Thursday, September 5, 2013

No Decision Yet On New State Lands: A Deliberations Update

Essex ChainAdirondack Park Agency (APA) spokesperson Keith McKeever has confirmed that the agency will not make a decision at its September meeting on how former Finch Paper lands recently acquired by New York State will be managed.

The classification of the lands around the Essex Chain of Lakes and Hudson Gorge is one of the biggest Forest Preserve decisions the APA has faced in more than a decade, one that has recently dominated public discussion in the Adirondacks. 

Last spring, the APA released seven classification alternatives. Public hearings were held this summer and the  APA received over 3,600 comments running 4-1 in favor of a Wilderness classification. State law requires the APA complete a review and analysis of these public comments and make an official “Response” to the most substantial comments. Although the APA holds a great deal of discretion as to which comments are substantial and how detailed the agency’s responses will be,  in theory the official response should form the basis for the APA’s ultimate decision. A preliminary outline of comments distributed to the APA Commissioners in August detailed over 50 major comments.

At the APA’s August meeting, the staff and commissioners deliberated for a day and a half about this issue. APA Counsel James Townsend made a list of more than three dozen issues for which Commissioners requested additional information (referred to as the “Townsend List”).  Additionally, at the end of the meeting the staff was directed to develop the official response and a staff recommendation. APA State Lands Committee chair Dick Booth said the production of these three documents was likely too tall a task to be completed in a single month and the APA should set its sites on an October or November decision.

Following the August meeting, Town of Indian Lake Supervisor Brian Wells blasted the APA for the quality of its deliberations. At the same time, the Adirondack environmental community promoted the fact that public comments ran 4-1 for Wilderness and urged the APA to take a hard look at critical issues and not try and ram through a decision without following proper public procedure.

This spring I wrote that a Wild Forest classification was a done deal. Now, all indications point to the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) holding firm to its Wild Forest plan. Since the public hearings administered by the APA saw public comments submitted at a 4-1 ratio in support of Wilderness, a fair question to the DEC is whether these public hearings and comments had any effect on its thinking?

A common theme I’ve observed at the APA, DEC and the Governor’s Office in the past two weeks is that they feel damned if they do and damned if they don’t. This classification decision has been more intently scrutinized than any in recent years. A decision between Wilderness and Wild Forest leaves one side deeply dissatisfied and few politicians want to leave large constituencies aggrieved.

In past Forest Preserve classification decisions, state leaders were careful to offer a classification package that had something for everybody. When the William C. Whitney Wilderness Area was created it was packaged with an extensive Wild Forest classification for the Watson’s East Triangle Wild Forest area as well as the creation of the Alice Brook Primitive corridor through the edge of the Five Ponds Wilderness Area to allow snowmobile access. While some wanted all Wilderness and some wanted all Wild Forest, all user groups and constituencies came away with something.

The decision to move ahead with classification of the former Finch lands piecemeal as opposed to waiting until all 69,000 acres were purchased from The Nature Conservancy may have been premature. Even if the Essex Chain Lakes tract is classified as Wilderness it won’t be managed as such until 2018 at the earliest, because the leaseholders of the hunting camps have full motorized access rights until then. Perhaps the better course is to delay final classification until all lands are purchased and all short-term reserved rights have been extinguished.

Serious legal issues also merit cool deliberation. The local towns are asserting historic rights to some of the interior roads in the Essex Chain Lakes tract, in essence arguing that some never ceased to be public roads. Historic preservation advocates are asserting that the old farm house of the Outer Gooley Club is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Environmental advocates have asserted that the state needs to develop an assessment of the mileage of roads in the Forest Preserve and new roads to be maintained by the DEC for compliance with the State Land Master Plan requirement that there be “no material increase” in the mileage of roads in the Forest Preserve. There are serious legal issues regarding compliance with the NYS Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act.

Several actions will be well worth watching in the days and weeks ahead. The APA will soon post the staff responses to the three dozen questions of the Townsend List. This document is critical for examining how the questions and answers are framed and the quality of the APA’s work. The next thing to watch is comments by APA Commissioners at next week’s meeting. How will they react to this new information? The “Response” document will clearly set the stage for the APA’s final decision, but that won’t be released until the first week of October at the earliest.

The votes at the APA are on the side of Wild Forest. A clear majority of APA Commissioners look at this decision solely through an economic lens and believe that Wild Forest areas generate more activity for the local economy than Wilderness. Motors equate to money for the local economy in their eyes. This is not a decision about natural resource protection. Nor is it a decision about creating and preserving an experience of wildness around a beautiful set of lakes for generations to come.

