More than five years after the Nature Conservancy bought all 161,000 acres of Finch, Pruyn & Company’s timberlands, the state has acquired eighteen thousand acres for the Forest Preserve and intends to open up some of the land to the public this spring.
As a result of the state acquisition in December, canoeists and kayakers will be able to paddle south on the Hudson River from Newcomb to a takeout just south of the confluence with the Goodnow River.
Wayne Failing, a longtime fishing and rafting guide, describes the six-mile stretch as a mix of flatwater and mild rapids in a wild setting. “It’s a fabulous section,” he said. “I’ve done the trip many times.”
Failing, however, usually continues through the treacherous Hudson Gorge. With the acquisition of the Finch land, less-skilled paddlers will be able to exit before the gorge. A spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) said the takeout would be available for public use this spring.
But that’s just the beginning: sometime this fall, after a hunting club’s annual lease runs out, paddlers and hikers for the first time will be able to explore the Essex Chain of Lakes, which lies at the heart of the eighteen-thousand-acre tract. And as the state acquires more of the Finch lands in the years ahead, the number of new recreational opportunities will proliferate. Among other things, the public someday will be able to walk to OK Slip Falls, admire the views of the High Peaks from Boreas Ponds, hike to the summit of Boreas Mountain, and scale the cliffs on Sugarloaf Mountain.
State officials say the purchase of the Finch lands will spur tourism and boost the economy of local towns. Yet these goals must be balanced with the protection of natural resources, which can be a complicated and often controversial business.
“This is a jewel in the Adirondack crown,” said Marc Gerstman, DEC’s executive deputy commissioner. “We want to ensure we’re protecting the natural resources, but we also want to make these areas open to the public for uses consistent with protecting the resource.”
DEC believes it has struck the right balance in its plan for classifying and managing sixty-five thousand acres of former Finch lands—the eighteen thousand already purchased and another forty-seven thousand to be acquired over the next three or four years. The plan also covers four thousand acres of non-Finch lands that the state intends to buy from the Nature Conservancy.
Yet all four of the Park-wide environmental groups oppose the department’s proposals for the eighteen thousand acres acquired in December—known as the Essex Chain Tract—and intend to submit counterproposals to the Adirondack Park Agency. The APA will vote on the plan after holding public hearings, perhaps this spring. The agency could modify the plan.
DEC recommends classifying five thousand acres in the Essex Chain Tract as Wilderness, the most protective classification in the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan. This land would become part of a Hudson Gorge Wilderness Area, which would include existing state land along the Hudson, such as the Hudson Gorge Primitive Area, and former Finch lands that the state has yet to acquire.
The other thirteen thousand acres would be designated Wild Forest—a classification that, unlike Wilderness, allows some motorized use. The Wild Forest area includes the Essex Chain of Lakes, one of the gems of Finch lands. The chain includes several interconnected ponds that can be visited in a half-day canoe trip. In addition, paddlers could portage to a half-dozen other ponds. The environmental groups want the region to be a Wilderness Area or Canoe Area (another motor-free classification).
DEC is not proposing to allow motorboats on the Essex Chain. However, the plan does not say they should be banned either. Rather, it recommends creating an Essex Chain Canoe Recreation Area within the Blue Mountain Wild Forest that would be subject to special management restrictions. Although DEC has not tipped its hand, these restrictions could include a ban on motorboats.
Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), said he is concerned that DEC will end up allowing motorboats on the ponds. “If they’re not up front in assuring everyone that motorboats will be barred from the Essex Chain, we have to assume that it is their intention to allow them,” he said. “Just the potential for DEC allowing motorboats on those small lakes and ponds is a very strong argument for classifying them Wilderness or a Canoe Area.”
DEC is proposing several uses of the land that would not be permitted under a Wilderness classification:
■ Keeping some dirt roads open to provide access to the interior of the tract.
■ Permitting floatplanes to land on Third Lake in the Essex Chain in early spring, for the benefit of anglers, and in late fall, for hunters. Planes also will be allowed to land on First Lake and Pine Lake in any season. On those waterways, the conservancy donated the floatplane rights to the towns of Minerva and Newcomb.
■ Allowing mountain bikers to ride on the extensive network of dirt roads in the vicinity of the Essex Chain.
John Sheehan, a spokesman for the Adirondack Council, contends that automobiles and floatplanes will disturb wildlife and create pollution. He also fears that motorized use will increase the risk that invasive plants and non-native fish will be introduced. Anglers, for example, might inadvertently release suckers, perch, and other baitfish in the Essex Chain. “The easier it is to get a bait bucket in there, the more likely it is to happen,” he said.
The council has called for establishing a 72,480-acre Wild Rivers Wilderness that would encompass not only the Essex Chain, but also a long stretch of the Hudson, including the gorge, and several major tributaries, such as the Rock, Cedar, Boreas, and Indian rivers. Most of the land is in the Forest Preserve already or soon will be as a result of the Finch deal. Sheehan says the state could create the Wilderness Area now and acquire the rest of the land if it comes on the market.
If the state were to adopt the council’s proposal, paddlers and hikers probably would have to walk three or four miles to reach the Essex Chain. Likewise, paddlers taking out on the Hudson before the gorge also would face a long carry.
