I recently visited this spot in the Black River Wild Forest while surveying trail damage from ATVs. I had heard that this lean-to was being used as a private camp and using Google Earth I could see a chimney and skylights in the lean-to roof and a large cleared area. When I reached the site, it was even worse than I expected.
Chub Pond lean-to 1 had been modified with a new roof, two skylights, and a chimney where a wood stove is hooked up. The lean-to has extensive shelving, tables, benches, bunkbeds, and even counters wrapped in a checkerboard laminate covering. A gas cook stove and oven is stored in the lean-to. Tables, benches, and chairs were strapped onto the ceiling. The lean-to had a wide porch. The whole place was very neat and tidy, yet these types of modifications are prohibited by state-land regulations.
The outhouse was used for storage of private supplies and had extensive shelving. A number of shovels, rakes, poles, a trash can, a ladder, and other yard tools are stored on site. Nearby, cut lumber is stored under a tarp. A second supply stash, wrapped under a tarp, had mattresses, a wood stove, and other materials. A lawn mower was also stored at the site. The storage of private supplies on the Forest Preserve is prohibited.
A significant number of trees had been cut down around the lean-to. Cutting down a tree on the Forest Preserve is illegal. While I did not undertake a total stump count, dozens of stumps within a close proximity to the lean-to were seen. In addition to the tree cutting, it also appears that the wetland field around the lean-to has been mowed. Lawn mowing is prohibited on the Forest Preserve.
All of the modifications to the lean-to and all the furniture strapped to the ceiling made for an uninviting and unwelcoming atmosphere for other visitors.
See a more extensive array of pictures of Chub Pond Lean-to 1 here.
I contacted the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and submitted a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request for documents about the history and management of this lean-to. There was nothing in the Black River Wild Forest Area Unit Management Plan about special, exclusive use. When I recounted what I saw, DEC staff agreed that all those things were illegal and were supposed to have been cleared up years ago.
When I received documents through the FOIL request, three key points became clear. First, when this lean-to was originally built in the 1960s, DEC was uncomfortable with the arrangement. From the record, it appears that a group of individuals built this lean-to for public use on their own dime, but that there was a quid pro quo that they would get exclusive use during big-game hunting season. Any DEC reservations about this arrangement were met with intervention by area political representatives on behalf of this group.
The Chub Pond lean-to 1 group was given the right to build and maintain this lean-to. They were allowed to mow the field and cut Forest Preserve trees around the lean-to after storms to clean the site up. They were allowed to fix damage from fallen trees. They were also allowed to erect an outbuilding and store some personal materials there.
The second thing the FOIL documents show is that DEC tried to reign in the private use of this lean-to, including modifications and storage of personal supplies and equipment. In 2003, DEC issued a Consent Order detailing a series of violations. A well built at the site was ordered disconnected, various private supplies were supposed to be removed, and the skylights were ordered removed. If these things were not undertaken, the group would be hit with a $5,000 fine. From my field visit in August, it appears that not only were the majority of these violations not enforced, but that illegal activities were expanded.
The third thing the FOIL documents show is that members of the original group had died or were no longer in physical condition to use lean-to. The lean-to was largely accessed by floatplane and ATVs. The use of this lean-to had been passed along to a new generation. One statement in the record made by a current user was that he and others were bequeathed exclusive use of the lean-to in the will of one of the original group.
It appears that the new generation of users had expanded modifications at the lean-to and taken its private use to whole new level since 2003.
If annual permits were given to this group, they were not provided as part of my FOIL request.
I submitted letters to the DEC and Adirondack Park Agency (APA) requesting more information about this unusual arrangement and calling for an investigation. DEC has since told me that legal action is being taken and because of that they can no longer talk about the issue.
The various Forest Preserve violations need to be resolved, but another important issue that should be investigated concerns internal DEC management. When I talked with staff at the DEC Region 6 office in Watertown they expressed dismay and said they thought the issue was resolved years ago. They were surprised to hear that uses and violations had been expanded. DEC staff in Albany professed that they knew nothing whatsoever about this lean-to.
There are many questions for the DEC. Why was the 2003 Consent Order never enforced? Who from DEC visited the lean-to? What reports were provided from the field to Forest Preserve management supervisors in Watertown or Albany? Who in Watertown or Albany followed up on the Consent Order? What information was sent to the APA?
The easy thing for the DEC will be to throw the book at those who occupied this lean-to as a private camp and violated numerous Forest Preserve laws and regulations. What remains to be seen is how the DEC will examine its internal management failures and what reforms will be undertaken.
The APA just announced it’s looking at revision of the State Land Master Plan, the management policy for the Forest Preserve. One weakness of joint APA-DEC management of the Forest Preserve has long been enforcement of Forest Preserve management violations by the DEC or in situations such as the Chub Pond lean-to 1 where violations are tolerated by the DEC.