The final step of the classification process is the signature of the Governor, who can sign the classification or reject it. The longer the decision takes the more time all sides will continue to press their strongest arguments and influence in Albany.


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Peter Bauer is the Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks. He has been working in various capacities on Adirondack Park environmental issues since the mid-1980s, including stints as the Executive Director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and FUND for Lake George as well as on the staff of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century. He was the co-founder of the Adirondack Lake Assessment Program (ALAP) in 1998, which has collected long-term water quality data on more than 75 Adirondack lakes and ponds. He has testified before the State Legislature, successfully advocated to pass legislation and budget items, authored numerous articles, op-eds, and reports such as "20% in 2023: An Assessment of the New York State 30 by 30 Act" (2023), "The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970-2010" (2019), "The Myth of Quiet, Motor-free Waters in the Adirondack Park" (2013), and "Rutted and Ruined: ATV Damage on the Adirondack Forest Preserve" (2003) and "Growth in the Adirondack Park: Analysis of Rates and Patterns of Development" (2001). He also worked at Adirondack Life Magazine. He served as Chair of the Town of Lake George Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on numerous advisory boards for management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve. Peter lives in Blue Mountain Lake with his wife, has two grown children out in the world, and enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities throughout the Adirondacks, and is a member of the Blue Mountain Lake volunteer fire department.Follow Protect the Adirondacks on Facebook and Threads.

6 Responses

  1. Marco says:

    I, for one, will not vote for anyone that does not support a Wilderness classification. That IS what a representative democracy is about. And how I can express my displeasure with their decisions. The trouble lies in it is NOT proactive. When I vote, it means that it will be a “done deal.” I cannot simply say I am displeased and make it stick. I am but a lowly citizen. I CAN be ignored.
    Foolish to think I might be important. No, never important to the future, or, to Albany. What is one vote?

  2. Mike says:

    I am in favor of wild forest. The forest needs to be shared, what a lot of folks dont realize the majority of wild forest lands are in wilderness condition. Multiple groups sharing the forest broaden the support for these lands.

  3. loggerhead says:

    The “4 to 1 in favor of Wilderness” hype comes out again.
    Let’s see the nature and substance of all these majority comments. How many were electronic or form petitions, form letters created by the funded Wilderness support groups.
    How many pro-wilderness comments were stimulated by Adirondack Wild’s false and misleading full page ad on the inside cover of the May/June Adirondack Explorer.
    Let’s agree that the pro-wilderness groups’ strategy of dominating public comment works well in the past, rallying the dilettantes and debutantes from afar who do not understand the true nature, the history or the complexity of the Adirondacks to raise their hands against some false fear of imminent degradation. The strategy of inciting fear in those that don’t understand the Wild Forest and Wilderness. Let’s agree that the overwhelming majority of comments ( most likely much greater than 4-1) given at the in-park public hearings were in favor of Wild Forest.

    • TiSentinel65 says:

      And from the words from APA Spokesperson McKeever, many coments were duplicates of previous coments, said in a recent Press Republican article. I am not sure how it changes the math but refering to a 4:1 written coments in support of Wilderness designation is not completely telling the truth. Those advocating the Wilderness designation are active in getting their message heard. You can’t blame them for pushing for something they believe strongly in. People pushing for a Wilderness designation may use a different means of communication. It is telling that people like Dan Stec and Betty Little are elected. Most Adirondack officials would support a Wilderness designation as it would present the best economic opportunity for the towns of the Park. In the end, there will be A Wilderness component and a Wild Forest component of the land. This is my prediction. If it is done right, everyone will win. Every one will not get everything they want, but at the end of the day it will be a compromise and thats the way negotiations work. It will be an agreement people can live with.

  4. Paul says:

    “Now, all indications point to the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) holding firm to its Wild Forest plan.”

    Peter, it is not really clear from your piece that this is the case. Can you elaborate? Do you have some information from department sources to back that up?

    “The votes at the APA are on the side of Wild Forest.”

    Also, how do you know this? Again, has any commissioner indicated which way they plan to vote at this point.

  5. Paul says:

    Peter, I looked more closely at the memo from 12-12 that you supplied in your earlier piece. Perhaps their “preferred” proposal should be looked at fully in context. Yes, they have most of the Essex Tract classified as Wild Forest but not all of it. Some would be classified as Wilderness. Another tract would be classified as all Wilderness land and two others would be classified as both Wild Forest and Wilderness land. Sounds like everyone gets some of what they want?

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