Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Gibson: Make Protection, Preservation of New Lands Paramount

Essex ChainWhen the Adirondack Park Agency  was reviewing the Adirondack Club and Resort in 2011, board member Richard Booth encouraged APA staff to put all of the most important legal and other considerations from the hearing record on the table early in the review process. Avoid having Agency members get buried in minutia was his advice because it is easy for a board to get overwhelmed by a lot of presentation data, or to assume they know the most important factors and considerations when, in fact, they may not.

Last week, APA began to face all the factors, considerations and judgments they must take into account in classifying or reclassifying up to 45,000 acres of Forest Preserve that have been the subject of much writing, public discussion and six public hearings this summer, involving the Essex Chain Lakes, Upper Hudson River, Indian River, OK Slip Falls and other smaller tracts. In the goal of reaching a responsible decision based upon rigorous analysis and thoughtful judgment about the relation of these lands to the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (hereafter, the Master Plan), some of these factors and considerations are surely more important than others.

I hasten to add that the laws and guidelines that must be consulted in reaching this decision are dense and intertwined on the land and in the Master Plan, and I don’t envy any member of the agency in sorting it all out.  Hardworking Agency staff spent many hours preparing and delivering presentations to the member decision-makers about the Master Plan, the characteristics of the land located between Indian Lake and Newcomb/Minerva, the complex nature of the ownership and leasing pattern, and numerous recreational topics. Natural resource and ecological information were presented. AP A members had just returned from a field visit with their staff to the areas to be classified, so connecting these field visits with maps took appropriate time. There were plenty of questions that were either answered or committed to answers at the next meeting. No one fell asleep.

That all being said, did the Agency take member Booth’s advice? Not in my opinion.

looking south from Goodnow FlowThanks to a lot of effort this month, the Agency’s members are better informed than they were before, but do not appear to be possessed of a heightened consciousness about their priorities and what is most important in reaching a decision about how to classify these lands. That is largely because the staff do not yet appear to have an organized understanding of priorities about interpreting and applying their Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan to these particular lands and waters, and that is what’s troubling.

Page one of the Master Plan, a part of the Executive Law states : “If there is a unifying theme to the master plan, it is that the protection and preservation of the natural resources of the state land within the Park must be paramount. Human use and enjoyment of those lands should be permitted and encouraged, so long as the resources in their physical and biological context as well as their social or psychological aspects are not degraded. This theme is drawn not only from the Adirondack Park Agency Act and its legislative history, but also from a century of the public’s demonstrated attitude toward the forest preserve and the Adirondack Park.”

After all, these state lands are Forest Preserve embedded within Article 14 of the State Constitution

It seemed to me that Agency staff and members devoted as much time to the important issues related to recreational uses and opportunities along the Essex Chain of Lakes and other lands and waters to be classified as on the “paramount” natural resource considerations. I appreciate that local residents in Minerva, Newcomb, Indian Lake and nearby towns have, by and large, never set foot on these former Finch lands, and they and their children deserve to do so. I readily appreciate that new recreational opportunity is tied to the tourism, the guiding, the outfitting, the overnight stays, the gas and food purchases central to business survival and growth in the central Adirondacks.

However, through sensitive management there can be a lot of new recreation allowed without resource degradation. Executive law is clear: recreational uses must not be allowed to degrade natural resources. For instance, there is plenty of good scientific information out there to suggest that opening up the 40 miles of existing and former dirt roads south of Goodnow Flow to public use of motor vehicles would increase direct and indirect wildlife mortality, sever habitat connections, impair water quality and decrease the overall ecological functionality of the area.

There is published scientific evidence that the type of road, its surface, size, and vehicular speed allowed have a dramatic impact on the wildlife and ecology of an area. Previously large, contiguous intact forests can be broken up into smaller, less functional, less diverse patches by a well-traveled system of public roads. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that widespread motorized uses on or near the Chain of Lakes would accelerate introduction and reintroduction of aquatic and terrestrial invasive species.

Then, there are the issues of management and enforcement and public cost. As a former Forest Ranger pointed out during the hearings, 40 miles of new motorized dirt roads miles from human services will prove to be a costly set of enforcement, maintenance and public safety issues and an invitation for much trash and illegal activity.

