Adirondack 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.