Wednesday, December 11, 2013

When ‘Primitive’ Is More Protective Than ‘Wilderness’

FULL SIZE - APA Essex Chain Lakes Recommendation MapWilderness 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.

Click here to read our examination of the APA staff’s preferred option.

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.



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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.

29 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    It will be interesting. If Dick Booth votes for this proposal than I would assume that he has made a similar conclusion as far as this being at least as protected as if it were classified as Wilderness.

  2. Pete Nelson says:


    Thanks for this series. This is good journalism and is very useful in helping us to see the issue from multiple perspectives.

    I have been studying the APA Staff Proposal for a couple of days and believe it to be a good deal for the Park. In particular I think that the Primitive designation is a big win and, for the reasons you lay out here, the best choice the APA could make at this time.

    I share Bill Ingersoll’s concern that the Primitive designation is being applied contrary to its intended use, namely to be a transitional classification on the way to Wilderness – thus his proposal for a new Back Country classification. However absent such a new classification (and for now it is a non-starter) I prefer to see the application of Primitive here in its intended light: strong protection now and the hope of a different classification in the long-term that is more appropriate, up to and including a newly-developed classification, as well as possible reduction or elimination of non-conforming structures and/or uses.

    I am heartened that the APA Staff clearly proceeded from rational and science-based analysis to get to the Primitive designation. They did their jobs well. The only exception to this is the snowmobile corridor which is clearly more political than scientific. It is my only strong disappointment with the proposal. I don’t object to a snowmobile trail linking Newcomb and Minerva, I object to the location of this corridor which was obviously picked to enable a more direct route to Minerva via the Vanderwhacker Wild Forest. We can have a trail without making this poorly-located compromise.

    Keep up the good work, Phil.


  3. Phil Brown says:

    Paul, Dick Booth opposed a Wild Forest classification, but never called for a Wilderness classification. He said it should be one of the motor-free classifications, which Primitive is.

    Pete, in my earlier posts, I overstated the temporary nature of Primitive Areas. The State Land Master Plan describes two types. One is transitional. The other is an area “where eventual wilderness classification is impossible or extremely unlikely.”

    • Bill Ingersoll says:

      The “permanent” primitive areas tend to be places that have features/issues beyond the control of the SLMP, of an “essentially permanent nature” if I recall correctly. I can only think of two such areas in current existence:

      1) Valcour Island, which is small in size and located close to Plattsburgh (therefore lacks remoteness)

      2) Hitchins Pond, which is squeezed between a railroad and a concrete dam.

      The Essex Chain has no such concerns, because there are no facilities that couldn’t be addressed by APA. Therefore this would be a “temporary” primitive area, with an eventual expectation for a Wilderness reclassification.

      • Phil Brown says:

        If there are only two, that doesn’t mean there can’t be a third. The APA’s argument is that the deeded floatplane rights create a legal bar to Wilderness that is more or less permanent. That said, I am seeking answers to legal questions concerning the deeded rights and whether they obligate the state to allow planes to use the two lakes.

      • Paul says:

        Bill or Phil,

        Any idea what this part of the definition of primitive is all about:

        “(b) contains, or is contiguous to, private lands that are of a size and influence to prevent wilderness designation”

        It is clear from the plan that Primitive is not necessarily temporary. That is part of the definition but this is the other case where it is not temporary:

        “(ii) where eventual wilderness classification is impossible or extremely unlikely”.

        Once they add the bridge and a snowmobile trail it would fall under this I think?

      • Bill Ingersoll says:

        This is the relevant definition for the so-called “permanent primitive area” in the SLMP:

        “2. Of a size and character not meeting wilderness standards, but where the fragility of the resource or other factors require wilderness management.”

        Further defined as : “(ii) where eventual wilderness classification is impossible or extremely unlikely.”

        And: “The second type includes smaller tracts that are most unlikely to attain wilderness standards, such as a small island in close proximity to a highly developed shoreline, or larger tracts with non-conforming uses,
        such as a railroad or major public highway, that are essentially permanent, but where in each case the high quality or fragility of the resource requires wilderness management.”

        If these conditions applied to the Essex Chain, then Wilderness could never have been an option at all. Valcour Island meets this definition because it is a small island near a city. The APA can’t abolish Plattsburgh to enhance Valcour’s sense of remoteness. The feature that makes an area “permanent” as to be something intrinsic to the physical nature of the land, which no one has any realistic control over.

