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.