Monday, December 9, 2013

How The APA Analyzed The Essex Chain Classification

FULL SIZE - APA Essex Chain Lakes Recommendation MapEnvironmentalists wanted the Essex Chain Lakes region classified as Wilderness. Local government leaders wanted it classified as Wild Forest. And the state Department of Environmental Conservation proposed classifying it as Wild Forest with special regulations.

Yet the staff of the Adirondack Park Agency rejected all three options in favor of a Primitive designation. The APA board is scheduled to discuss and vote on the staff’s recommendation this week.

Why did the staff opt for Primitive? The answers—or some answers—can be found in the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement that the board has been asked to adopt.

Before we analyze the APA’s reasoning, a little background:

All told, the board is charged with classifying more than 22,000 acres that the state purchased in the past year from the Nature Conservancy: the 18,320-acre Essex Chain Tract, the 2,823-acre OK Slip Falls Tract, and the 923-acre Indian River Tract. In addition, the board is being asked to reclassify about 20,000 acres of adjacent Forest Preserve.

The bulk of the reclassified lands lie within the 17,000-acre Hudson Gorge Primitive Area. Under the proposal, virtually all of the Hudson Gorge Primitive Area and the OK Slip Falls Tract, along with some other state land, will be combined to create a 23,574-acre Hudson Gorge Wilderness Area.

The Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan has long mandated that the Hudson Gorge Primitive Area be reclassified as Wilderness once the OK Slip Tract is acquired. Hence, all seven of the classification options weighed by the APA called for establishing a Hudson Gorge Wilderness.

In contrast, the classification of the Essex Chain Lakes and neighboring lands is not clear-cut. Rather, it depends largely on one’s interpretation of the State Land Master Plan.

The Wilderness Options

The APA considered two options for classifying the Essex Chain as Wilderness, the most restrictive and hence most protective of the agency’s classifications. Motorized recreation and motorized access are prohibited in Wilderness Area.

Under one option, known as 1B, virtually all of the new state lands would be designated Wilderness, meaning people would have to hike or portage for miles to reach the Essex Chain Lakes and the newly acquired stretch of the Hudson River.

None of the environmental groups pushed for 1B. Rather, they backed a proposal, called 1A, which was touted as “Wilderness with access.” It would designate the Essex Chain itself as Wilderness and the lands north of the lakes as Wild Forest. This would allow people to drive fairly close to the lakes and river, while leaving a Wilderness buffer between the parking areas and the waterways.

In rejecting both Wilderness options, the APA staff notes in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that the Gooley and Polaris clubs will continue to lease land on the Essex Chain Tract though September 2018 and that their lease includes the right to drive to their camps and use motorboats. In addition, the Nature Conservancy will have motorized access to the Essex Chain until October 1, 2019 to police the leases and remove any remaining buildings. “These reserved rights preclude a Wilderness classification for the area until these leasehold rights expire,” the EIS states.

But the APA staff says other considerations argue against a Wilderness classification even after the leases expire. Chief among these is that the Nature Conservancy donated floatplane rights on First Lake in the Essex Chain and nearby Pine Lake to the towns of Minerva and Newcomb. “The presence of floatplanes in such close proximity to the Chain Lakes would defeat the sense of remoteness expected in Wilderness,” according to the EIS.

In addition, the staff notes that local towns have the right to mine two gravel pits on the periphery of the Essex Chain Tract (a third is located on the Indian River Tract). The gravel can be used only to maintain roads on the tract. Hence, if the roads were closed, as they would be under 1B, this would not be an issue. Also, the pits cannot exceed one acre and must be closed when they are exhausted. Thus, they are at most a temporary obstacle to a Wilderness classification.

Following the APA’s logic, then, the Essex Chain cannot be afforded the most-protective classification largely because the organization that bought the land to protect it, the Nature Conservancy, deeded away floatplane rights on two lakes.

For the same reasons, the staff opposes designating the Essex Chain region a Canoe Area, which is essentially a Wilderness Area for paddlers. (There were two Canoe options in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement.)

The Wild Forest Options

The APA also looked at two options for classifying the Essex Chain as Wild Forest. The first, called 4A, would be a conventional classification. Under this, the state Department of Environmental Conservation would have the authority to open the region’s network of logging roads to motor vehicles, snowmobiles, and mountain bikes, to allow motorboats on ponds and lakes, and to allow floatplanes to land on the biggest lakes, including Third Lake in the Essex Chain.