Staff performed their essential jobs of presenting factual information about the underlying geology of these new state lands, the extent and size of the vast water resources, the wetlands, and the fish. Staff even mentioned the large blocks of forest and how these large contiguous forests strengthen the connections between wildlife habitats, enhance biological diversity, absorb natural disturbances, and buffer impacts of climate change. All this was necessary and important to do.

Deer PondYet, in conveying factual information, I do not recall staff strongly connecting or tying this information to the Master Plan’s unifying theme, the paramount importance of protection and preservation. I did not hear staff advise its members that in the context of the known natural resources and sensitive ecology of the Essex Chain and in the context of current scientific literature on ecological impacts from new public road systems, a decision to expand public use of motor vehicles or motor boats made more likely by one land classification over another would result in degraded or impaired natural resources. Access to reach extraordinary natural resources is one thing, degradation of these resources is another, and staff has the knowledge to distinguish between them and to advise their members about which classification would be most or least likely to allow or induce those impactful activities.

To continue on this theme, I did not sense that Agency members came away with a heightened appreciation for how unusual the geology may be in the context of the entire Park, how that geology influences soils which harbor an unusually rich concentration of rare plants not found elsewhere. In conveying information about the large blocks of forest, I did not hear any mention that The Nature Conservancy found these blocks of forest to have global significance, including their importance to certain specialist bird species dependent upon these very ecosystems. Staff mentioned the high value of the wetlands along the Essex Chain Lakes, but in relation to what geographic area, and in what context? What has several years of intensive investigation by The Nature Conservancy and by DEC suggest? What level of significance and sensitivity to disturbance should be attached to these and the other natural resources? How unusual are they? And does this significance or sensitivity reinforce to the staff the Master Plan’s paramount importance of protection and preservation? These and other questions beg to be addressed after the August APA meeting. These are the kinds of questions and assessments which the Master Plan’s classification System and Guidelines require.

Perhaps by September the staff will more completely fulfill their statutory role of not just presenting good factual information, but assessing, analyzing, emphasizing and prioritizing that information for its member decision-makers in the context of the law’s paramount, overriding theme and the global importance of these lands and of the Park as a whole.

I conclude with the Plan’s Classification System and Guidelines (pages 14-15 of the APSLMP found on the agency website), which emphasize the primary determinants of land classification.

First listed are the physical characteristics of the land and water “which affect the carrying capacity of the land or water both from the standpoint of the construction of facilities and the amount of human use the land or water itself can absorb. By and large these factors highlight the essential fragility of significant portions of the state lands within the Park.”

Second listed are biological considerations, sometimes “associated with the physical limitations just described.” Generic examples are provided for illustrative purposes.

Third listed are “certain intangible considerations that have an inevitable impact on the character of the land, “such as the sense of remoteness and degree of wildness available to users of a particular area.”

The final determinant listed is “established facilities on the land, the uses now being made by the public.” This section of the Master Plan concludes with: “The above described factors are obviously complex and their application is, in certain instances, subjective, since the value of resource quality or character cannot be precisely evaluated or measured.”

Photos: The Essex Chain by Carl Heilman II; middle, looking south from Goodnow Flow; and below, Deer Pond by Dave Gibson.

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David Gibson

Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve

During Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history.

Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.




19 Responses

  1. Daniel Nicponski says:

    An excellent composition, thank you Dave. It is sad to hear that the APA may be focusing on that which is not their legal priority in this matter. No matter the outcome, we can all rejoice that the state is protecting these lands forever by incorporation into the forest preserve. This fact will remain forever supercedent to the level of protection, even if the unfortunate outcome is one that offers less protection than is warranted.

  2. Jim Racquet says:

    Dave
    This tract of land would better serve the people of new york if it were classified Wild forest. Provideing more diverse useage for all.

  3. Jim Frenette says:

    Did you receive my comment made 10 minutes ago?

  4. Pete Klein says:

    It does appear the appear the debate is about use by who?
    What?
    There are many trails in Wilderness classifications that are a bit overused while at the same time there are many trails in Wild Forest classifications that are seldom used.
    As long as not all the current roads in the newly acquired land are not open for use, it really won’t make any difference how the lands are classified.
    Classify the whole darn thing as Wild Forest but just don’t allow any maintenance of the roads except for the Chain Lakes Rd beyond where it ends at the river.

