Dick Booth, a lawyer who teaches at Cornell University, has distributed the memo to his ten fellow commissioners, but it has not been made public.
Booth declined to discuss the memo in detail, but he told Adirondack Almanack that it focuses on the Essex Chain, a string of seven linked lakes at the heart of a 17,320-acre tract that the state purchased from the Nature Conservancy, along with two smaller tracts.
Basically, he contends that the nearly pristine condition, remoteness, and interconnectivity of the lakes make the Essex Chain “a very, very special resource” where motorized use and motorized access would be inappropriate.
The classification of the Essex Chain is perhaps the thorniest issue facing the APA as it weighs the future of the newly acquired state lands, once owned by the Finch, Pruyn paper company. Environmental groups want the lakes classified as Wilderness, which forbids motorized use. Local officials want the lakes classified as Wild Forest, which would give the state the option of allowing access to the tract by snowmobiles, floatplanes, mountain bikes, and motor vehicles. They say this will foster more tourism.
Booth had revealed at the APA’s meeting in September that he thought the State Land Master Plan precludes a Wild Forest designation. The memo spells out his reasoning. He cautioned that it reflects his own thinking, not that of the agency. “I’m a lawyer, but I’m not the agency’s lawyer,” he said.
The existence of the memo came to light when Protect the Adirondacks issued a news release on Tuesday that criticized the APA for not releasing the document.
“This is a public agency dealing with public lands. All of this information should be made public,” Peter Bauer, Protect’s executive director, told the Almanack.
Bauer said he has heard that officials from the APA and the state Department of Environmental Conservation have been talking about ways to allow snowmobiles, floatplanes, and mountain bikes on the Essex Chain tract. “They want to do things that the current law doesn’t allow,” he said. “Recreational use is clearly driving the process; it’s not resource management,” he added.
Like Booth, Bauer believes the State Land Master Plan precludes a Wild Forest classification. The plan asserts that the protection of natural resources—as opposed to recreation—“must be paramount.”
Bauer said the agency refused to give him the memo when he asked for it. Instead, APA counsel James Townsend told him to file a formal request under the freedom-of-information law (FOIL), according to Bauer.
“He said it most likely would be denied,” Bauer said. “I put in a FOIL request. I’m sure it’ll take weeks, and they’ll deny it.”
APA spokesman Keith McKeever said the agency is treating Bauer’s FOIL request as any other. “We’re following standard procedure,” he said.
McKeever said he didn’t know if the document must be released under FOIL guidelines. Asked why the agency would not release it regardless, he replied in an email that “we are following our long-standing standard process.”
In a follow-up email, McKeever elaborated after reading Bauer’s news release. “Mr. Bauer is fully aware of this longstanding process given his numerous FOIL requests. It is disingenuous to suggest to the media that the Agency is withholding public information given the fact that APA has not yet had the opportunity to fully review his request. Mr. Bauer certainly knows this given his many FOILs over the years to the agency,” McKeever wrote.
As to whether the memo needs to be disclosed, McKeever said: “In general, internal, non-final and deliberative documents are not disclosable under state law. However, APA will review his request in a timely manner consistent with the Freedom of Information Law to determine if the requested document is a releasable document in accordance with statute.”
When the Almanack asked Booth if he thought his memo should be released, he said he’d rather not answer. “I wrote the memo. I have not tried to keep it secret,” he said.
Wilderness and Wild Forest are not the only classification options for the Essex Chain. The APA also is considering Primitive or Canoe designations. Both are similar to Wilderness in that they generally exclude motorized use, although they allow some exceptions.
In his interview with the Almanack, Booth did not advocate for a specific designation, but he said the Essex Chain “should go into one of the more restrictive classifications.”
Bauer argues that, initially, Primitive would be appropriate for the Essex Chain as members of the Gooley Club have the right to drive to the lake until 2018, when the club’s lease expires. Once the lease expires and the club’s buildings are removed, the region should be reclassified as Wilderness, he said.