The state’s newly signed contract to buy sixty-nine thousand acres of former Finch Paper lands won’t end the controversy over the future of these forests, lakes, and rivers. The next battle will be over their classification: Wilderness or Wild Forest?
Governor Andrew Cuomo revealed Sunday that the state will acquire the land over the next five years, adding it to the Forest Preserve and paying the Adirondack Nature Conservancy a total of $49.8 million.
The governor’s announcement in Lake Placid put to rest any doubts about the state’s intentions. Some political leaders in the Adirondack Park had been lobbying the state to protect the land with conservation easements rather than add it to the Forest Preserve. This option would have allowed logging to continue and hunting clubs to remain as leaseholders.
Fred Monroe, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, said the loss of forestry jobs and income from the clubs will hurt the local economy. “I’m saddened, disturbed, and angry about it,” he said of the governor’s announcement.
Joe Martens, the state’s environmental conservation commissioner, pointed out that most of the Finch Paper lands acquired by the conservancy—some ninety-two thousand acres—were in fact protected by easements rather than purchased for the Preserve. The lands to be added to the Preserve, he said, will attract paddlers, hikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts, giving a boost to the economy.
“We looked at the project as a whole, and these parcels have high recreational value,” Martens told the Adirondack Explorer today.
Environmentalists would like to see most of the Forest Preserve acreage classified as Wilderness where motorized access would be forbidden or severely restricted.
But Monroe contends that most of the land should be classified as Wild Forest to allow people to drive into the interior on existing dirt roads. “It’s important to the economy,” he said. “Sportsmen need access. It’s also a question of fundamental fairness. The land should be shared.”
The central battle may very well be over the first parcels the state plans to buy: the Essex Chain Tract and the smaller Outer Gooley Tract, which includes the confluence of the Hudson and Indian rivers. The state Department of Environmental Conservation hopes to acquire these lands in the fall.
The larger tract encompasses the Essex Chain of Lakes, a long stretch of the Hudson River, and parts of the Cedar and Rock rivers, among other natural attractions. Members of the Gooley Club, which leases both tracts, drive to their camps on dirt roads that would be closed if the state classifies the tract as Wilderness. That could mean a long carry for canoeists and kayakers who want to put their boats in the Essex Chain. Ditto for those who put in the Hudson at Newcomb and travel downriver to a takeout near the Indian River confluence.
Martens expects the more remote of the sixty-nine thousand acres to be classified as Wilderness, though it’s too soon to say which ones. He said the department will listen to all sides before making recommendations on classifying any of the lands. Ultimately, the Adirondack Park Agency will decide on the classifications.
Although DEC hopes to acquire the Essex Chain Tract this fall, the public will have to wait a year or so before it has access to the land. That’s because the Gooley Club’s annual lease grants it exclusive use of the tract until next fall. After that lease expires, the Gooley Club will have exclusive use only of its buildings and the land in the immediate vicinity. After 2018, Martens said, the club will have to vacate the land entirely.
DEC says it’s possible that the Hudson River takeout will be available for public use sooner, perhaps late this year or early next year.
The Hudson takeout will enable paddlers to enjoy a twelve-mile canoe trip, consisting of flat water and mild rapids, from Newcomb to the Indian River. Currently, without a public takeout, paddlers must continue through the heavy whitewater of the Hudson Gorge, which is beyond the capability of most paddlers.
Martens said DEC won’t open the road to the takeout when the takeout becomes available for public use. That decision will come later. Thus, judging from maps of the area, paddlers will have to carry their boats nearly a mile to reach the nearest public road.
Once the Essex Chain of Lakes is open, paddlers will have an even longer carry if the roads are closed—at least three miles, judging from maps.
Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, said he’d like to see some roads kept open to shorten the carries, if not eliminate them. His idea is to classify the Essex Chain region as a Canoe Area with limited vehicular access.
There is only one Forest Preserve tract in the Adirondacks managed primarily with paddling in mind: the St. Regis Canoe Area. The regulations for the Canoe Area are similar to those for Wilderness Areas in that motorized use is forbidden. But the state could classify certain roads separately as Primitive to permit motorized access. This could be done whether the rest of the land is Canoe or Wilderness.
The Essex Chain tract is at the heart of a 72,480-acre region that the Adirondack Council would like to see become the Wild Rivers Wilderness Area. With the purchase of the former Finch lands, the great majority of the proposed Wilderness Area will be owned by the state. Spokesman John Sheehan said the council would not necessarily oppose keeping some roads open within Primitive corridors.
Sheehan said the council believes that large Finch tracts near the High Peaks Wilderness, including the Boreas Ponds, also should be classified Wilderness.
The Nature Conservancy bought all 161,000 acres of the Finch lands for $110,000 million in 2007. It sold ninety-two thousand acres to a Danish pension fund for nearly $33 million. In 2010, the state paid $30 million to purchase easements on those lands, which are still being logged. With the sale of the sixty-nine thousand acres to the state, the conservancy will get back what it paid. But the conservancy had to raise $35 million to cover its debt and other expenses, according to spokeswoman Connie Prickett.
“This is a really exciting project for New York State, and it’s good for the North Country,” Prickett said. “We have these working forests, and now we will have these new public lands.”
Photo of former Finch, Pruyn lands by Carl Heilman II.