In rejecting 4A, the staff concluded that this option would not adequately protect natural resources—especially marshes on the Essex Chain. There are concerns that motorboats would stir up sediments, damage aquatic vegetation, pollute the water, and bring in invasive species. The EIS points out that the marshes provide nesting habitat, food, and cover for wildlife and spawning habitat for fish.  The document says the marshes deserve “wilderness-type protection.”

The DEC proposal, 4B, seems to address these concerns by placing the Essex Chain in a Special Management Area within the Wild Forest classification. Special restrictions for the Special Management Area would be written into the State Land Master Plan—including, presumably, a ban on motorboats.

The staff, however, concluded that this would violate State Land Master Plan guidelines. “A Special Management Area may not be used as a substitute for classification or a classification category,” the EIS says. It adds that Special Management Areas are created only after DEC writes a management plan for a Forest Preserve unit, which is done after classification.

The Preferred Alternative

The rejection of the Wilderness, Canoe, and Wild Forest classifications leaves only one option: Primitive.  The State Land Master Plan defines Primitive as “essentially wilderness” in that motorized recreation and mountain biking are generally prohibited. The staff’s recommendation (termed “the preferred alternative”) is a modification of the Primitive proposal in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

The original option called for an 11,743-acre Essex Chain Primitive Area west of the proposed Hudson Gorge Wilderness. The preferred option (2A) scales this back to 9,894 acres. The main difference is that the land north of the Essex Chain would be classified Wild Forest.

In many respects, option 2A resembles the Wilderness proposal favored by environmentalists (1A). Under both, motorboats would be banned as would floatplanes (except on First and Pine lakes). Both would allow hikers and paddlers to drive most of the way—but not all the way—to the Essex Chain and Hudson River.

Yet there is one crucial difference: the APA’s preferred option calls for a Wild Forest corridor between the Essex Chain Primitive Area and the Hudson Gorge Wilderness Area. This would enable snowmobilers to ride between Indian Lake and Newcomb. The exact route is undetermined, but it would follow logging roads for much or all of its length.

The snowmobile trail also could be used for mountain biking. Bikers also could ride within the Primitive Area on any roads that DEC might designate state truck trails for official motor-vehicle use. It’s uncertain that any of the roads will be so designated. However, DEC officials say they might push for an amendment to the State Land Master Plan to allow mountain biking on roads in the Essex Chain Primitive Area.

In its analysis, the APA staff does not set forth an argument as to why the 2A  option is better than the seven contained in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. Perhaps the staff felt that, since the Wilderness, Wild Forest, and Canoe options were all rejected, no such argument is needed. OK, but why is 2A better than the original Primitive option?

Although the change is not explained, the clear rationale is to provide easier access to the Essex Chain and Hudson and additional recreational opportunities, including snowmobiling and mountain biking. Indeed, the staff asserts that 2A will allow for “the most extraordinary recreational opportunities” on the new state lands.

The most controversial aspect of the preferred option may be the proposed snowmobile trail as it cuts through the heart of the Essex Chain Tract and may require the construction of a bridge over the Cedar River. Local leaders lobbied hard for the trail, and it may be justified. However, it would have been nice if the APA made a stronger case for such a trail in this location. After all, DEC’s snowmobile guidelines discourage placing snowmobile trails in the interior of the Forest Preserve.

One advantage of Primitive over Wilderness is that it would put the entire Essex Chain in one classification, which will simplify management (and just seems to make sense). Because of the deeded floatplane rights, First Lake could not be classified Wilderness. However, a Primitive classification does allow for uses that are “non-conforming” in Wilderness. Indeed, that is one of the chief raisons d’etre for the Primitive classification. Usually, though, Primitive is a temporary classification, a steppingstone on the way to Wilderness. In the case of the Essex Chain, the APA is contemplating a more or less permanent Primitive Area. [Note: after rereading the State Land Master Plan, I find that there are two types of Primitive Areas. One is transitional. The other is an area “where eventual wilderness classification is impossible or extremely unlikely.” In short, the master plan does allow for a permanent Primitive Area.]

The map shows the land classifications under the APA’s Preferred Alternative.  The blue region is the proposed Essex Chain Primitive Area. The dark green is the proposed Hudson Gorge Wilderness Area. The light green represents Wild Forest.






