Thursday, April 26, 2012

Dave Gibson: NY’s Public Wild Forest Lands

Public wild lands protected by law in New York State can fall under the public jurisdiction of a variety of state agencies. Some of them are part of the system of state parks administered by the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP). In northern Saratoga County and across the Hudson River in Warren County lie more than 4,000 acres of beautiful and protected public wild land, part of the Moreau Lake State Park. Much of this land was acquired by the nonprofit Open Space Institute from Niagara Mohawk, and then sold to the public in 1998.

Moreau Lake State Park tripled in size at that time, and is now the largest state park in the region. The six million-acre Adirondack Park north of Moreau Lake, of course, has a completely different legislative history and legal context. It is not part of the OPRHP system of state parks.

This past week, I joined an enthusiastic group of state park officials, staff, park friends, volunteers and concerned citizens at Moreau Lake State Park. The occasion was an Earth Day ribbon cutting at the park’s new nature center, led by NYS Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey. Moreau Lake State Park’s director, his educational staff and the volunteers of Friends of Moreau Lake were given appropriate credit for this new space and added capacity to work with school groups, some of the 400,000 annual visitors to this park. The facility “showcases State Parks’ commitment to environmental education…shared by experienced and passionate outdoor educators,” said the Chair of the Saratoga-Capital District State Park Commission Heather Mabee.

This was visible progress. I once worked as a part-time naturalist and recreation staffer at Moreau Lake and Saratoga Spa State Parks, so it was gratifying to see the greatly improved educational facilities, interpretive exhibits, and dedicated staff that did not exist in the mid-1980s. On the other hand, even in those days I experienced a strong connection to the Adirondack Mountains and the solitude and beauty of the wilderness each time I went to Moreau for a program or a hike. The forests at Moreau do, in fact, act as a transition between the Appalachian oak-pine forests and the northern mixed hardwood forests of the Adirondacks, while the elevation gains to the park’s ridge trails resemble those on many Adirondack hikes.

I was invited to the ribbon cutting for a different reason. Four years ago, Saratoga County Water Authority’s water intake and pipeline from the Hudson River were constructed through a section of Moreau Lake State Park, in violation, we felt, of our State Constitution’s “forever wild” clause that protects the Forest Preserve as defined in State law. Saratoga County is one of 16 counties in the state that fall within the legal definition of Forest Preserve. The vast majority of Forest Preserve lies within the boundaries of the Adirondack and Catskill Parks, but some falls outside these boundaries in the named counties.

Moreau Lake State Park was no legal exception, and it certainly has public wild lands characteristic of the Forest Preserve, so we challenged OPRHP’s allowance of the county water line’s construction through parts of this park. As readers know, the State Constitution’s Article 14 states that lands constituting the forest preserve “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands,” and “shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private…” The Saratoga County Water Authority, a public corporation, had, in our view, unconstitutionally taken parts of Forest Preserve at Moreau Lake State Park.

Ultimately, the water line was constructed. Although the coalition did not go to court on these grounds, we came to a legally binding agreement with OPRHP that commited $300,000 of public funds to build educational facilities, like the park’s nature center; other funds to add to the park’s wild land acreage; and a commitment to manage large segments of the park as if it were Forest Preserve – although OPRHP is reluctant to name it what I think it truly is. A professional management plan is in place at Moreau, most of the wild land is managed appropriately as Park preserve land, and there is a visible educational and passive recreational emphasis at the park. There are well-advertised hikes, an educational staff is in place, and an active friends group helps the small staff serve the public, including area schools and youth groups.

In short, I am glad we reached the agreement we did. On the other hand, vigilance is still called for. All state agencies responsible for New York’s “wild forest land” should understand and embrace those responsibilities, and resist any kind of taking and exploitation of our wilderness for commercial or expedient ends. After all, our wilderness is a big part of what distinguishes New York State; and our “forever wild” Constitution is the envy of every other state, and every other country on earth.

Photos: Hemlock grove; springtime on the trails; nature center at Moreau Lake State Park.

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

9 Responses

  1. Tony Goodwin says:

    When were the lands crossed by the water line acquired by the State? If it was after the Hewitt Amendment passed in 1931, then those lands are not Forest Preserve.

  2. Dave Gibson says:

    Tony, two points: 1. the so-called Hewitt amendment (Article 14, Section 3) whereby the legislature can acquire lands for forestry (our State Forests) or wildife purposes within Forest Preserve counties but outside of the Adirondack Park boundary does not apply to Moreau Lake, or other lands disjunct from the blue line but still meeting definition of Forest Preserve. Moreau was acquired by the old Conservation Dept as a campground within a Forest Preserve county, then transferred to OPRHP as a state park. The legislature did not acquire it for forestry or wildlife purposes; 2. Even if the legislature had so acquired it for forestry or wildlife, the 2nd half of Article 14 Section 1 would still apply: the lands shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, nor be taken by any corporation, public or private.

  3. Mick says:

    Dave, there’s a lot of discussion about the pending fee acquisition of some large tracts that are currently managed under Forest Stewardship Council Certification guidelines for sustainable forest management. Doesn’t the State Land Management Plan specifically state that valuable and productive forestland should not be taken in fee title if easement purchases could accomplish the same outcome?

    Is SLMP rule of law?

  4. Mick says:

    I saw this petition going around:

  5. Paul says:

    “commited $300,000 of public funds to build educational facilities, like the park’s nature center;….”

    Interesting settlement arrangement.

    Can you tell us more about how you came to this agreement?

    Can you estimate what additional costs (beyond the pipeline project itself) that were borne by the taxpayers as a result of this suit and agreement?

  6. Paul says:

    “The six million-acre Adirondack Park north of Moreau Lake, of course, has a completely different legislative history and legal context.”

    Also, Dave it sounds like your suit was claiming that this land outside the park did NOT have a different legal context?

    Was this based on the fact that the land was in a COUNTY that also has Forest Preserve land?

    Dave what is your groups current view of the land that is owned by the state where Camp Gabriels was (is)?

  7. John Warren says:


    That’s some cheap shot. Everyone can’t be expected to be on the internet all day answering your questions. My experience with Dave is he’s not chained to his desk.

    I also doubt very much he’s concerned about answering the questions or comments of anonymous internet posters, so don’t flatter yourself.

    Nor of course is he required to answer your questions. His stance on a variety of issues are public and he stands behind them.

    What’s your excuse?

  8. Mick says:

    Hi John,

    Dave seems very knowledgeable about the law, specifically its application and interpretation in the Forest Preserve.

    I raised a very simple question, so please don’t take offense. In fact, I’d be very interested to hear your opinion on my question.

    Paul raised some interesting points to, and I think Dave should address them; Dave wrote an article and opened up a legitimate forum.

    Thank you.

  9. Paul says:

    This was a very interesting case. It could have had some broader impacts legally. But it could be that Dave is not permitted to discuss the specifics of the settlement which I respect.

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