        The Essex Chain is this kind of Primitive Area:

        “1. Essentially wilderness in character but, (a) contains structures, improvements, or uses that are inconsistent with wilderness, as defined, and whose removal, though a long term objective, cannot be provided for by a fixed deadline, and/or, (b) [not relevant to the Essex Chain]”

        None of the non-conforming uses proposed for the Essex Chain are beyond the state’s control. DEC has the legal authority to close public highways. DEC could acquire the floatplane rights. APA could decide not to allow the access roads or snowmobile trail.

        So by designating this Primitive Area, it will become the state’s mandate to eventually remove the roads, floatplanes, and snowmobile trails to reclassify the area as Wilderness.

        • Phil Brown says:

          That’s one way of reading the SLMP. In any case, the floatplane rights do pose a bar to a Wilderness classification, in the APA’s view. It’s not clear at this point what the state can do about the planes. DEC can’t acquire the rights if the towns don’t want to sell them.

        • Bill Ingersoll says:

          That’s ONE way of reading it?!? I wasn’t aware this was multiple choice.

          Yes the floatplanes bar a Wilderness classification, but only for First and Pine lakes. And what you say about the state not being able to purchase the rights until the towns are willing to sell is true for every other primitive area not named Valcour Island or Hitchins Pond. All of them involve a third-party interest that could, someday, be acquired.

        • Paul says:

          Why would it become a mandate? They are specifically allowing those uses. You allow a new trail for snowmobiles, you allow a bridge to be built. That seems like ensuring that a wilderness designation is unlikely at best. What about the “proximity to large private ate tracts” question?

  4. Justin says:

    Phil, as Pete says, thanks for this series. It’s an important and complex topic, and I think you’re really helping a lot of us make sense of it all. Keep ’em coming!

  5. Jan Hansen says:

    Thank you for the series on the land classifications. I can only hope that with a Primitive Classification of the Essex Chain and surrounding areas that the eventual classification will not change into a Wilderness classification. I would have liked to have seen the land classified as Wild with restrictions, but have no problem with Primitive with non conforming use here and there.
    Hopefully the APA realizes that the towns and hamlets in the area could really use the boost that a snowmobile trail or mountain bike trail (think Black Fly Challenge) would bring to them.
    I would worry more about float plane use than snowmobile or bike use. Not so much the planes as the messy camping areas that are left behind. Beer cans, bottles,broken furniture and trash are the result of these excursions. I’ve seen them on Pine Lake.
    Having said that, it is what it is. The APA will make their recommendation to the governor and we will all go from there.

  6. Dan Crane says:

    Why can’t the State buy back the deeded floatplane rights for the two lakes from the towns? If the State offered more money than the towns would ever see from the economic activity of having those rights for, say, 25 years, why wouldn’t they give up the rights for the cash?

    This would remove one of the major long-term impediments to listing the area as Wilderness.

    • Phil Brown says:

      In theory this is possible. However, the state probably isn’t interested in buying the floatplane rights. DEC wants to provide opportunities for floatplane use in the Park.

    • Bill Ingersoll says:

      Not being interested in buying the rights is distinct from not being able to buy them. This is an elective situation that the state is creating for itself, which can (and probably will) be changed in the future.

    • Nature says:

      Are the towns selling the deeded rights? This may not be so elective. If these rights were sold, or given to the towns by the Nature Conservancy then it would appear that this was done specifically to keep the rights in place.

      The towns may be looking to sell the rights. But, as a New York State tax payer, I personally don’t want the state buying any more rights in this area. I believe we have bought enough (others may disagree).

      It seems like some of this current classification is a rehash of what went on with Lows Lake a few years ago. The following article deals with floatplanes on Lows Lake.

  7. Peter Bauer says:

    Bill hits the nail on the head. PROTECT put this all into an extensive comment letter submitted to the APA today. The series of TNC easements all require DEC administration and approval so these activities around float planes on Pine and First lakes and gravel pits could be eliminated by DEC action.

    Here’s the letter:

    • Phil Brown says:

      Peter, I asked Bob Stegemann (DEC’s regional director) today if DEC could stop floatplanes from landing on First and Pine. He said the department can set conditions on floatplane permits, regulating frequency of flights, for example, but cannot bar it altogether. His quote: “We can condition its use. We can’t prevent its use.”

  8. Paul says:

    This all boils down to what was discussed with the towns when they approved the sale. These expectations cannot be overlooked.