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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

26 Responses

  1. Marco says:

    There a are a lot of reasons and general political nonsense. Calling for a “permanent” primitive area is a good compromise. No one is really happy. Like all compromises, this is the nature of the beast.

    I think they missed a good oportunity to define some unique classification. I agree that mountain bikes are becoming increasingly popular. I saw a pair on the NPT last spring, and in a difficult section. I don’t think these were really allowed, but, typically, the “riders” were pushing the bikes. Most trails through the wilderness are not ones do be riding bikes on, though some of the more vocal proponents believe they should be allowed anywhere. (I personally can not see them rolling down Basin or Gothics under any real control.) This does not preclude hiking in the same areas with wider trails (old roads, logging routes)where there is plenty of room for passing foot bound traffic, safely. And it would make use of the roads already built in so many reclaimed areas of the ADK’s, a boon to family camping in these areas without the use of motorized vehicals. The roads exist. Usually one laners, perfect for mixed foot and bike traffic.

    While the proposed snowmobile route would create a bit of a problem, envioronmentally, I do not believe my earlier beliefs of “trashed” campsites, oil spills, and chewed up trails has come to pass. After cleaning up several campsites about 15-20 years ago, most likely caused by snowmobile campers, it was not repeated. Apparently they are now offering the respect our envoronment needs to sustain the ever increasing number of campers/people using the ADK’s. I have hiked over several that were simply a little wider than a foot path, and, the campsites I see (while few) do not have fire places turned into the trash pits of 50 years ago.

  2. Justin says:

    Great piece Phil – thanks for the information and analysis.

    The snowmobile / mountain bike route seems to be in the most reasonable general location to connect Indian Lake and Newcomb, which I think is the top priority for the communities.

    Ideally it wouldn’t divide two non-motorized areas, but it sure the heck beats it being the border between a motorized Essex Chain of Lakes and Wilderness.

  3. Pete Klein says:

    In January this year (2013) , the Town of Indian Lake acquired a permanent conservation easement from TNC on portions of the Chain Lakes Tract and the Indian River Tract.
    The permanent easement allows the town to maintain portions of Chain Lakes Road within the Town of Minerva, up to and within a portion of the Indian River tract that connects to the Gooley Club.
    The easement includes a gravel pit that may be used by the town to maintain the road, and allows paddlers continued access to the Indian River.
    Previously, snowmobile trail easements have been purchased and transferred by TNC to the towns, saving the town about $75,000 per year in fees they formerly paid to Finch Pryun.
    In fact, this trail is listed on snowmobile trail maps and has been in use for a couple of years.

  4. Randy says:

    Great analysis, and cleared up a lot of confusion on my part. I like the primitive classifaction as it can, indeed, be a temporary designation on a way to wilderness. The snowmobile trails allowance will help the towns up there. I think the bottom line is that the APA’s designations makes room for us “flat landers” to enjoy this new jewel, and accomodates recreational venues that bring in much needed revenue and visitors to the towns and their people.

  5. Phil Brown says:

    Some of you may have noticed that I mixed up the 1A and 1B proposals. I fixed the designations.

  6. Little Buckaroo says:

    Good analysis, Phil. Thanks. The Wild Forest corridor for snowmobilers and bikes, requiring permanent Primitive for the rest of it,and an amendment to the SLMP, is very troubling. This precedent could open the door to more undesirable compromises of the SLMP rules in one-of-a-kind stiuations.

  7. Running George says:

    Good article. The snowmobile trail should not be there. The fact that the communities want it should not be relevant… it should be how to best conserve Wilderness- again read the APA mission statement.
    The article does make it sound like the plan was developed in a vacuum. I don’t think for a second that the Governor’s office wasn’t involved. Political interests explain the existence of the Snowmobile Corridor, not conservation, and that’s where the Governor comes in… pandering to people that will never vote for him anyway.

    • Paul says:

      This would be fair if the towns were told from the beginning that there would be no snowmobiles use on any of this land. I wonder if the towns would have approved the transaction with that being the case? Town approval of this transaction was required.

      RG, do you think the right proposal was the “Wilderness with access” proposal favored by the environmental groups was the right one or the alternative that basically made it as difficult as possible to access the area? It would pretty much have prevented most paddlers from using the Essex Chain.

  8. Paul says:

    Good job making this make some sense.

