Wild rivers, pristine ponds, deep forests, marble cliffs, a towering waterfall—the former Finch, Pruyn lands recently acquired by the state seem to have everything. If not everything, then more than enough to satisfy a variety of outdoor recreationists: paddlers, hikers, backcountry campers, anglers, hunters, and perhaps mountain bikers and horseback riders.
The ecological richness and recreational appeal of these lands, encompassing 21,200 acres, make them an invaluable addition to the Forest Preserve, environmentalists say. But this very diversity has led to hard and complex questions for the state officials tasked with regulating and managing the lands.
Consider the Essex Chain Lakes, a string of backcountry ponds at the heart of one of the Finch, Pruyn tracts. In theory, visitors could drive to the ponds on logging roads. But is this advisable? If access is too easy, might not overfishing or the introduction of baitfish endanger native brook trout? Will boggy shorelines become trampled?
The Adirondack Park Agency will be wrestling with such questions this summer as it decides how to classify the lands under the State Land Master Plan. Among other things, the decision will determine how much, if any, motorized use will be permissible.
John Sheehan, spokesman for the Adirondack Council, said this may be the most complicated land-classification question facing the agency since the State Land Master Plan’s adoption in 1972—not only because of the diversity of terrain and ecosystems, but also because of the history of the property. For decades, hunting clubs leased the lands and were permitted to drive into the interior.
“The decisions that have to be made are difficult because there are a lot of people and organizations interested in the outcome,” Sheehan said.
Evidence of the complexity exists in the sheer number of proposals on the table. The APA staff has drafted seven different options for classifying the Finch lands and adjacent Forest Preserve—each with its own multicolor map and description of allowable uses. In addition, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), green groups, and local officials have come up with their own proposals.
Starting in June, the APA embarked on a series of hearings around the Park and in other parts of the state to explain the various options and gather ideas from the public. The last hearing was July 2, but the public can submit written comments through July 19.
After the staff reviews the public comments, it will send a recommendation to the APA board, which could vote as early as its August meeting. The board could adopt a classification proposal as written or modify it. The decision will be sent to Governor Andrew Cuomo for his approval.
The APA will go through the same process when the state acquires additional Finch lands in the years ahead. In 2007, the Adirondack Nature Conservancy bought all 161,000 acres owned by the paper company. It was a stunning acquisition that included such natural landmarks as OK Slip Falls, Blue Ledge in the Hudson Gorge, Boreas Ponds, long stretches of the Hudson River, and the Essex Chain.
In 2011, the state purchased conservation easements on eighty-nine thousand acres that will allow these timberlands to continue to be logged while protecting them from development. In 2012, the governor announced a plan to acquire outright another sixty-five thousand acres in stages over five years. These lands, including the natural gems listed above, will be added to the forever-wild Forest Preserve.
The classification now under consideration involves four parcels in the towns of Newcomb, Minerva, and Indian Lake:
■ Essex Chain Tract (17,320 acres). This large parcel includes the Essex Chain and nearby ponds as well as stretches of the Hudson, Goodnow, and Cedar rivers. It includes a takeout on the Hudson at the Polaris Bridge, located just downstream from the mouth of the Goodnow. Most of this tract will remain off limits to the public until October 1, when a sportsman’s club’s exclusive lease expires, but the Hudson corridor is open now.
■ Indian River Tract (925 acres). This parcel provides a second takeout on the Hudson just before the Indian River. Thus, canoeists and kayakers paddling south from Newcomb will be able to exit the river before entering the dangerous whitewater of the Hudson Gorge. This parcel is now open to the public.
■ OK Slip Falls Tract (2,780 acres). As a result of this acquisition, the state now owns all of the Hudson Gorge. The tract includes Blue Ledge, several ponds, and OK Slip Falls, the tallest waterfall in the Park. The parcel is open to the public, but DEC has yet to mark or build access trails.
■ OSC Tract (160 acres). The state expects to acquire this small in-holding in the Vanderwhacker Wild Forest from the Open Space Conservancy before the APA vote. If so, it will be included in the classification package.
In addition to classifying these four tracts, the APA is expected to reclassify 19,483 to 24,183 acres of adjacent Forest Preserve in the Blue Mountain Wild Forest, Vanderwhacker Wild Forest, and Hudson Gorge Primitive Area. Depending on the proposal, the agency would classify or reclassify a total of 40,668 to 45,368 acres.
