For three days, the Adirondack Park Agency deliberated on a set of classifications for Forest Preserve in Newcomb, Minerva and Indian Lake that were never in doubt. The decisions were the Governor’s. APA took its direction from him, as it did with the Adirondack Club and Resort two years ago.
APA staff labored mightily over the past week to put those State Land decisions, and the maps into a format that their members might understand. The convoluted resolution was adopted unanimously but requires changes in inconvenient regulations and policies before the classifications are finalized. That is the price this Governor exacts from his state agencies in order to settle a controversial policy matter for these magnificent new parts of the Adirondack Forest Preserve.
I hasten to add that the Governor’s decisions were considerably influenced by various publics, including last summer’s hearings, and did achieve something very important. If Adirondack organizations had not remained united in their positions that the Essex Chain Lakes should be classified and managed as Wilderness, I have little doubt that the lakes would have been classified Wild Forest, as the DEC had recommended one year ago, and that severe motorized pressures and pollution on those lakes would result.
Thanks to that united position, which was tested but held, and without strong public agreement during the hearings last summer that this rare, vulnerable system of small, connected lakes at the center of the Park should remain non-motorized and a wilderness for future generations to enjoy, the Governor allowed the APA’s staff to take their responsibilities under the State Land Master Plan seriously in this vital instance.
In the case of the Chain of Lakes, the staff were permitted to abide by their Master Plan’s unifying theme, that the protection and preservation of the natural resources of the Forest Preserve must be“paramount” and that human use and enjoyment be allowed without degrading the biological, physical, social and psychological aspects of those natural resources.
A Primitive classification for the lakes region was selected based on a careful staff interpretation of their Master Plan, and pretty rigorous analysis and acknowledgement of the lakes’ sensitive shorelines and ecology. The Adirondack Nature Conservancy’s rigorous scientific assessment of these landscapes since 2007 was augmented by APA staff field research. One can support a Wilderness classification, as Adirondack Wild did, while still recognizing the integrity behind a decision to classify as Primitive given, for example, the reserved rights for bush pilots to fly in and out of First and Pine Lakes and the anticipated, but still uncertain impacts of those flights on the opportunities to experience a primitive and unconfined form of recreation on the Chain.
A Primitive classification for the lakes east of First Lake should ensure careful, conservative management of the shoreline, of the fishery, and of muscle-powered recreational uses. That is as it should be. The APA staff did a fine job in its analysis of the Chain Lakes, and its recommendations. Much work remains in the preparation of a unit management plan, of course.
Creation of the Hudson Gorge Wilderness area east of the Chain Lakes largely by reclassifying what heretofore has been the Hudson Gorge Primitive Area is a great achievement, but was an easy decision for the Governor and his agencies to reach. The towns of Indian Lake, Minerva and Newcomb were not objecting to this, and in general the management of the Upper Hudson would not be significantly altered. The reclassification was already called for by the Master Plan should the Finch, Pruyn lands ever become Forest Preserve.
I celebrate all of this. Yet, the price exacted for wilderness treatment of the lakes was compromising the Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act, its Regulations, and the Snowmobile Guidance, all due to a separate classification of a long, 1/10th mile wide Wild Forest corridor along the old logging roads between the Hudson Wilderness and the Chain Lakes Primitive areas, reaching to and beyond the Cedar River to allow faster, more direct snowmobiling between Newcomb and Indian Lake. In private meetings sponsored by the Governor, to which few were invited, this demand for a better snowmobile trail was the linchpin behind a deal. The unity of the five affected towns desiring significant motorized access to these new public lands proved influential.
It made no difference that a snowmobile trail connecting Indian Lake and Newcomb already exists thanks to the Adirondack Nature Conservancy and the conservation easement placed on the former Finch lands west of the Chain Lakes. That trail was created with no small difficulty, but apparently proved unpopular. The Snowmobile Guidance encourages snowmobile connector trails to be placed on conservation easement lands whenever possible – and this one is.
It made no difference to the APA that the new wide snowmobile corridor within the remote interior of the Forest Preserve and many miles from any public highway violates that Guidance Document reached, after much controversy, just a few years ago. That Guidance makes it an extraordinary circumstance for a wide snowmobile connector trail on the Forest Preserve to fall more than a mile from a public highway. Here, it would fall many miles in the interior. It made no difference to the APA that the Guidance Document forbids duplicative, parallel trails – the existing trail that runs northwest from the western end of Indian Lake village may never be closed to snowmobiling.