    It would have been interesting to see that memo from Dick Booth. If the legal argument was that the ASLMP requires the most strict classification in order to protect the area then even the “Wilderness with access” proposal favored by the environmental organizations (and others) would have been the wrong way to go. The best way to keep even paddlers off the Essex Chain was to make it as difficult as possible to get to the waterway.

    I would not think that the law would have a loophole for certain user groups (in this case paddlers)?

  9. Running George says:

    I supported the “Wilderness with access” in my written comments during the comment period.

    • Paul says:

      But if the APA’s mission is focused solely on conservation doesn’t the one that prevents access (or at least makes access most difficult) the one that would be the best?

      Setting it up in a way that allows one particular user group (in this case paddlers in the Wilderness with access plan) might be contrary to the mission of the APA if we use the logic described above.

  10. dave says:

    The mission of the APA is to protect these resources… not to preserve them or prohibit all use.

    Some activities are more damaging than others. So if we have a tract of land that we want to allow access to, and we want to protect it at the same time, then the way to do so is to limit the activities that take place there to those that inflict the least amount of damage.

    I really wish we would stop thinking of these issues in terms of “user groups” – it is inherently divisive.

    • Nature says:


      It is divisive when one group get’s access while another does not. Hence the big deal everyone is making over this land. I assume you are saying that there is only one user group: humans. I can buy that to a certain extant, but many people have lined up behind their favorite use in organized groups, and they all want a piece of the action. We also have division between people that call themselves preservationists, and those that call themselves conservationists. Both are humans, but they look at things a little differently. Is one group righter than the other? Could they both be right? Is there room for both?

      As others have mentioned, There appears to be something here for most people. I believe that is how this deal was sold to the public from day one. Nothing too shocking here. If these lands could support logging for the last 150 years and not look like a lunar landscape today, then I am pretty sure they can support varied recreational uses for the next 150 years and do just fine. Nature is tougher than you think (trust me on this one).

      Also, I am very grateful that we can have this easy conversation about the fate of yet another 65,000 acres of public lands, instead of something less exciting like a famine, plague, or violent civil war taking place in the region.

      The Adirondack Park seems to have been controversial since its creation, and it appears that it’s going to stay that way for a long time to come. Whatever you like to do outside, I hope you have the opportunity to do plenty of it!

      • dave says:

        “It is divisive when one group get’s access while another does not.”

        No one is denied access.

        Everyone is allowed to enjoy this land in the same way as everyone else – the rules, whether they be motorless or motored, apply equally to all of us.

        I really struggle to understand people who feel like they are being denied access to something simply because they can not do a specific activity there.

        I love motocross. Dirt bikes are not allowed on hiking trails. I would never claim that I am denied access to the high peaks… that is silly. I can lace up some boots and access the high peaks just like everyone else.

        It is only when you view yourself, or others, as belonging to certain “groups” that this becomes a divisive issue. Absent that odd form of recreational tribalism, this is just a conversation about how best to protect a natural resource for all of us, and what activities happen to appropriately compliment that effort. It’s not about excluding anyone.

        • Nature says:


          Once again, I can buy what you are saying to a certain extent. But if the state opened a public restaurant and only served spam, then everyone would have equal access to the spam but you would likely have someone saying… “But I don’t want spam”.

          So then they decided to also serve bacon, but another person might say…”I don’t want them serving bacon at the public restaurant, it smells bad and is unhealthy. It is wrecking my spam experience. Spam is all that is appropriate here”.

        • Paul says:

          My point above was that the “Wilderness with access” is a proposal specifically designed to allow one type of user group access to the Essex Chain (paddlers). A 3 mile carry would greatly limit the number of paddlers using the waterways. It is not that their access would be denied. But it would be greatly limited. A three mile carry is long even with an ultra light boat.

          Dave, I don’t think setting it up to allow lots of paddlers and hikers is a way to “compliment” protecting the natural resources. Their impact is lower but it is far from none, especially if it is set up to allow for large numbers of users, which is the idea with the “wilderness with access” plan. This APA plan is basically;y the same thing with a snowmobile trail. Whether large numbers of users show up is yet to be seen.

        • Matt says:

          Well said Dave.

