The draft Unit Management Plan (UMP) for the Essex Chain of Lakes is out and available for public comment until July 18th. To discerning readers, it will be clear that many of its recommendations and management actions, which the APA must deem to be in compliance with the State Land Master Plan, are just going ahead anyway. For example, primitive tent sites, parking lots and other facilities throughout are being completed this summer “prior to adoption of the Unit Management Plan.” These are not interim steps. These are final decisions as to number, design, and location.
I understand why the State appears to be rushing to complete this parking and camping by permit system on the Essex Chain and Upper Hudson River. These are vulnerable aquatic systems and nobody wants to establish an early pattern of recreational overuse which could degrade these ponds and their shorelines and rare ecological plant and fish communities. I conceptually support this UMP’s camping permit reservation system. It makes management and stewardship sense, as does the inclusion of the Student Conservation Association and the Adirondack Interpretive Center in managing such a camping reservation system.
My colleagues and I at Adirondack Wild also greatly respect the APA and DEC field staff, and their Nature Conservancy counterparts, who have spent many days in this unit studying its natural and cultural resources, observing rare plants and animals, and recording and mapping all of this and road and other infrastructure in ways critical for planning
But, on the other hand, why have a Unit Management Planning process at all, soliciting and requiring public input and APA conformance determinations, if important and permanent management decisions about the area have already been reached and implemented by the DEC? And where are the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan’s required rigorous assessments of actual and projected management actions and public uses which all Unit Management Plans should contain? Why not implement a more conservative, interim camping and public use plan for another 6-12 months until public comments on the draft are reviewed, assessments completed, alternatives analyzed, and the UMP is finalized and ruled in conformance?
This UMP appears to continue a pattern within state government: act quickly so long as you appear to respond to local government pressures, demand your state agencies act in lockstep, don’t look beyond the footprint of any one area, don’t treat the Forest Preserve as an integrated system or whole, don’t examine or assess anything too deeply, if something is controversial or illegal, be opaque, leave options open and then deem it legal. I do not imply that everything being done or recommended in this UMP is inappropriate or unprofessional, as stated above with respect to the camping reservation system. However, in this UMP and in general, public input, transparent, rigorous assessments of resources and public uses, and alternative courses of action are marginalized or never completed. The State Land Master Plan itself, which is law, continues to be marginalized by the agencies charged with its implementation.
Case in point: The APA’s final resolution and classification decision with respect to the Essex Chain of Lakes, approved in December, 2013 mentions snowmobiles and snowmobiling seven times by my count. The entire justification for classifying a north-south Wild Forest corridor along the Chain Lakes Road, smack between a Primitive and a Wilderness area, was for snowmobiling. And APA was clear about the reasons why: local government pressure to create such a trail, not close observance of the State Land Master Plan. Indeed, a north-south snowmobile corridor was probably the political price to pay for classifying the Essex Chain Lakes Primitive area in the first place. I greatly respect those who stood firm for the Primitive area and its wilderness management (Adirondack Wild still asserts it should be classified Wilderness or eventually become Wilderness), and acknowledge the compromise they were forced to accept. I believe it was worth it.
Yet, several APA members appeared astonished to find out last week that new snowmobile routes are not being recommended in this UMP. “Where is the snowmobile trail and bridge?” one member asked. Actually, what DEC is “recommending” is extremely disingenuous. APA staff did not state this, of course, merely saying that snowmobiling is not contemplated “at this time.” What I imagine is happening is this: DEC lacks the legal muscle right now to confidently authorize a new motorized bridge over a designated Scenic River, the Cedar. Read the APA classification decision and the Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act, the law itself, and its regulations to understand why. Are the regulations crystal clear? By no means. But is the evidence rather overwhelming that current law and regulation would not authorize a new motorized bridge and route over a Scenic River in the Forest Preserve? I believe it is.
So, for the public reviewing this UMP no snowmobile trails or bridges are recommended and the new $350,000, 160-foot bridge over the Cedar River is being recommended for foot and horse use only. However, what DEC probably intends to do is to have the bridge ostensibly built for non-motorized uses, which does appear to be legal, and then deem motorized use bridges over designated Scenic Rivers to be legal at some future date, or change the regulations (law?) to make it legal in an abbreviated manner. Either way, it’s pretty clear to me that DEC/APA expect the entire Chain Lakes Road from Indian Lake to Newcomb to be classified Wild Forest and that snowmobiles will be operating across that new bridge, and then north on the Chain Lakes/Camp Six Roads to Newcomb and east to Minerva. A future amendment to the UMP to incorporate snowmobile trails would be pro forma.
If anyone doubts that this is the plan, this UMP also states that the Commissioner “finds” that public motorized uses along the entire Chain Lakes Road (including across the Cedar River which separates that road into southern and northern sections) has been grandfathered because of a long historical pattern of such public motorized use which predates the State Land Master Plan and the Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act of 1972. Nowhere in the UMP is an historical pattern of public motorized uses of this route factually established. It is merely asserted. Was any soul not a member or a guest of the private Gooley Clubs, leased by Finch, Pruyn and Co., able to drive their truck or their snowmobile unmolested up and down the Chain Lakes Road prior to the State’s acquisition? No. To my knowledge, the route was gated and the general public was completely excluded. So, “grandfathering” in this context is another example of legal evasion, but a clear signal that DEC expects the Chain Lakes Road, north and south, and the Cedar River bridge to become a snowmobile corridor after the UMP is adopted as conforming with the Master Plan and related laws.
And, by the way, a new motorized route along the Chain Lakes Road within the half-mile Wild River corridor of the Hudson Gorge Wilderness area would also violate the Master Plan and the Rivers Act, so grandfathering such a use also appears to evade those problems.
It should be stated and re-stated to add context: In 2007, the Adirondack Nature Conservancy purchased these lands from Finch, Pruyn and placed an easement on them. In 2010, that conservation easement including lands just west of the Essex Chain Lakes was sold to the State of New York with an already constructed a snowmobile trail on the land that connects Indian Lake and Newcomb. Building such a trail was the result of months or years of negotiations between the Conservancy and the Towns and Snowmobile Clubs. Then, the Clubs and the Towns found this trail to be inconvenient at about the same time as the State appeared willing to create a duplicative, but more direct trail along the old Chain Lakes Road. That duplication of a snowmobile connector trails violates the State’s Snowmobile Trail Siting Guidance approved in 2011. Also, the Guidance clearly states that snowmobile connector trails should be located on conservation easements whenever possible and avoid running through the heart of Forest Preserve land. When asked about these exceptions, the State replies: It’s only Guidance, not Law.
Why is any of this important? First, if we are a nation and a state of laws, then the State should be the first to acknowledge and respect those laws like the State Land Master Plan (and even Guidance), not evade them. Change the law and the regulation and the guidance transparently and through a public process before taking actions that would violate them.
Second, if a government like the State of New York repeatedly prides itself on being transparent, and repeatedly isn’t, that is deeply concerning.
Third, if Article 14 of the State Constitution states that we have a Forest Preserve system, and that such a system of wild forest lands is to be “forever kept,” and if the Court of Appeals ratified that system and sharp limits on its high-speed mechanization, why is the State continually and unnecessarily opening up new motorized corridors within that system?
When the State ostensibly has purchased over 770,000 acres of Conservation Easements on private lands where such motorized uses were supposed to be concentrated?
I ask readers to contribute their own reasons why any of this is (or isn’t) important.