Another thick set of Forest Preserve recreational plans and maps was sent by the Department of Environmental Conservation to the Adirondack Park Agency at the 11th hour, just before the APA’s June meeting. It’s the second time in as many months that APA members felt unprepared.
In May, APA Member Richard Booth spoke of having to review 80 pages and 45 maps of alternative snowmobile trails through the Forest Preserve just a few days before his State Land Committee was expected to consider them in public. This month, APA Member Art Lussi said he had less than 24 hours to review the 141-page Essex Chain of Lakes Complex Draft Unit Management Plan (UMP), which includes more than 20 maps before the Committee’s most recent meeting. “I have to comment that these plans are thrown at us in a way that doesn’t allow for us to give you input,” Mr. Lussi said to Rob Davies of the DEC.
The timing was interesting. A particularly problematic snowmobile community connector route across the “scenic” Hudson River’s Polaris Bridge south of Newcomb was removed at the last moment by the APA from plans and maps sent out for public comment in May after DEC failed to analyze alternative routes, among other legal and public policy concerns.
After local elected officials complained about the connector’s removal in May, the Essex Chain UMP appears to have been expedited for the APA’s June meeting. That UMP contains this same snowmobile connector route between Indian Lake and Minerva.
Nonetheless, even this document was “evolving” according to Mr. Booth who noted that he, as Chair of the State Lands Committee, had been obligated to read three drafts of the UMP in as many days and was still reading the “final” draft at 3 am the morning of the APA meeting.
After the DEC presented a power point presentation on the Essex Chain of Lakes Draft UMP, Mr. Booth invited discussion from his committee. There were questions, but it was left to Mr. Booth to probe the major policy issues raised by DEC’s draft plan. Among his comments were the following:
- A preferred snowmobile community connector route involving the Polaris Bridge lacked substantive discussion of alternative ways to get between Indian Lake, Newcomb and Minerva, as the law requires. At least one feasible alternative seems to be dismissed without much explanation;
- Bicycling in the Primitive area, which is managed as Wilderness, is authorized without proper observance of State Land Master Plan guidelines, which have the force of law;
- New public motorized uses and river crossings on bridges within the Essex Chain Complex were declared “grandfathered” by DEC despite lacking a factual basis for such a determination;
- The Wild and Scenic River statute and regulations pertaining to new public snowmobile uses at the Cedar and Hudson Rivers are weakened in this UMP;
- The State Land Master Plan’s prohibition on public motorized uses within Primitive areas is compromised by DEC’s allowance of a select number of able-bodied people to drive right up to the Essex Chain of Lakes (persons with disabilities have this ability to access the lakes by motor vehicle, exclusively, under a commissioner’s policy).
My organization, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, and others commented on these and other issues a year ago when DEC issued its first draft UMP for the Essex Chain. That draft was withdrawn. While I am disappointed that we have to address these same issues again a year later, I note one improvement: snowmobiling and related routes and bridges, including a new 140-ft span over the Cedar River, is now open to public comment. A year ago, DEC’s draft UMP sought to avoid and postpone public comment on this subject, and hide the actual purpose of such a large bridge. The added clarity and transparency is appreciated.
One can offer a strong policy critique and simultaneously recognize tremendous staff effort. Mr. Booth did both. Following his comments, there were two reactions which caught my attention. One was from Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board’s Fred Monroe who advised the DEC that it should have legally defensible explanations prepared for all of Mr. Booth’s points. I could not agree more.
Another comment (I wasn’t sure who said it) was that “it was easy to criticize” the UMP. I wonder if whoever said this saw casual complaining rather than the strong policy critique I heard. Shouldn’t all members of the APA engage in critical thinking and questioning? Every member of the APA is an officer responsible to the public for understanding and upholding the State Land Master Plan and other laws protective of the Park and the Forest Preserve.
APA’s own State Land Master Plan clearly states that recreational considerations, such as snowmobile community connector trails, bicycle routes and hiking trails, are important, but secondary, to the plan’s paramount purpose, the protection of natural resources and wild character on the Forest Preserve. Yet, the evidence grows every month that recreational and economic opportunities are now the top priorities at APA and DEC because they are Governor Cuomo’s top priorities.
No, in the current climate it is definitely not easy to be seen as critical. In this or any administration where conformity is demanded up and down the ranks, an independent line of questioning, however cogent and well-founded, is discomforting for those listening and isolating for the questioner.
The public can comment on the Essex Chain UMP through July 27. Public hearings are scheduled in early June for Indian Lake and Newcomb. Go to www.dec.ny.gov/lands/97474.html for more information.
Photo: The Polaris Bridge and the Upper Hudson (courtesy Protect the Adirondacks).