    • David says:

      What promises were made to the towns? I understand that float plane rights were, and a number of conditional easements were granted to the towns, but neither of these require a snowmobile trail cutting the unit in half or the Polaris Bridge to remain.

      If you aren’t convinced look at the DECs plan that the towns supported. You will see no north south snowmobile trail. Its not a surprise this trail wasn’t included in the DECs plan, because a couple of years ago the trail that the communities wanted was built, and a class II snowmobile trail currently connects Indian Lake and Newcomb. In addition to this the DEC plan has the polaris bridge in the middle of wilderness, and would be unusable for a snowmobile trail.

      Even though the colors look good on a map I’m not convinced there is more protection in this proposal than the DECs original proposal.

      • Phil Brown says:

        You raise good points. In asserting that the Primitive proposal is more protective than the Wilderness (or Wild Forest) proposal, I am referring just to the Essex Chain and associated lakes and ponds. Except for the floatplane use, all will be motor-free. As far as the snowmobile trail’s absence in the original DEC proposal, since all the land would have been Wild Forest, the department could have allowed snowmobiling anywhere on the tract.

      • Paul says:

        David, Didn’t the DEC proposal have most of the land classified as Wild Forest. Under that plan there is no need for a “corridor” the sleds can go anywhere. In order for this plan to have that component it requires the WF corridor. So this plan retains some of what was “supported” by the towns. This is exactly the reason the classification should take place prior to the acquisition. The towns should be able to see what the final proposal is even if it is all Wilderness.

        • David says:

          In the DEC’s proposal the Essex chain is classified as wild forest, however there is no mention of connecting the two towns (except for the existing snowmobile trail). It just confuses me what this coridor is for. It originally seems that this corridor was to add a redundant connection between the two towns but now I think that it exists just to create more “riding opportunities”.

          • Phil Brown says:

            David, the purpose of the trail, as I understand it, is twofold: to provide another route between Newcomb and Indian Lake and to keep options open for a trail over the Hudson to Minerva.

            • David says:

              I just don’t understand why a second trail is neasesary. I, and others, would fully support the DEC putting resources toward the maintnence and improvement of the other community connector instead of building a second one.

          • Paul says:

            David, it could be to create more riding opportunities. I mean it is really, that is undeniable. The original plan the DEC had, that the towns approved, had far more riding opportunities (you could have ridden all over the Essex Chain) than this alternative. One of the things that the towns were expecting from this acquisition was that it would increase the amount of snowmobile related money flowing into the area. If you don’t allow some snowmobiling on this tract it would definitely decrease the amount of snowmobile related revenue in the winter. The clubs no longer exist. Their snowmobile use (and revenue for the towns) is gone. I personally don’t think the corridor is a good idea either. But if the towns approved the deal with the expectation that there would be more snowmobile related tourist dollars flowing into the area the state needs to set it up in a way that it can happen.

            Again the alternative is simple. Tell the towns there would be no snowmobile use on the tract (the opposite of showing them a Wild Forest designation), that all the snowmobile use that has been there in the past will be illegal, and there will be less snowmobile related revenue. Then the town can decide if the other users (hikers, paddlers, etc.) are going to augment the local economy in a way that compensates the loss or even improves the local economy.

            • David says:

              I think I’m having problems articulating my point. Part of the land deal gave the community the currently existing trail (mostly on easements acquired in phase one of the land deal). It seems like this promise already has been fulfilled, why are we working to fulfil it twice.

              • Paul says:

                No I totally understand. Mine is that I think the state had also promised snowmobiling opportunities on this land. The Wild Forest classification the DEC proposed was just that. This pulls that back considerably.

                If they make the other change they suggest (allowing Mt. Bikes in Primitive areas) then this “corridor” would have other recreational uses as well. I remember specifically reading on the Nature Conservancy’s site about the millions of dollars that can flow into an area just from Mt. Bikers (their claim anyway). The DEC proposal would have allowed biking this one does not but it could if amended.

  9. zxyw says:

    The worst part of the plan is the carve out for the snowmobile trail. As we all know, the sound from some of these machines travels for miles, disrupting many additional square miles of nearby supposed wilderness areas. Plus, the current definition of snowmobile trail creates a road into the wilderness that will surely be exploited by ATVs in the summer, as is often the case in other parts of the Park. The DEC has proven itself incapable of properly policing the destructive and illegal use of ATVs in many areas.

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