The 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