The Adirondack Park Agency voted unanimously today to approve a staff recommendation to create a 23,494-acre Hudson Gorge Wilderness Area and a 9,940-acre Essex Chain Primitive Area on lands once owned by the Finch, Pruyn paper company.
The vote climaxed a year of work that included public hearings, which elicited thousands of comments, and negotiations between state officials and various stakeholders.
Underscoring the importance of the decision was that Basil Seggos, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s deputy secretary for the environment, drove up from Albany to attend the APA’s meeting.
Afterward, Seggos said the APA proposal strikes the right balance between protecting the environment and providing recreational opportunities.
“I’m happy with the outcome, and the way the Park Agency handled the process,” he said.
Local leaders and environmentalists also praised the proposal, though neither side got everything it wanted.
Adirondack Council Executive Director Willie Janeway noted that both the Hudson Gorge Wilderness and Essex Chain Lakes Primitive Area will be motor-free (with the exception of floatplane use on two of the region’s eighteen lakes). Both areas will be managed as Wilderness.
“The Park will be stronger and better than it was before,” Janeway said. “These lakes and the Hudson will be better protected than they were before.”
However, Janeway and other environmentalists were troubled by the APA’s decision to create a corridor of Wild Forest between the motorless areas that will allow snowmobilers to ride from Indian Lake to Newcomb. The Wild Forest classification allows motorized use.
“The motorized Wild Forest corridor sets a dangerous precedent for Forest Preserve management whereby lines will be drawn solely to facilitate motor-vehicle uses in the forever-wild Forest Preserve,” Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, said in a news release.
The snowmobile trail was the top priority of local leaders. Without the trail, it is doubtful that local towns would have supported the APA plan.
Officials from the APA and state Department of Environmental Conservation spent months hammering out a proposal that would, by and large, be acceptable to all sides. At today’s meeting, several APA board members said the process could be used as a model for future land-classification decisions.
“There is something here for everybody. Look and you will find it,” APA Commissioner Karen Feldman told those who might be dissatisfied with the result.
The snowmobile trail raises several legal questions that must be resolved. The preferred route would follow logging roads and cross the Cedar River. DEC might have to change its regulations to allow a bridge to be built at the crossing. The route also would pass within a half-mile of the Hudson, which is classified as a Wild River under the Wild, Scenic, and Recreational Rivers Act. Motorized use is generally prohibited in Wild River corridors.
If the preferred route proves to be infeasible, there is an alternative route that would avoid crossing the Cedar. However, this route also might require changes in DEC regulations. Moreover, it would require cutting a new trail through forest and perhaps over wetlands.
DEC also plans to look into changing the State Land Master Plan to allow mountain biking on old logging roads within the Essex Chain Primitive Area. Generally, biking is not allowed in Primitive Areas.
In all, the APA classified about 22,000 acres of new state land and reclassified about 20,000 acres of adjacent Forest Preserve. The new lands include three properties purchased in the past year from the Adirondack Nature Conservancy: the 18,230-acre Essex Chain Tract, 2,823-acre OK Slip Falls Tract, and 923-acre Indian River Tract. In addition, the board classified a 160-acre in-holding purchased from the Open Space Conservancy.
The Adirondack Nature Conservancy did not get involved in the classification discussions, but Executive Director Mike Carr seemed pleased with the outcome. “Regardless of the classification, it’s forever wild Forest Preserve under Article 14 [of the state constitution],” he said, “and that’s thought to be the best protection–state or federal.”
Carr also praised Governor Cuomo for buying the land. “I see this as the beginning of making his conservation legacy permanent,” he said.
The state has agreed to buy other Finch, Pruyn lands from the Nature Conservancy over the next few years, including Boreas Ponds on the edge of the High Peaks Wilderness. Seggos said some lands will be purchased next year.
Governor Cuomo must approve today’s APA action before the classification takes effect.
All the Almanack’s stories about the Finch, Pruyn purchases can be found here.