When 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.
Thanks 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.
Yet, 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.