For nearly 25 years the Crane Pond Road has existed as an illegal and controversial 2-mile-long road in the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness area. This summer, there were regular reports about cars and trucks getting stuck in a mud wallow at a degraded point where the Crane Pond Road cuts through a wetland. In August, I encountered a group stuck there with their jeep when I walked the road.
In September, state agencies celebrated 50 years of the National Wilderness Act. The Adirondack Park Agency (APA) had presentations about the Wilderness Act and the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) attended various ceremonies to pay homage to Wilderness. Both agencies elegized the importance of Wilderness.
The failure to close the Crane Pond Road belies their pretty words about Wilderness. Natural resource degradation has reached a point where the Crane Pond Road is now a public safety hazard.
The Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (SLMP) states that if there is a “unifying theme” to management of the Forest Preserve “it is that the protection and preservation of the natural resources of the state lands within the Park must be paramount. Human use and enjoyment of those lands should be permitted and encouraged, so long as the resources in their physical and biological context as well as their social or psychological aspects are not degraded.”
The great value of the Forest Preserve has always been natural resource protection on a big scale across a large, intact landscape. This provides wild animals and wild nature an opportunity to exist in a mostly natural state without serious interference by people. Indeed, natural resource protection is what the Forest Preserve is all about. That the State of New York has set aside around 10% of the state in the “forever wild” Forest Preserve in the Adirondacks and Catskills is a great achievement.
The Forest Preserve also provides a stunning array of outdoor recreational opportunities. These opportunities are timeless, allowing people to visit places again and again with only the most subtle of changes in a world otherwise driven by ceaseless and dramatic change.
The SLMP sets out two tests for management of the Forest Preserve – natural resource protection and human use and enjoyment. Forest Preserve planning from Wilderness through Intensive Use area classifications is designed to protect natural resources while providing a broad array of public recreational options and experiences. The chief thing that separates Wilderness from less stringent classifications, such as Wild Forest, is the use of motor vehicles. Wilderness areas are supposed to be motor-free.
If the “protection and preservation of the natural resources” of these lands is paramount, then the state has failed the test at the Crane Pond Road. Human use and enjoyment of these lands by automobile has degraded the natural resources that are supposed to be protected.
The existence of the Crane Pond Road prevents the forest from regenerating. It allows for more intensive human use and enjoyment with motor vehicles. The Crane Pond Road provides a trail for invasive species, such as purple loosestrife, which has now infested a wetland deep into the interior of the Forest Preserve near Crane Pond. Motor vehicle use and car-camping that is popular along Crane Pond Road undermines the Wilderness character and atmosphere of this area.
Crane Pond Road has a long legal history. In 1979, part of the road was initially classified as a Primitive Corridor within the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness where the road would remain usable based on maintenance and use. But a Primitive Corridor is a temporary classification that needs to facilitate management of a non-conforming use, such as access to a private land inholding, such as the Primitive Corridor roads along Lake Lila. Crane Pond Road was officially classified as part of the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness area in November 1987 as part of a classification package signed by Governor Mario Cuomo after official recommendations by the APA.
In 1989, the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Thomas Jorling ordered the road closed. DEC used its authority under the State Highway law. The Supervisor of the Town of Schroon, John Kelly, sued the DEC and the State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the DEC. Kelly appealed to the Appellate Division, which upheld the Supreme Court decision in favor of the DEC’s authority to close the road. The Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, turned down a motion seeking leave to appeal the Appellate Division decision. The courts steadfastly affirmed the DEC’s legal right to close the road.
The Pharaoh Lake Wilderness Area Unit Management Plan (UMP) was approved in 1992 and recounts this legal history. The UMP affirmed that this road should be closed.
The state attempted to barricade the road with large boulders but these were removed. Outcries from motor vehicle access activists and local government have carried the day since then to keep the road open. A scuffle on the road saw Adirondack leaders glorified for standing up to Wilderness advocates who wanted the road closed. For more than 20 years, the Crane Pond Road has remained open and non-conforming, through five New York Governors and various administrations of the DEC and APA.
Crane Pond Road runs for approximately two miles through Forest Preserve lands to Crane Pond. There are several trailheads along the road and two informal parking areas before a parking area, boat launch, and cluster of campsites and the end of the road on the west end of Crane Pond. The road runs through wetlands and along steep ridge sides.
My visit in August found management to be haphazard and unlike any other part of the Forest Preserve. I did not drive the road, but parked at the end of the Town of Schroon section of Crane Pond Road, where the DEC maintains a parking area, and before the Crane Pond Road turns sharply south into the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness area.
There was no trailhead register. There was not a single Forest Preserve, State Land or Wilderness Area sign all along the Crane Pond Road. If these had been put up over the years, they had been removed. Trailhead signs still remain, though often 10 feet high and one has to squint to read them. Thankfully various “No Fire” or “No Camping” signs remain because there are many undesignated roadside camping spots. I saw no Forest Ranger that day, though more than a dozen cars were encountered along the road.
There were cars parked at the main parking area outside the Wilderness area. Perhaps these were people who knew that the Crane Pond Road is an illegal road in the Wilderness area and chose not to drive on the road. Or, these were people who found the road in disrepair and did not want to risk damage to their vehicle. Or, perhaps, these were people who just wanted to hike. Click here for more pictures of the Crane Pond Road.
At the end of the Crane Pond Road where it’s a Town of Schroon Road, just before the parking area and Wilderness boundary, there’s a large 10-foot American flag suspended above the road. I took this to be a statement about the “rights” of motor vehicle advocates to use the Crane Pond Road and symbolic of what this road has come to represent.
The Crane Pond Road has been maintained over the years. There are fresh water bars in places along the road. Downed trees have been cut and cleared. Fill has been deposited in places. The DEC state’s that it has not done any work on this road and said it does not know who maintains the road. A Freedom of Information Request to the Town of Schroon about road maintenance activities has not been answered. Information about whether Rangers patrol on foot or in a truck was not provided by the DEC.
The DEC has clear legal authority to close this road, but has elected not to do so for political reasons. The failure to effectively manage the closure of this road has resulted in serious natural resource damage to the Forest Preserve.
50 years after the National Wilderness Act, wilderness remains so controversial that our state agencies that manage Wilderness in the Adirondack Park cannot enforce Wilderness laws, regulations or policies.
The APA and DEC are exploring options for revision of the State Land Master Plan. Crane Pond Road reveals weaknesses in enforcement of the SLMP. Violation of the law has not moved these agencies to act. Public safety has not moved these agencies to act. Natural resource degradation has not moved these agencies to act.
This week I received letters from the APA and DEC stating that they have opened a Forest Preserve Violations Report on the Crane Pond Road based on a letter we submitted. I look forward to their investigation and response.