Debate Over Motors
Most land-classification debates are largely about how much motorized use should be allowed. Under the State Land Master Plan, motors are prohibited in Wilderness Areas but permitted in Wild Forest Areas. Usually, environmentalists champion Wilderness as the best option for protecting natural resources and providing visitors a tranquil experience. Local officials, however, usually argue that a Wild Forest designation provides easier access and more recreational opportunities and so enhances tourism.
For the most part, the Finch debate conforms to the paradigm. One difference is that the APA also is looking at designating most of the new state lands a Canoe Area or Primitive Area. However, a Canoe Area or Primitive Area is managed essentially as a Wilderness Area, so the issues don’t change much under these proposals.
In analyzing the APA’s seven options, it makes sense to look first at what they have in common. For starters, the Nature Conservancy donated to Newcomb and Minerva the floatplane rights to First Lake in the Essex Chain and nearby Pine Lake. Under all the options, therefore, planes will be allowed to land on and take off from these lakes.
Also, all seven options call for the creation of a Hudson Gorge Wilderness Area. It would include nearly all of the OK Slip Falls Tract as well as the 17,170-acre Hudson Gorge Primitive Area. The State Land Master Plan requires that the Primitive Area be reclassified as Wilderness “as soon as the [adjacent] private lands can be acquired.” The purchase of the OK Slip Falls Tract would seem to fulfill that condition. Depending on the option, the size of the new Wilderness Area would range from 18,830 to 45,350 acres.
Although local politicians generally do not like Wilderness classifications, they have not spoken out against the creation of a Hudson Gorge Wilderness per se. The argument is over where to draw the boundary. Most important, they do not want the Essex Chain included in the Wilderness Area. They also want the river to be relatively accessible.
The APA’s decision will have a great impact on how outdoor enthusiasts are able to use the lands and waters. Among the questions to be answered:
■ How close should people be allowed to drive to the Essex Chain?
■ How close should they be allowed to drive to the two takeouts on the Hudson?
■ Should motorboats be allowed on the Essex Chain?
■ Should mountain bikes be allowed on the extensive network of logging roads?
■ Should floatplanes be allowed to land on Third Lake (the largest lake in the Essex Chain)?
The answers vary widely under the seven options.
The Wilderness options
In the most restrictive proposal, virtually all of the Finch, Pruyn lands would be classified Wilderness. Including other Forest Preserve lands, the Wilderness Area would encompass 45,350 acres. This would put the kibosh on bikes and floatplanes and necessitate long hikes to reach interior waters.
Based on the likely location of a parking lot on the Wilderness boundary, it appears that paddlers would need to carry 1.5 miles to reach Third Lake on the Essex Chain. (The carry could include paddles across two small ponds.) Presumably, the distance for hikers would be about the same. Likewise, the carries from the Hudson to other parking lots on the Wilderness boundary would be lengthy. From the first takeout, near the Goodnow, paddlers would have to walk about three miles to Goodnow Flow Road in Newcomb. From the second takeout, near the Indian, they’d have a carry of about one and a half miles to Chain Lakes Road in Indian Lake.
Local leaders strongly oppose this option, known as 1B, contending it would discourage people from visiting the Essex Chain or paddling the Hudson. “There was a promise from the state of recreational and economic opportunity. If the property is classified as Wilderness, that promise will not be kept,” said Minerva Supervisor Susan Montgomery-Corey, whose town includes much of the Essex Chain and a long stretch of the Hudson.
But the 1B option seems like a long shot. Neither DEC nor any of the Park’s major environmental groups is pushing for it.
The Adirondack Council, the Adirondack Mountain Club, the Sierra Club, and Protect the Adirondacks have lined up behind a less-restrictive Wilderness option known as 1A. Under this proposal, the Hudson Gorge Wilderness would encompass only 38,560 acres. The Essex Chain would still lie within Wilderness—meaning motorboats and floatplanes would be banned—but the lands just to the north would be classified Wild Forest, where some motorized access would be permitted. As a result, people could drive much closer to the lakes and the Hudson.
“It’s Wilderness with access,” remarked Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect, which drafted a similar proposal on its own.
Another green group, Adirondack Wild, is backing a variation of 1A that would extend the Wilderness boundary farther north to create a wider buffer (at least a half-mile) between the Wild Forest Area and the Essex Chain and other ponds. The Adirondack Council, though it supports 1A, also has said it would like to see a larger buffer. As of press time, it remained unclear where the boundary would be drawn.
