thinned, and I’m sure we would see an abundance of “suburban” species once the resort is built, but other than that, I can’t see this parcel being much different than anywhere else. There is no special biodiversity here, and if there were, logging would have been prohibited years ago.

    I suspect that a wildlife survey requirement is nothing more than a bureaucratic stall method that would funnel some funds into special interest hands.

  2. Phil Brown says:

    Mick, I agree that the survey probably would not turn up anything unusual. But in a project of this size, some seven years in the making, it’s mystifying that this was not done.

  3. joe mahay says:

    Couldn’t the cumulative impact of widespread residential development of Resource Management Lands or even the development of significant acreage in any one area of the Park be interpreted a violation of the Adirondack Park Agency’s mandate to protect Resource Management lands as forestry and/or agricultural uses?

  4. broadwinged says:

    The resort as planned is an erosion of ecological resources critical to maintaining plant and animal diversity and density in the park…no way around that. In coming decades, resource management land will become increasingly critical buffer and corridor for critters and plant diversity. Compromising these lands further will alter the capacity of diverse species, and the larger ecological processes that they are part of, to absorb or adapt to challenges, and will add to the decline of nearby wilderness. As wisely used forest land – with any buildings clustered as intended, not spread out 1 every 42 acres – the role of buffer for wilderness still exists. As a built, sprawling residential community it will harm the greater system. Resource Management lands serve a purpose, it’s not as residential zones.

  5. Pete Klein says:

    Maybe I’m an optimist but I just don’t see this project ever reaching full development.
    And I’m not just talking about the current state of the economy (which I don’t expect to dramatically improve ever).
    The way I see it, most people who want to blow money on a “second home” want waterfront. The fact that this project lacks waterfront will be a ball and chain on its prospects for a total build out.

  6. Paul says:

    “Dave Gibson of Adirondack Wild and others contend that Brian gave too much credence to outside experts.”

    Isn’t this the whole basis of the arguments that Dave and his group are making?

    They quote their outside experts like crazy in all their arguments, as they should.

    I guess what he is saying is don’t lend too much weight to the expert opinions that you don’t like.

    In the recent NYT piece by Dave he quotes their amphibian expert, Dr. Klemens, as saying that this development is “sprawl on steroids”.

    So he lends credence to an assertion on the density of the building plans made by a herpetologist and Brian is not supposed to lend any credence to an assertion made by someone who is apparently a national expert on forest ecosystems.

  7. Paul says:

    Mick, I agree that the survey probably would not turn up anything unusual. But in a project of this size, some seven years in the making, it’s mystifying that this was not done.”

    Phil, I think you mean that it is mystifying that it was not “required”. If you are a developer you better not do studies that are not required. Most investors are not too keen on paying for things that they don’t need to do.

  8. Paul says:

    On the question of resource management lands I suspect that the folks that drafted the original APA guidelines envisioned this kind of development as potentially happening on RM lands, otherwise you would think that they would have made it illegal. Perhaps they had envisioned that the land would NOT eventually get developed to the density that they prescribed. In this case the land, if they build everything, could get developed to a LESSER density than originally allowed and then much of the remaining develop-able land will be further restricted by permit requirements.

    So Phil do you think that the agency just figured that it would not get developed as they prescribed?

  9. Paul says:

    Some of the last minute pitches on this are way out there. Look at this quote in a Times Union opinion page:

    “The resort project would violate several sections of the APA Act, the Environmental Conservation Law, DEC regulations, and Article 14, Section 1 of the state Constitution — the provision that requires the Adirondack Forest preserve to remain “forever wild.””

    Read more:

    Violate Article 1? You gotta be kidding me. None of this is state land, it is all private.

    And this comment comes from a guy who used to be an APA executive director.

    Someone from NYC or Albany might buy this but most folks know this is just factually incorrect.

  10. Mick says:

    Gee Paul, who do we know in Albany who might be feeding such blather to the TU?

    Here’s my take on this development: From a larger perspective, it looks like a perfect fit for the Park. It is nestled next to a town that needs an economic boost. It concentrates development within its own parcel, similar to any good smart growth plan, and it fits the bill perfectly for folks who want to live in a nice subdivision within the park, regardless of whether it’s their primary residence or a second home.

    It could prove to be a perfect model of sustainable, environmentally responsible development, and if that’s the case, then there should be something similar in other towns like Indian Lake, Saranac Lake, etc.

    Placid and Lake George are examples of exactly what shouldn’t happen in the Park. They both bring big tourist dollars, but at what expense to the environment?

    This development looks perfectly reasonable, and more people should support it.

  11. Paul says:

    One questions is should land this close to a hamlet like Tupper Lake be classified as Resource Management lands? Some may not like this project but if there was one they liked where is the town supposed to grow?

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