  5. Woodchuck says:

    What you are describing, Dave, is the way in which any thinking person who understand the protective purposes of the Act would classify the lands. The wording of the Act is straightforward and clear. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or even an environmentalist to get it. Your interpretation leads one to a Wilderness classification, the position taken by Adirondack Wild, Protect the Adirondacks and other environmental organizations. Unfortunately most of the APA members haven’t done their homework. They don’t understand the Act or that they are supposed to be managing the Park and the Forest Preserve on behalf of all of the people of New York State, whether appointed as “local” members or members from “out of the park.” That is their sworn duty but they don’t get it because they were not properly instructed in their duties when they were appointed by the Governor’s Office. Nor do new Agency members receive training in their job when they come on board. They are confused about priorities and most don’t even know they should have any. A lot of them think that they are supposed to keep local interests and friends in the Park happy or that the APA decisions should be made primarily with a view to boosting the economy when, in fact, there is nothing in the Act to remotely suggest that APA has economic development responsibilities. Nor does it have a legally-based mandate to “balance” environmental and resource protection against short or long term economic benefits in its decisionmaking, a ridiculous, internally inconsistent and fallacious cliche of a concept that was buried with a stake through its heart a long time ago.

    I am sure that you are giving APA members a copy of this latest good essay,Dave. Now all we have to do is get them to seriously read it, let it sink in and prioritize it correctly in terms of the purposes of the Act. Before the September meeting!

  6. Jim Frenette says:

    Dave

    Thank you for reminding the interested parties as well as the APA that the SLMP contains the laws and the guidelines that will lead to a classification decision.

    The task will be to provide all the necessary data that will guide and support a classification decision. One that will “not degrade natural resources” and then provide for “use and enjoyment”.

    There is obviously a lot of interest in the outcome of this process. What ever decision is made it is going to be accepted or rejected by the public depending on how well they understand the basis for it.

    You have done a good job of educating the decision makers and the interested public on the role of the SLMP in the process.

  7. Pete Klein says:

    Jim and Dave, I’m going to make a fearless prediction.
    If the classification doesn’t turn out to be 4A, expect a legislative attempt to replace the current SLMP (please genuflect here) with something you will not like.
    While I fully support keeping the Adirondacks wild, I also believe it would be the end of The Common Ground Alliance if anything other than 4A is approved.
    To me this is not so much a fight between wilderness and wild forest as it is a fight to continue the fight.
    Both sides need to realize that for the average New Yorker (I did not say Adirondacker) there is next to zero interest in whatever classification is approved. Most New Yorkers, to say nothing about most Americans, simply couldn’t care less.
    The whole Park, state owned and private, is nothing more than a bunch of trees to most people. They like the trees but not enough to live and work here. They don’t understand the difference between wild forest and wilderness. All they see are trees and how many people are able to access the trees and what they are able to do in the forest.
    And when you bring up the SLMP, all they see are a bunch of despised lawyers playing word games.
    Never forget, most people hate lawyers.

    • Dave Mason says:

      Hi Pete–

      You address your comment to “Jim and Dave” but we are not involved in this debate. The “Dave” that wrote this is Dave Gibson —- you got us mixed up.

      • LocalYokel says:

        I think Pete Klein is responding to Jim Frenette and Dave Gibson here, not ADK Futures Jim and Dave.

  8. Woodchuck says:

    That’s because most people are not very bright, Pete. We are a nation of laws, starting with the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, the State Constitution (including Article 14),the Agency Act and the administrative law of the SLMP. Bring on all the lawyers jokes, for laughs, but truth be told we need more good lawyers who are capable of more than bill collecting, real estate transactions and ambulance chasing (not that they aren’t important too!)

  9. dave says:

    “the average New Yorker (I did not say Adirondacker) there is next to zero interest in whatever classification is approved.”

    I am not so sure this is true.

    Visitor study upon visitor study has shown over and over again that the reason people come to the Park is because of its natural characteristics and to participate in outdoor activities, the top two being the non-motorized activities of hiking and paddling.

    If you and your family spend most of your vacation time and dollars hiking and paddling in this Park, wouldn’t you be interested in how new land in that Park was being classified?

    I can tell you that before I moved to the Park, I absolutely had an interest in these issues.

  10. dave says:

    “While I fully support keeping the Adirondacks wild, I also believe it would be the end of The Common Ground Alliance if anything other than 4A is approved.”

