The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is proposing a new experiment trying to combine intensive public motorized recreational use and natural resource management. The DEC has released a draft Recreation Management Plan (RMP) for the Kushaqua Conservation Easement tract located in the Towns of Franklin and Brighton in Franklin County. Throughout this tract, the DEC is proposing to open a number of roads to all terrain vehicles (ATVs).
The DEC went down this road once before in the mid-1990s when they opened scores of roads on the Forest Preserve to ATVs. Though official processes were not followed at that time, scores of roads and trails throughout the western Adirondacks were opened to ATVs. Trespassing in other areas was also widespread across the Forest Preserve. After extensive damage to roads, trails, and natural resources, the DEC and APA backtracked in 2005 and closed scores of Forest Preserve roads to ATV use.
At that time, public ATV use on the Forest Preserve was seen by many as an experiment that failed.
Now, the DEC is ready to try again. The Kushaqua Conservation Easement tract is surrounded on all sides by Forest Preserve in the Debar Mountain Wild Forest area, a Forest Preserve unit for which there is no Unit Management Plan (UMP). The new RMP is important because it is the first such plan for a major conservation easement tract and will serve as a prototype for future plans. More than half of the 775,000 acres of state-held conservation easements throughout the Adirondacks are similar to the Kushaqua easement and provide extensive opportunities for public motorized recreation. This Kushaqua plan could be the first of many that will provide public ATV riding opportunities.
The management of conservation easements is unilaterally controlled by the DEC. While the DEC has a Memorandum of Understanding for management of conservation easements with the Adirondack Park Agency (APA), it doesn’t say much. There are no guidelines for planning for easement lands similar to those for UMPs for state lands as governed by the State Land Master Plan.
The Kushaqua tract also contains 30 private leased hunting camps and 130 miles of roads. Members can access their camps with the motor vehicle of their choice via designated routes depending on the location of their camp. A number of roads will also be opened to public ATV use, while all of the tract’s roads will be opened to mountain biking and hiking. The map above shows the hiking and mountain biking routes; the map below, the ATV routes.
Conservation easements are important land protection tools. They protect the great forested open space landscape that defines the Adirondack Park and produce wood for local mills. They keep jobs in the woods. They also protect wildlife habitat.
There is a school of thought that one purpose of the large block of conservation easement lands is to provide a safety valve for the Forest Preserve. Easement lands can withstand much more intensive public recreational motorized uses than the Forest Preserve because they provide a network of roads. These lands are already used heavily by logging trucks and large machinery, such as feller bunchers and log skidders. Moreover, these lands are generally heavily leased to hunting clubs whose members recreate extensively with motor vehicles.
Whereas natural resource protection is the chief purpose on the “forever wild” Forest Preserve, natural resource extraction is the chief purpose on conservation easement lands, in the form of logging. Intensive motorized recreational uses run a close second as the primary purpose of easement lands.
The safety-valve approach only works if the Forest Preserve is managed to fulfill its natural resource protection principles. The recent Forest Preserve classification of the former Finch Paper/Nature Conservancy lands by the APA and DEC ushered in a new chief purpose not of natural resource protection but of something-for-everybody recreational management. The APA and DEC ceremoniously ordained a 500-foot-wide Wild Forest corridor through the heart of the former Finch lands, in open violation of their own snowmobile management guidance policy; it will become a new class II community connector snowmobile trail as well as a hiking and mountain bike trail. APA leaders even referred to this motorized Wild Forest corridor as a “buffer” between the Hudson Gorge Wilderness and the Essex Chain Lakes Primitive Area.
DEC’s new planning for the Kushaqua tract shows a willingness to look at new ways to accommodate public ATV access to state lands. There will also be 10 public motor vehicle accessible campsites throughout this tract.
Adequate enforcement will be a major issue for the DEC if it moves ahead to allow extensive ATV use on the Kushaqua tract. DEC has struggled to keep its Rangers and Environmental Conservation Officers in the field. The enforcement section in the draft RMP is scant. How many enforcement personnel will DEC truly be able to put in the field in the Kushaqua tract? Will DEC provide backcountry stewards or assistant rangers to patrol this tract?
Another major issue is that by providing public ATV access in the Kushaqua tract, the DEC may stimulate local governments in the area to open municipal roads to ATVs so riders can ride from miles away to access the Kushaqua roads. Such actions will greatly extend the impact area. You can read about local governments in the Adirondacks and their controversial attempts to open roads to ATVs here.
There are a number of other issues that the DEC needs to scrutinize in this RMP. These can be read in an initial public comment letter here. The DEC recently extended the public comment period for the Kushaqua Conservation Easement Recreational Management Plan until March 28th. Public comments can be filed here.
Many will be watching to assess the impacts of this new dawn for public motorized recreational access to public lands in the Adirondack Park.
Photo above, ATV damage.