Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Dave Gibson On Essex Chain Plan:
Does It Comply? Does Anyone Care?

Essex Chain APA-map-with-labelsThe 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?

Essex Chain CampsitesThis 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.


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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve

During Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history.

Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

20 Responses

  1. Bill Ingersoll says:

    Well I care, but then I usually am concerned about state land management issues.

    Everything about the state’s brief history of Essex Chain stewardship has been disappointing so far. I still believe that the new land should have remained unclassified until 2018, when the last of the camps are removed. There should have been an interim period during which people could drive the roads, see the lakes, and satisfy their curiosity. Then begin the classification process once everybody had a chance to see the place. The public discussion would have been somewhat more experiential, less theoretical.

    Some people, having seen the lakes, might have lost interest completely. It’s hard to imagine that these lakes–while worthy of protection–truly live up to all this hype.

    It needs to be re-emphasized that in the grand scheme of things, when the disposition of the Finch Pruyn lands was determined in 2008, it was done in a way that the entire property would offer something for everybody. Those who prefer (or need) motorized access got the lion’s share of the deal through the easements. DEC has issued a management plan for motorized public access to these lands–including lands near the Essex Chain–that has received very little coverage. However, those who want the motorized access will happily take the easements AND access to the Essex Chain, and then berate the motorless advocates as narrow-minded elitists.

    Yes, I noticed the part of the UMP where the DEC commissioner simply proclaimed the Wild River status of the Hudson to be a non-issue in a “Hail Caesar” moment. The problem with state government in 2014 is a top-down issue. You need to change the leadership to change the culture.

    As for interpretations of the SLMP, the seeds for the Essex Chain’s spot zoning were planted years ago during the Pataki years. They began with harmless “primitive corridors” for private inholding access, grew into snowmobile corridors, grew again when Lows Lake was classified wilderness (despite the existence of riparian rights that should have disqualified such a designation), then the APA’s snuck-in-at-the-last-minute-after-all-public-comment-was-over Otter Brook wild forest corridor between West Canada and Little Moose, and finally the Hurricane/St Regis fire tower reclassifications.

    All of these actions were either supported by one or more conservation groups at the time, actively litigated by them (in the case of Lows Lake), or mildly rebuked by them. So while I see the top-level issue with state government mentioned above, I also fear that the wilderness voice is in disunity. Imagine if that had been the case in 1894 or 1972.

  2. Charlie Wilson says:

    I am most disturbed to find one of the most remote lakes designated for float plane fly-ins and campsites designed/reserved for them. Why should noise polluters be exempt from the usual campsite reservation rules? Why should they be allowed into this area at all?

  3. Jack Valentine says:

    Perhaps you need additional information regarding the history of the Chain Lakes Rd. In fact, there were previous owners of the lands prior to the acquisition and consolidation of these lands. In fact, the Town of Indian Lake was able to produce into evidence that the Town actually contracted to have the road plowed prior to purchase by Finch. The road was a public thoroughfare and was never abandoned. At the time, trucks and snowmobiles did not exist but had they been around, yes they would have been allowed to use the Chain Lakes Rd. from Indian Lake through to Newcomb. And yes, there was a bridge over the Cedar.

  4. Dave Gibson says:

    Thanks for your historical information and perspective, Jack. Whether or not old, premotorized roads through Forest Preserve are abandoned or not remains a legal challenge throughout the region. But the clear fee ownership and closure of this road during the long private tenure by Finch, Pruyn capped that era of public use, calling DEC’s grandfathering action today into question.

    • Paul says:

      If the public had a legal ROW across that land on that road and it existed for some time it would remain even once the land went to a new private owner?

      The public ROW simply existed behind the closed gates of Finch Pruyn. Now it is being reopened as it probably should have been all along.

      These roads are very difficult to close legally unless you are the town.

      • Woody says:

        If the public didn’t care about the ROW for all those years that Finch owned it then why the sudden concern now?

        And to clarify another of your invented facts, the state has the authority to shut down an abandoned hiway. In fact it happened on the other side of town a few years ago at John pond. Of course this does’nt exclude the public only the use of jeeps. The road itself is public land open to everyone, just not for everyone to use as they please.

        • Paul says:

          I am not talking about what the public “cares” about I am talking about what is legal regarding a public ROW.

          This is obviously not something that you or I get to decide it simply depends on the law. If you note I ended that comment with a question mark. We will have to see what happens in this case.

        • Paul says:

          Was the road you are referring to a state road or a town road?

          • Woody says:

            It was a town road that dead ended on state land, closed as a road by DEC, now a public trail. In the 1980s as I recall.