    Why is this?

    Is the purpose of the Common Ground Alliance to advocate for specific user groups and local politicians? Or is it to… ya know… build an alliance of all interested parties around common ground?

    4A is one of the most uncompromising proposals offered. I would think it would be at the bottom of the list of those seeking common ground.

    • Dave Mason says:

      Again, the Common Ground Alliance has nothing to do with this, Pete just got 2 Dave’s confused.

      Even more confusing, this is Dave Mason, replying to a comment by Dave ?, who is commenting on a comment by Dave Gibson. Lots of Dave’s here lol

      But, Dave, you are correct, the Common Ground Alliance doesn’t advocate for any user groups or take any position.

  11. Pete Klein says:

    You need to go back to when TNC first purchased the land to be classified and how TNC got approval from the towns to sell to the state to understand my argument.
    When the hearings were held, local elected officials and most locals supported Option 4A because if would provide the most access for the most people. It was and is their understanding that 4A is the closest to the ideas sold to them by TNC and also closest to providing the boost in tourism the governor has promised.
    If 4A is not what is approved by the APA, they will feel they were tricked into approving something other than what they thought they were approving.
    If this were to happen, don’t you dare expect local governments to ever again sign off on the state purchasing more land in the Adirondacks.
    Also if that were to happen, we would be stepping back to the time before the first meeting of The Common Ground Alliance.

    • John Warren John Warren says:

      Pete,

      The Nature Conservancy never sought, nor was it required to seek, “approval from the towns to sell to the state”. That didn’t happen. In fact, most of this purchase – 90,000 of the 161,000 – went back to motorized access / forestry. That was the first gift to the towns. The towns were also given land for their own purposes and were given special deals for float-planes on a couple lakes. They were also allowed special usage of the lands that went into conservation easement – hence the construction of the Newcomb -Indian Lake trail.

      The towns have been given almost everything that was available, short of simply handing the remaining 65,000 acres over to them directly.

      If the Essex Chain doesn’t go Wild Forest, vocal advocates of parking lots and roads like the Supervisor of Minerva Sue Montgomery Corey will have a tough time complaining this 161,000 acre deal left them out.

      Most Forest Preserve land is already motorized, about 100,000 acres more than Wilderness. The towns have already won on 90,000 of 161,000 acres peeled off for them without any public input. Asking for what’s left to be motorized, drive-in nature, is essentially asking for everything on the table.

      There’s greedy, and then there’s greedy.

      JW

      • Paul says:

        John, what do you mean by saying that “most forest preserve is already motorized”? The vast amount of all the Wild Forest land prohibits all motorized uses. Try riding an ATV even on a DEC road when the ranger is on patrol. A Wilderness designation will make it less “motorized” but not very much. Someone did comment in an earlier story that a Wilderness designation will allow for horse drawn wagon use. We all know how popular that activity is these days!

  12. Corey says:

    Excellent article Mr Gibson. After carefully following the ACR debacle that the APA approved I am doubtful that the Agency will be fullfilling their mission anytime soon. Everything is cyclical, right now all focus seems to be on the economy. When the governor is running for higher office there are more votes to be gained by focusing there, hence the ACR approval. Hopefully the pendulum may swing back to a more balanced focus where the environmental concerns are given more weight. The ACR project will probably not have any real adverse impact on the environment because the business plan is so flawed it will never happen. But the process that led to it’s approval needs serious repair and hopefully soon.

  13. Paul says:

    As for Dick Booth’s comments I think that this classification and the review of the ACR project are two entirely different types of things.

    I assume that one of the “natural resources” that are to be protected are the people that live inside the Blue Line? Hopefully that is of profound interest to everyone in NYS since those of us inside and outside (myself included) have drawn a line around this part of NY and asked that it be treated differently than the rest.

    As Dave points out part of the task is “reclassification” of land that is classified as Wild Forest and now is being considered for a Wilderness classification. Keep in mind all the Wild Forest land that John describes is also “available” for re-classification later. This is not the end of the story no matter how it goes.

    Also, the state will probably acquire the rest of the land that was not included in this deal later once it is logged off and the dutch pension fund that owns it needs to cash in on their investment . All the development rights have already been purchased by NYS. So it will have few if any other interested buyers.

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