Wednesday, June 13, 2012

After 20-Yrs, NYS Recognizes Lows Lake as Wilderness

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) have dropped their appeal of a state Supreme Court decision that confirmed the classification of Lows Lake as Wilderness.

In August 2011, Supreme Court Justice Michael C. Lynch ruled on a lawsuit brought by the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) and Protect the Adirondacks! (PROTECT), that the lake was and should be managed as Wilderness. Lynch also noted that Lows Lake was included in a 1987 Wilderness classification of about 9,100 acres that was signed by then-Governor Mario Cuomo.  The APA and DEC appealed, but this week the state Attorney General’s Office, representing the APA and DEC, withdrew its appeal of Lynch’s decision.

Following the 1987 classification, float plane use of Lows Lake made its management as Wilderness controversial.  DEC held contentious meetings in 2000 while planning for the Bog River Complex Unit Management Plan, which was approved in 2003. That plan called for an immediate ban on motorboats and a phasing out of float planes by 2008.

Opponents of the Wilderness classification argued that the APA did not have the authority to classify the Lows Lake as Wilderness because the state does not own the entire shoreline. But Justice Lynch wrote in his decision that the APA Act and the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (APSLMP) “require the APA to classify State owned bodies of water even if the water is contiguous to a private land holding.”

In April 2009, after failing to enforce the 1987 Wilderness classification for 20 years, PROTECT, ADK and the Sierra Club sued and the APA passed a resolution extending float plane access until the end of 2011.

Then in September 2009, in a 6-4 vote, the APA classified a portion of Lows Lake as Wilderness and a portion as Primitive (both classifications prohibit motorized use) to provide added protection to two important wilderness canoe routes, Bog River to Lows Lake to Little Tupper Lake via Bog Lake, Lake Lila and Rock Lake, and the route from Bog River through Lows Lake to the Oswegatchie River in the heart of the Five Ponds Wilderness.

Neil F. Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), said at the time that the  decision “confirms that when the state wholly owns the bed and waters of a lake in the Adirondack Park, as it does with Lows Lake, it is part of the Forest Preserve, protected by the Forever Wild clause of the state Constitution.”

At the next meeting however, then-Governor David Paterson’s APA representatives reversed their votes and the lake was left unclassified according to the APA and DEC. That move prompted the lawsuit by Forest Preserve advocates.

David Gibson, who was not a party to the lawsuit, wrote about the APA commissioner’s motives in reversing the decision here at the Almanack: “What was behind APA’s change of vote and its legal argument? Intense political pressure, for one. Senator Little, Review Board director Monroe and local supervisors wanted to make it more difficult for the state to enforce the end to float plane use. By not classifying the lake bed, there would always be a question about appropriate, enforceable management of the lake.”

The APA and DEC’s withdrawal of their appeal of the Lynch decision means the  Wilderness classification of Lows Lake will stand, but absent was an order requiring the APA to classify other water bodies under its authority as required by the APSLMP.  Still unclear is whether the Lynch decision will spur the APA to act in classifying other water bodies that are part of the Forest Preserve, or if such classifications will require further legal battles.

“The State Land Master Plan defines state land as including both land and water, and that state land must be classified expeditiously after acquisition,” Dave Gibson wrote after the Lynch decision. “Judge Lynch made a distinction between the obligation to classify state-owned lands and waters, and how to manage those lands and waters. Management challenges and conditions, including whether or not private land existed on the shoreline, ought to influence what classification to choose (Wilderness or Primitive, or Wild Forest, for example). However, it does not relieve the state from the obligation of ultimately selecting a classification.”

Protect the Adirondacks John Caffry told North Country Public Radio’s Brian Mann, “As far as precedent, the court found that state-owned forest reserve waters must be classified under the State Land Master Plan. This applies where the land under water is owned by the state.”  “I can’t say exactly how the Racquette or any other particular water body ought to be classified right now without looking at the specific situation, but yes, any water body where the state owns the bed should be classified,” he told Mann.

APA spokesperson Keith McKeever issued a statement saying the court’s ruling only applies to Lows Lake and  “is not applicable or precedent setting for the rest of the Adirondacks.”

However it plays out, Forest Preserve advocates see this latest turn of events as a big win. “The conclusion of this case means the bed and waters of Lows Lake are permanently Wilderness under state law,” said Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club. “It also means that one of the few wild waterways in the Adirondack Park, where paddlers can enjoy their sport unhindered by public use of motorboats and floatplanes, will remain quiet and wild.”

Even with affirmation of the Lows Lake classification, only about 5 percent of the lake and pond surface area in the 6.1-million-acre Adirondack Park is classified as Wilderness.

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John Warren has been exploring the woods and waters of the Adirondacks for more than 45 years. After a career as a print journalist and documentary television producer he founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and co-founded Adirondack Atlas in 2015.

John's Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report can be heard Friday mornings across the region on North Country Public Radio and on WSLP Lake Placid.

He is also on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute and edits The New York History Blog. He is the author of two books of regional history.




13 Responses

  1. Solidago says:

    Now will they remove the dams that created the lake? An artificial impoundment is anything but “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man – where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

    From a legal and bureaucratic perspective I suppose the classification makes sense, but outside of those realms it seems downright silly.

  2. Paul says:

    This really strikes me as a strange arrangement. So the private landowners on the lake can continue to use motorboats on a Wilderness waterway? How is this possible. If you want to allow the motorboats don’t you have to classify the water body as something that allows motorboats or ban them all? Didn’t this ruling just shoot the value of those properties off the charts?

    The people of the state of NY are landowners on this lake, why do they not get these same motorized use privileges?

    • Bob says:

      There are several examples in the park where residents of “inholdings” have a privelaged motor vehicle access across forest preserve. Why would this be any different?

  3. Paul says:

    “forest reserve waters must be classified under the state line master plan”.

    John, maybe these typos where in the text you copied but I thought you might want to know.

  4. Wren says:

    Solidago- dams are allowed in wilderness according to the state land master plan.

    • Paul says:

      Why did they carve out Primitive envelopes for the dams?

    • Bob says:

      Not exactly. The SLMP made a very poor effort in quantifying the number of dams in wilderness and acknowledged their existence as both contradictory and permissible if intact. The DEC is crossing that bridge over dams now with Marcy Dam, as it is no longer functioning. In their plan they wrote what to do, but to cover all bases, they wrote it both ways! Cowards!

  5. Paul says:

    Given this I assume that it would be okay to also classify a water body like Lower Saranac Lake as Wilderness (probably as large a percentage of state land as Lows) then only allow the private shore owners to continue to use motorboats (like the scout camp on Lows is allowed to do).

    What about a pond like Bear Pond in the SRCA. You have a private landowner there? Will that water we classified as Canoe Area and he can’t use a motor boat. He doesn’t use motor boats but he could. Will we strip that right or give it only to him and his heirs as in the case of this Lows property?

    • Bob says:

      How about Moose Pond in St. Armand? It is entirely surrounded by state land, including the Mckenzie Wilderness area yet they allow motor boats?

      • Paul says:

        Right, what do you think they should do there? Can I assume you would say classify it as a Wilderness. That is exactly what many people don’t want to see happen. Some do, some don’t.

  6. Paul says:

    But Wren you do have that right. Maybe they could not properly rehabilitate the dam when it needs it by using “earthen materials”. Probably wouldn’t be to code. You don’t want any paddlers getting hurt in there if the thing blows. Dams in a WA meets the letter of the law but certainly not the spirit. If you look at the ASLMP there are many exemptions made for hikers and paddlers.