DEC has talked about establishing a parking area a short distance from Deer Pond, which would be possible under the 1A option. To reach the Essex Chain, paddlers would carry to Deer, paddle across Deer, carry to Mud Pond, paddle across Mud, and then carry to Third Lake, the largest lake in the chain. The total distance, including the paddles, would be about 0.75 miles—half the distance in the 1B option. If the Wilderness buffer under 1A is widened as Adirondack Wild suggests, the distance probably would be at least a mile.
Under 1A, the carries from the Hudson also would be substantially reduced—from 3 miles to 0.9 miles for the northern takeout at the Polaris Bridge and from 1.5 miles to 0.8 miles for the Indian River takeout.
“These are substantial distances, but they’re doable,” Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), said of the three carries.
Under this plan, mountain biking would be allowed on trails north of the Essex Chain but not in the vicinity of the lakes themselves.
Montgomery-Corey contends that the environmentalists’ proposal remains overly restrictive. “One of the main issues is access, getting close to the Chain Lakes. It really matters to us,” she said. “There are a lot of folks for whom this option will mean no access.” She said senior citizens and young children, for example, might find it hard to hike a half-mile or three quarters of a mile to the lakes.
Five towns in the region—Minerva, Newcomb, Indian Lake, North Hudson, and Long Lake—want to see most of the Finch, Pruyn lands classified as Wild Forest. Calling themselves the Upper Hudson Recreation Hub, the towns adopted a resolution pushing for “maximum access” and a wide range of recreational uses, including snowmobiling, mountain biking, and ATV riding. Among other things, local officials want to see snowmobile trails connecting Indian Lake with Minerva and Newcomb. The New York State Conservation Council, representing sportsmen, and the New York State Snowmobile Association also support a Wild Forest classification for most of the new state lands.
“Our future is in your hands,” Montgomery-Corey told the APA at the first public hearing on June 12, adding, “Access plus economic opportunity equals hope.”
The Wild Forest Options
The APA option that comes closest to the towns’ wishes—dubbed 4A—would indeed classify most of the Finch lands Wild Forest. Under this option, there would still be a Hudson Gorge Wilderness, encompassing 33,942 acres, but the Essex Chain and surrounding lands would be Wild Forest. This would give DEC the legal authority to keep roads open all the way to the chain and allow motorboats and floatplanes on the lakes. It also would open up the tract to biking and possibly snowmobiling.
DEC’s own proposal for the Finch lands, sent to the APA in December, is a variation of this option: it would classify the Essex Chain region Wild Forest but designate it a Special Management Area, called the Essex Chain Canoe Recreation Area. The intent is to create stricter rules within the Special Management Area. It’s uncertain what the rules would be, but they would be written into the State Land Master Plan, meaning they could not be changed without amending the plan.
DEC’s plan is reflected in the APA’s option 4B, which is identical to 4A except for the Special Management Area, which would encompass thirteen thousand acres.
Perhaps the biggest question is whether motorboats would be allowed on the Essex Chain. DEC is not proposing to allow motorboats, but neither is it advocating a ban. Publicly, DEC has remained neutral, saying the motorboat question will be resolved through the hearings and the debates. Privately, some officials have told the Explorer that the department does intend to ban motorboats. Perhaps one tipoff is that DEC is not proposing to allow visitors (except for disabled people with a special permit) to drive all the way to the chain.
That’s not good enough for Protect’s Bauer. “If it’s classified as Wild Forest, we have no confidence in DEC or the APA to ban motorboats from the Essex Chain,” he said.
Environmentalists also object to DEC’s proposal to allow floatplanes to land on Third Lake in spring and fall to accommodate anglers and hunters. The planes would be allowed on Third Lake from ice-out to the end of mud season (when access roads would reopen) and from September 15 to ice-in.
Critics say the planes would disrupt the lake’s natural serenity and mar the wilderness experience of backpackers and paddlers. Moreover, they point out that the Nature Conservancy gave the towns the floatplane rights to First Lake. Thus, anyone wanting to fly to the Essex Chain could land on First Lake instead.
“What they’re attempting to do is create a part-time Wilderness,” Bauer said of DEC’s plan. “We think the Essex Chain deserves a full Wilderness classification.”
Under DEC’s plan, most roads to the interior would be closed to motor vehicles. Visitors would be able to drive part of the way to the Essex Chain and the Hudson. The carries to the lakes and the two takeouts on the river would be the same as under the “Wilderness with access” proposal favored by the environmentalists.
Bauer criticized DEC for issuing its plan before the public-review process got under way. He suggested the department was trying to predetermine the outcome. But DEC Commissioner Joe Martens said his agency had no motive other than to get the discussion started early.
