Wilderness is the most restrictive and most protective of the Adirondack Park Agency’s seven classifications for Forest Preserve lands, so perhaps it’s no surprise that environmental groups pushed for a Wilderness designation for the Essex Chain Lakes.
The APA staff instead recommended a Primitive classification. Ordinarily, this might be seen as a slight downgrade in protection, but in this case an argument can be made that natural resources are actually better protected under the Primitive classification.
Under the State Land Master Plan, a Primitive Area is managed much like a Wilderness Area. Indeed, the plan describes a Primitive Area as “essentially wilderness in character.” There are small differences. For example, mountain biking may be allowed on state truck trails in a Primitive Area, whereas biking is always prohibited in Wilderness Areas. In the case of the proposed Essex Chain Primitive Area, it’s unknown whether any roads will be designated state truck trails.
What is known is that the Essex Chain Lakes and nearby ponds would be motor-free under the Primitive classification. The water bodies and especially their wetlands are the region’s most fragile natural resources. In its recommendation, the APA staff said motorboats could harm wetlands by stirring up sediment, damaging aquatic plants, emitting pollution, and bringing in invasive plants.
Of course, the lakes and ponds are motor-free in a Wilderness Area too. But in the Wilderness proposal under consideration, two of the Essex Chain Tract’s larger water bodies—First Lake and Pine Lake—would be excluded from the Wilderness Area. First Lake is part of the Essex Chain. Pine lies a mile and a half south of the chain.
The Nature Conservancy donated the floatplane rights for both lakes to local towns before selling the 18,320-acre tract to the state. As a consequence, floatplanes will be allowed to continue to land on both lakes. And because motorized use is prohibited in Wilderness Areas, the APA had no choice but to draw the boundary of the proposed Wilderness to exclude First and Pine lakes.
The Primitive classification, however, does allow for uses that are non-conforming in Wilderness Areas. In fact, that is one of its raisons d’etre. In essence, a Primitive Area is a Wilderness Area with a flaw.
Under the Wilderness option, First and Pine would have been classified as Wild Forest, a less-restrictive classification than Primitive. The main difference is that motorized use is allowed in Wild Forest Areas. Except for the floatplanes, chances are the two lakes would not see much motorized use, if any, under a Wild Forest classification, but the possibility is there. Perhaps an angler would bring in a small motor via floatplane (worse, the motor might have an invasive weed snagged in its propeller). Or perhaps a snowmobile trail would be built or rerouted to pass by the lakes.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation could prohibit motorboats on the two lakes regardless of the Wild Forest classification, but we don’t know that it would do so.
The bottom line: the Primitive classification leaves First and Pine lakes better protected than the Wilderness/Wild Forest alternative.
Another advantage to the Primitive option is that it will simplify management of the Essex Chain and nearby water bodies. All will be covered in the same unit management plan.
The Adirondack Park Agency meets at 1 p.m. today for the first of three days of deliberations on the classification of the Essex Chain Tract and three smaller parcels acquired by the state over the past year.
The map shows the various classifications under APA staff’s preferred option. The proposed Essex Chain Primitive Area is shown in blue. The proposed Hudson Gorge Wilderness Area is the large area in dark green east of the Primitive Area. Light green represents Wild Forest.