The Snowmobile Guidance document, which state agencies sweated bullets to produce just a few years ago, is rendered pretty meaningless by the Governor’s and APA’s decisions. It probably already was.
In addition, the Resolution approved by the APA on Friday invites the DEC to push through a regulatory change that would authorize a 120-foot bridge over the Cedar River to connect the snowmobile trail. It invites an amendment to the Master Plan to authorize use of steel girders in the bridge. In fact, the Governor’s “deal” hinges on this long bridge. The Cedar River is designated Scenic at this location, and the last bridge at this location went out in 1968 prior to the Wild Rivers legislation. Wild, Scenic and Recreational River regulations approved decades ago permit limited road access to these rivers, requires vegetative screening of such access, contemplates bridges for foot traffic by permit, but do not allow bridges expressly for motorized traffic. The Cedar is a beautiful wild river, and land uses adjoining it are supposed to be consistent with a Primitive designation on one side of the former logging road, and Wilderness on the other, not a motorized corridor running down the middle. That corridor, and the bridge between its north and south segments along the old Chain Lakes road, will pose severe management and enforcement challenges and costs for the DEC.
Also, the deal would also authorize motor vehicles driving well within a half-mile of the Upper Hudson, a designated Wild River. This would be another violation of the Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act regulations. It would, in addition, leave in place a large steel bridge over the Hudson which currently leads to some camps leased by the Polaris Club. It was built in the 1990s as a temporary bridge to allow Finch, Pruyn to log its lands west of the Hudson. The lease camps are to be removed by 2018, and the land around them to be included in the Hudson Gorge Wilderness, thus eventually making it a bridge to nowhere. The APA resolution places the bridge just north of the Wilderness boundary in a Wild Forest classification in order to keep it. It will become an attractive nuisance, attract illegal motorized uses, its piers have always obstructed the course of the river, and the Upper Hudson would be much wilder without it. It should be taken down.
While APA Commissioner Booth publicly mentioned some of these legal questions, most of them never appear in the final Resolution approved last Friday. APA members and staff spent most of their time attempting to get their minds around the complex classification boundaries made necessary by this Snowmobile Connector trail and the long bridge over the Cedar River. They left themselves an out with an alternative snowmobile route that curves west without crossing the river – if the regulations are not changed, and the bridge is deemed impermissible.
The final APA resolution was at pains to place ultimate decision-making on the legality of the bridge at the door of the DEC, but clearly anticipates creative interpretation of the regulations to authorize it, or a rule change to make it explicitly legal.
I applaud the wilderness management planned for the Chain Lakes, and Upper Hudson. I appreciate all the hard work that went into the classification alternatives, the challenging work ahead, and the need to get on with it. I also understand that placing a new snowmobile route along an existing dirt road minimizes tree-cutting and damage associated with clearing a new trail.
However, it’s important to acknowledge the costs imposed by the circumnavigation of existing regulations and policies in the process, costs to the resources affected, costs to the integrity of the process, and actual dollar costs, and how those could have been avoided. The APA could have authorized a new, shorter snowmobile loop on a portion of the road system without so severely compromising the Rivers regulations and its Snowmobile Guidance. It could have exercised some independence by advising the Governor that upholding the Master Plan and classifying State Land appropriately implies upholding other existing laws and regulations. If a longer snowmobile corridor and crossing of the Cedar River was deemed necessary, fine, the Governor could have sought to achieve this in a separate process later on, independent of this classification.
Instead, the APA classification decision and the regulatory changes and amendments sought are explicitly linked and inseparable, as the Governor demanded. Here is the language in the resolution:
“Be it further resolved, that the Agency respectfully requests the Department (Environmental Conservation) consider whether existing Part 666 authorizes the construction of a snowmobile bridge over the Scenic Cedar River and, if it does not, consider making appropriate revisions to 6 NYCRR Part 666 to allow such a bridge.”
“Be it further resolved, that the Agency staff are hereby directed to commence the process which will enable the Agency to determine whether to amend the Master Plan to allow the bridge over the Cedar River to be constructed with other than solely natural materials.”
Who in state government will have the temerity to question the wisdom of these rule changes? Will public comment matter?