DEC officials say their plan balances economic and environmental concerns. “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,” Executive Deputy Commissioner Marc Gerstman told the Explorer earlier this year.
But Christopher Amato, a former assistant commissioner, disagrees with that assessment. He contends that a Wild Forest classification will lead to overuse of the Essex Chain, putting at risk the lakes’ boggy shorelines and brook-trout fishery.
“What happens when you open an area to the public? There’s always a land rush by people who want to get in there,” Amato said. “The Essex Chain is one of those places that could be loved to death.”
He also asserts that DEC is misapplying the Special Management Area designation. Usually, a Special Management Area is a small, discrete locale such as a summit, waterfall, historical site, or geological curiosity. Examples from the State Land Master Plan include Ampersand Mountain’s summit, Cascade Falls, Scott’s Pond lumber dam, the Five Ponds Esker, and the Trap Dike on Mount Colden.
“Special Management Areas were never intended to apply to thousands of acres,” said Amato, who resigned from DEC in 2011 and now practices law in Albany.
The Canoe Area options
Amato believes the Essex Chain should be designated a Canoe Area. The State Land Master Plan defines a Canoe Area as a region where lakes and ponds “make possible a remote and unconfined type of water-oriented recreation in an essentially wilderness setting.” A Canoe Area is managed as Wilderness except that DEC officials are permitted to use motor vehicles and planes “to preserve or enhance the water or fishery resources.”
“The Canoe classification would preserve the wild setting of the Essex Chain while giving DEC the flexibility it needs to protect the natural resources,” Amato said. He added that the cachet of a Canoe designation might divert paddlers from the often-overcrowded St. Regis Canoe Area, which is now the only Canoe Area in the Park. When he left DEC, Amato said, the department had been intending to propose a Canoe classification. DEC officials deny that there was such a consensus.
The APA has set forth two Canoe options. The first (3A) would create a 6,624-acre Canoe Area. It’s identical to the 1A—the “Wilderness with access” option—except that the Essex Chain region would be classified Canoe instead of Wilderness. This means DEC could drive to the lakes when necessary (to stock fish, for example), but the public could not. Since the area north of the Essex Chain would be Wild Forest, the carries to the lakes and the Hudson would be the same as under 1A.
The second option (3B) would create a 15,067-acre Canoe Area by extending its boundary to encompass more of the Hudson. Otherwise, it’s identical to 3A and thus similar to 1A. One rationale for this variation is that it would highlight the river’s value as a paddling destination.
Although ADK has supported 1A—the “Wilderness with access” option—Woodworth said the club would be satisfied with a Canoe classification. “We really want to have a canoeing and camping experience in the Essex Chain area that is comparable to the St. Regis Canoe Area, but less crowded,” he said.
The Primitive Area options
Finally, the APA has drafted a proposal—option 2—for classifying most of the new lands Primitive. A Primitive Area is managed essentially as Wilderness, though something prevents a Wilderness classification. In this case, the Primitive Area would encompass the Essex Chain region, including First and Pine lakes. Because floatplanes are permitted to land on First and Pine, they cannot be classified Wilderness. Under all of the other options, these two lakes are classified as Wild Forest.
One rationale for the Primitive classification is that it places the entire Essex Chain under one classification, which makes sense from a management and ecological perspective. It also can be argued that it’s more honest than a Wilderness designation: with planes flying to and from First and Pine lakes, hikers and paddlers may feel their “wilderness experience” is diminished.
In most respects, the Primitive option is similar to 1B, the more restrictive of the two Wilderness options. The portages to the Essex Chain and the northern takeout on the Hudson would be the same (a mile and a half and three miles, respectively). The portage from the second takeout on the Hudson, however, would be shorter—0.8 miles instead of a mile and a half.
The APA document mentions a variation of the Primitive option that could shorten the first two carries. Under this option, which is unnamed, a Wild Forest corridor would split the Primitive Area. This would enable visitors to drive closer to the Essex Chain and the river. The corridor also would be open to mountain bikes. By using the corridor and nearby routes, bikers would be able to ride in a big loop from the hamlet of Indian Lake ■
How to comment:
The Adirondack Park Agency planned to hold eight hearings throughout the state to gather public input on the classification of the former Finch, Pruyn lands. Although the last hearing was scheduled for July 2, the public may submit written comments through July 19. They should be sent to APA Deputy Director James Connolly at P.O. Box 99, Ray Brook, NY 12977 or [email protected]
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.
Photos: Middle, Essex Chain Lakes region by Nancie Battaglia; and below, Day-trippers on the Hudson River south of Newcomb (Phil Brown photo).