  11. Running George says:

    My “order of importance”? In my opinion it would go 1. paddling, snowshoeing and cross country skiing, 2. hiking,
    3. mountain biking.
    Motorized activities should be limited to the greatest extent possible. My interpretation is that not only is it a bad idea, but that snowmobiling should never have been allowed. As I’ve stated previously, beyond the usual impacts associated with motorized activities, it seems to be a symptom of insanity for the State to encourage motorized recreation when climate is an obvious issue.
    As a final thought, some physical limitations prevent me from pursuing to the fullest extent I would like, some of my highest priorities on the requested list… lest anyone wish to accuse me of being selfish.

    • Matt says:

      Thanks George.
      I’m not here to accuse you of anything, I’m just curious. Personally, I don’t rank user groups, so I figured it would be interesting to ask someone who says they do. I have opinions on how certain activities should be managed, but I don’t see one group as necessarily more important than another. After all, we’re all human beneath whatever fancy gear we happen to go into the woods with, and we must be weary of anyone who claims access entitlement everywhere with their favorite pursuit, not matter what it may be. Snowmobiling has a long history in the ADKs. In certain ways it’s a traditional use that’s part of the character of the park. Some folks don’t like that; fair enough. Snowmobiling itself has changed much over the years; and those changes will dictate how it is managed in the future. I agree, climate change is a serious issue- but the other activities you listed have a significant “footprint” too, so lets not throw too many stones.
      Any discussion about the impacts of a recreational activity should not happen in a vacuum. The discussion must have a context, lest the discussion become meaningless. Absent a specific circumstance to consider the question, we only worsen what is already a difficult quandary. I could state that there are hiking trails with far worse erosion than ATV trails and I would be correct, but the statement ignores context, and is thus meaningless. Every activity has an impact and a recognizable pattern of use. Good management recognizes this and accounts for it accordingly.
      What is impressive about this classification is that it appears to have threaded the needle in a most remarkable way. Much more ink will likely be spilled over it in the future, but for now it will be very interesting to see how the agency board and the governor respond. Thanks again for answering my question.

      • John Warren says:

        “Snowmobiling has a long history in the ADKs. In certain ways it’s a traditional use that’s part of the character of the park.”

        The Forest Preserve was established in 1885 and the Adirondack Park designated in 1892. Snowmobiles date to 1960, and the first sleds were sold locally in 1964-1965. By 1973 snowmobiling was in a dramatic decline from which it has never recovered.

        So, while snowmobiling may have a history in the Adirondacks, I wouldn’t call it long, or a traditional use, or a significant part of the character of the park on the whole, and I’m a fan of snowmobiling.

        Snowmobile use in the Adirondacks has risen some over the years, but only because so many sleds are sold in suburban areas where there are few trails. Snowmobile use by Adirondackers almost certainly parallels the general trend and until rather recently, that was down. Recent loss of snow cover due to climate change is a foreboding sign of what’s to come.

        I’ll be giving a talk about the history of snowmobiles in the Adirondacks at the Adirondack Museum on February 16. You may find it interesting.

        John Warren

  12. Paul says:

    I think that a large number of Mt. Bikes could have a considerably higher environmental impact that snowmobiles traveling on a sufficient base of snow.

    Don’t snowmobile myself (did a little when I was younger) but they are a very important economic factor in some of these communities in the wintertime. These lands will probably attract hikers and paddlers in the summer but in the winter I would be surprised if there is much hiking activity in here. There are not really any mountains to climb like in the high peaks which has some winter activity. But even there it is much less than in the summer.

  13. Running George says:

    I agree that mountain bikes can have a significant impact on the landscape. My issues with snowmobiles go beyond impacts at ground level. I have concerns about emissions and the unrelenting noise generated by snowmobiles. It is easy to forget just how nice a deep, cold, quiet winter night “sounds” when living in an area heavily used by snowmobiles.
    As for the economic impact, I believe that is greatly overstated on a regional basis. Sure, some individual businesses see a significant surge from snowmobiles, but I don’t believe the Park should be designed to deliver customers to businesses and that’s what is going on with snowmobiles. It seems that every trail is designed to link to a bar/restaurant.

  14. Wally says:

    Thank you for this analysis. Very helpful. Would this snowmobile trail fall within the overall cap mentioned previously? I suppose so if it is already on maps.

    • Phil Brown says:

      My understanding is that the cap is not an issue as we are still under the cap. There may also is the question whether this trail would count against the cap if it is considered a Forest Preserve road, not a trail. But I haven’t looked into this. You might be interested in the article I posted Tuesday that raised a number of other issues about the snowmobile trail.

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