Monday, December 2, 2013

APA Refuses To Release Essex Chain Memo

Essex ChainThe Adirondack Park Agency says it won’t release a legal analysis by one of the agency’s commissioners who concluded that classifying the Essex Chain Lakes as Wild Forest would violate the State Land Master Plan.

The Adirondack Explorer had asked for the document under the state’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), but the request was denied.

In an email last week, Brian Ford, the APA’s records-access officer, described the twenty-one-page legal analysis, written by Commissioner Dick Booth, as an intra-agency document that is not subject to disclosure under FOIL.

Ford sent a similar email to Protect the Adirondacks, which also requested Booth’s memo.

Peter Bauer, Protect’s executive director, said even if the agency has the right to withhold the memo, the law does not compel it to do so.

“What is it about this memo that so alarms the APA leadership that they don’t want it released to the public?” Bauer asked.

When asked in emails today, Ford would not elaborate on the agency’s thinking.

The agency is faced with a difficult decision in the classification of three tracts of former Finch, Pruyn lands—in all, about 21,200 acres—purchased from the Nature Conservancy. The greatest controversy centers on the Essex Chain, a string of seven lakes at the heart of the largest tract.

Local officials want the Essex Chain region classified as Wild Forest, which would give state officials the option of allowing snowmobiles, motorboats, floatplanes, and mountain bikes. Environmental activists want the region classified as Wilderness, which would prohibit the use of motors and bicycles.

Booth, who is a lawyer and professor at Cornell University, focuses on the Essex Chain in his memo. He told Adirondack Almanack last month that the remote lakes are precious natural resources that deserve stronger protection than a Wild Forest classification would provide.

In the interview with the Almanack, Booth would not discuss his memo in detail. When asked if he thought the document should be released, he said he’d rather not answer. “I wrote the memo. I have not tried to keep it secret,” he said.

On Monday, Booth said he had no comment on the APA’s decision to continue withholding his memo from the public.

Booth had revealed at the APA’s meeting in September that he thought the State Land Master Plan precludes a Wild Forest designation, but the memo spells out his reasoning.

At the September meeting, Booth also requested that APA staff prepare a legal analysis of the classification options. In an email to Bauer last week, Brian Ford said that analysis was not done.

Bauer suspects that the APA is reluctant to write a legal analysis lest it limit the agency’s options. “They want a deal for classification to drive how they interpret the law,” Bauer said. “They do not want an interpretation of the law to drive their decision.”

Officials from the state Department of Environmental Conservation have been in talks with local leaders, environmentalists, and others over how to manage the lands in question.

Last year DEC proposed designating the Essex Chain region a Special Management Area within a Wild Forest classification. The idea is that the region would be managed more strictly than usual for Wild Forest but not as strictly as Wilderness. For example, the department might opt to ban motorboats but allow a snowmobile trail (something high on the agenda of local officials).

Photo of Essex Chain region by Carl Heilman II

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Phil Brown

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.

6 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    With a transaction of this size the towns have to vote on the acquisition. What were they told when that vote was made? Were they given assurances that a snowmobile trail could be part of this? Or was this just something that they hoped would be a possibility given the right classification. This has been a collaboration between the towns and the state and the TNC were any promises made early on?

  2. Dick Carlson says:

    Phil – Is all the property available for skiing this winter? I assume the club owners can snowmobile where they could before ’till the end of their leases.


  3. Phil Brown Phil Brown says:

    Dick, my understanding is that all of the land is open to the public except for the one-acre footprints around the camps. So skiing is allowed. The public is not allowed to snowmobile. However, the club members will continue to have access to the camps by snowmobile and/or motor vehicle. I assume they are not allowed to snowmobile otherwise, but I will have to check on that.

  4. M.P. Heller says:

    I don’t think the clubs have forfeited any rights originally granted to them in their lease. It doesn’t matter who owns the land now, they still have to honor the covenants and restrictions of the original lease until it expires. I am not sure if the langguage of the particular lease in question speaks to motorized access or places any limitations on it, but if they enjoyed motorized access to the entire parcel as a function of the original lease, that would continue until the lease expires, an agreement is reached to alter the lease, or the lease is abandonned by the parties involved.

    • Paul says:

      They have already given up exclusive use of almost all of the land so the leases have been changed (altered) already. A change limiting their motorized use of the land may also have been included.

  5. Paul says:

    Given the increase in potential liability that comes with the general public allowed in very close proximity to the camps and the fact that it is difficult to know who is doing what where I think it would be advisable for the lessees to go ahead and terminate their lease now and leave as soon as they can get their buildings removed. For example if someone (not a camp lessee) takes a Gooley Club boat out and drowns I could easily see a law suit filed against the boat owner for some thing crazy like “not keeping the boat properly secured”. You know how crazy folks are these days. You can get sued for anything. You would probably win or have it dismissed but you still would be stuck with the legal bills. Also if the camp people are maintaining the roads and they are not able to keep the public off those I could see an issue there as well.