“We believe it’s more important to accommodate the best interest of the natural resource than the best interest of the automobile,” Sheehan said.
Protect the Adirondacks agrees that the Essex Chain should be Wilderness, but it has come up with a plan that offers greater access. The organization proposes creating an Upper Hudson Wilderness
Area encompassing thirty-nine thousand acres. Protect would draw the Wilderness boundary just north of the Essex Chain so people could drive to the ponds, though the ponds themselves would lie within the Wilderness Area. Also, Protect would keep open three roads to provide access to the interior and allow paddlers to drive to takeouts on the Hudson. The roads would be classified as Wild Forest corridors.
The council’s and Protect’s plans would ensure that the Essex Chain and nearby ponds are kept motor-free. Both also would preclude the landing of planes on Third Lake and the riding of bikes on most of the roads in the vicinity of the chain. Protect, however, would allow easier access to the Essex Chain than DEC itself is proposing.
Under DEC’s plan, paddlers could drive nearly all the way to Deer Pond, a bit north of the chain. From there, they would have to carry a half-mile or so to Third Lake. Only disabled people with a permit would be allowed to drive all the way to the chain. DEC also would keep roads open to provide access to the Hudson takeouts. In fall, vehicular access would be expanded slightly to benefit hunters.
Fred Monroe, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, supports the Wild Forest classification for the Essex Chain as well as the continued floatplane use. “The governor has said this acquisition will be good for the economy. I believe that’s not really true unless it’s accessible,” Monroe said.
Bob Brown, executive project director of the New York State Conservation Council, also supports the Wild Forest classification, but he criticized DEC for not making the Essex Chain even more accessible. He contends that people should be able to drive to the ponds and launch small motorboats. He also believes more of the roads should be kept open to provide easier access for hunters.
“I’m seventy years old, and I still hunt and fish,” said Brown, a Saranac Lake resident. “Let’s say I shoot a four-point deer. How am I going to get it out? How am I going to drag it through the woods?”
Brown said the Conservation Council represents twelve thousand hunting clubs, many of whose members are getting up in age. He feels DEC officials fail to take older folks into consideration. “They cater to people between eighteen and thirty-five all the time, and it’s frustrating,” he said.
But Dave Gibson, one of the founders of Adirondack Wild, accuses DEC of catering to the motorized-use crowd. Most of the Essex Chain area should be classified Wilderness or Canoe, he said, but for political reasons DEC wants to balance the amount of Wild Forest and Wilderness in the Finch, Pruyn deal as a whole.
“It isn’t DEC’s job or mission to balance classifications to achieve motorized-recreational and political goals,” Gibson said. “DEC and APA are legally charged with observing and following through on the State Land Master Plan guidelines.”
DEC doesn’t have a breakdown for how much of the Finch land would be Wild Forest and how much Wilderness. Judging by the maps in the proposed management plan, however, it’s clear that a substantial proportion would be Wilderness.
Following are DEC’s recommendations for other parcels that the state will acquire from the Nature Conservancy:
Indian River Tract. This 914-acre parcel includes a takeout on the Hudson just north of the confluence with the Indian River. DEC would classify about two-thirds of it Wild Forest, thus allowing the department to keep open a road to the takeout. The state is expected to purchase the tract this year. After it does, paddlers will be able to travel down the Hudson from Newcomb for twelve miles and still exit before the Hudson Gorge. As in the shorter trip to the Goodnow River, they would encounter only mild or moderate rapids. (See map)
Boreas Ponds Tract. Encompassing twenty-two thousand acres, this is the largest and one of the most coveted of the Finch parcels. DEC would split the parcel more or less evenly between Wild Forest and Wilderness. The ponds themselves, with their spectacular views, would be added to the High Peaks Wilderness. DEC wants to keep open about five miles of a dirt road, as far as LeBiere Flow. From there, Canoeists could paddle and portage to Boreas Ponds, while hikers could walk on the closed stretch of road to reach the ponds. The road would be used by snowmobilers in the winter. The Adirondack Council has called for closing the entire road and classifying more of the parcel Wilderness. It says a utility corridor south of the road could serve as the snowmobile trail and as the Wilderness boundary. Although DEC says the wooden lodge at Boreas Ponds should be destroyed, an old cabin in the Wild Forest section would be allowed to stay. (See map)
MacIntyre Tracts. Roughly two-thirds of these two large tracts near Tahawus would be classified Wilderness and added to the High Peaks The purchase will provide paddlers easy access to the Hudson River and Sanford Lake from a county road that leads to the Upper Works trailhead. DEC is proposing to keep open a dirt road in the Wild Forest section to give access to the Opalescent River as well. (See map)
Miscellaneous tracts. DEC also will acquire a number of smaller parcels scattered around the central and southern Adirondacks. Individually, they are too small to be classified Wilderness, so most probably will become Wild Forest. DEC’s draft plan offers few details about these lands.
Regardless of how the Finch lands are classified, there will still be more Wild Forest than Wilderness in the Park overall. The Park now has 1.29 million acres of Wild Forest and 1.14 million acres of Wilderness. Together, these two classifications make up 96 percent of the public Forest Preserve.
More stories about the Adirondacks can be found in each issue of Adirondack Explorer, the non-profit news magazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.