            With the Essex lakes, if it was a public ROW that locals were using, and then big bad Finch Pruyn gated it closed, then why did’nt some one make a stink then? Indian lake should have forced them to open, like if some resident put a gate on route 28 today. It was an ilegal act. But the public stopped using the road, and the town stopped doing work on it. That sounds like it was abandoned to me.

            If not then DEC can just declare it abandoned, sttle it that way. They should but won’t.

            • Paul says:

              If you look at what transpired over the Old Mountain Road in Keene this could be similar (and I emphasize could). I agree that it would look odd to want to declare this a public ROW that is still open given the fact that it wasn’t disputed during the FP ownership. Was it ever disputed?

              As far as use and abandonment (as far as folks just not using it) that doesn’t matter from a legal perspective. For a town road it must be officially closed by the town to be considered closed.

              The Old Mt. Road is a case in point. The DEC (the state) declared the road closed to motor vehicle traffic when it was classified as part of the Sentinal Range Wilderness. Based on court cases. See links below it has been well covered here on the Almanack. it was determined that the town never officially declared the road closed so it always remained “open”. The state fought this vigorously and lost. I think the town then closed the road to some motor vehicle use (or all?) but the point is it was a town call not the states.

              But if it is not listed as a town road on the towns list of highways this may all be moot.



              If you look closely you will see that the DEC does think that they have other means to close a road avoiding the towns and the necessary public hearings required to close a road via that route.

              • Woody says:

                This is more research than you usually do so I admit Im impressed. As I recall, Old Mountain Road was something that had not been used as a hiway in decades, so no one thought about it till this case came up. DEC has the authority to close the hiway under v&t law but I don’t know if they have yet.

                • Paul says:

                  I think the town has already restricted what motor vehicle traffic is allowed on the road. As I recall they allow limited ATV use on the road by town residents during the big game season. How they enforce something like that is hard to imagine. The DEC has said that it will not close the road under the other provision.

                  In any case the question is not going to be what use the road has had but if the road is an open road based on the law. If (and again a big if) the road is/was an “open” town road having it gated by FP doesn’t change anything. In that case the town was simply not exercising its ability to keep the road open.

                  This all depends on what the town decides to do. In this case they might not do anything (or know that they can’t like I said these are all based on some “ifs”).

  5. Pete Klein says:

    I think there is a larger issue afoot here that has nothing to do with the Adirondacks or the APA. It has to do with laws.
    People are sick of laws. They are sick of constantly being told what they can’t do because someone else doesn’t want them to do it.
    We have millions of laws in this country and we have even more millions of policies and protocols, all of which were never approved or voted upon by the general public.
    Not only do we have the No Party in Washington, we have no all over the place.
    It has gotten to the point where there are so many laws, policies and protocols that we are all guilty of something.
    I think people are just tired of always being told, “No, you can’t do that.”
    You want to know why the young people get the hell out of here as soon as possible? They are sick of always being told no and being told they should be happy living in such a boring place.

    • Woody says:

      As they say, if you don’t like it here you know where the door is.

      If you have something to say about what could be better it would be more interesting than a screed that seems to suggest we should imbrace anarchy. “People are sick of laws so lets get rid of em. Do what ever the hell you want. Make it fun.” Yeah ok. Some how I don’t think that would fly very good either.

      • Pete Klein says:

        Wood, your attitude is what keeps many away and drives some out.
        Like the Tea Party people, you seem to hate compromise. Know where the door is? Are you implying this is a gated community meant only for people who want to make the place a wilderness?

        • Woody says:

          And what attitude would that be? That negetive screeds with no positive suggestions contribute little to a discussion? Are you saying this too drives people out of the state, just like laws? And proves that I “hate compromise”?

          What I am implying is that if NYS makes you as unhappy as you claim, why DO you stay? Becuase you LIKE hating the APA? Because if you moved some where that had no laws or attitudes you would have nothing left to complain about? Seriosly, what?

          • Paul says:

            If you follow Pete’s comments he clearly enjoys living where he does in Hamilton County, at least it sounds like he does. If you look carefully at his comment he is talking about what he thinks may be an issue for “People.” It does not necessarily define him.

  6. Paul says:

    One thing that Dave has hit dead on with is the fact that they appear to be implementing the plan prior to implementation! Dave, does the interim plan cover these activities? They do have some sort of interim management plan.

  7. Paul says:

    “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.”

    Dave, are you sure that this is accurate? Many lesses do not enforce their posting on roads during the winter. They certainly do during big game season. But for example on the former Champion lands many roads were used as part of local trail networks. Some even allowed public ATV use outside of the deer season. Perhaps this road was much more tightly controlled by the clubs and FP.

  8. Dave Gibson says:

    Paul, I think the Chain Lakes Road was closed to all but lessees and their guests during Finch’s ownership, but that is based on information and belief, not direct experience. Thanks for commenting and questioning.

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