One of the major controversies is over the decision to retain an iron bridge over the Hudson River for use as a future snowmobile trail.
The Hudson in that area is classified as a Scenic River, a designation that normally precludes motorized uses and large bridges. The state Department of Environmental Conservation, however, contends that motorized use over the river predated the law and thus can continue.
The Polaris Bridge, as it’s called, spans a part of the Hudson known as the Blackwell Stillwater. Finch, Pruyn & Company rebuilt the bridge in the early 1990s to access timberlands on the east side of the river. Members of the Polaris Club now use the bridge to drive to their camps.
However, critics point out that the bridge, since it had been on private property, was never open to the general public. They argue that DEC’s legal rationale for allowing snowmobiles to use the bridge sets a dangerous precedent. Whenever the state acquires land in the future, they say, DEC could grandfather in a variety of uses that took place when the land was in private hands.
“The grandfathering concept is a sham, and the agency ought not to permit it,” said Dick Booth, chairman of the APA’s State Land Committee. “It will come back to haunt us.”
All four of the Park’s major environmental groups side with Booth. The Adirondack Council and Adirondack Mountain Club have consulted with lawyers on the matter. Asked if they intend to sue, the executive directors of both organizations replied that they are keeping their legal options open.
Booth said he does not oppose keeping the bridge or using it for snowmobiling, but he contends that DEC needs to amend the Wild, Scenic, and Recreational Rivers Act to make it legal.
Board member Art Lussi raised a similar objection. “I wanted to see a legally defensible solution,” he said. Although lawyers for the APA and DEC did their best to provide one, he added, “I can’t agree with it.”
Both Lussi and Booth voted against the management plan.
Robert Davies, director of DEC’s Division of Lands and Forests, said the department disagrees with the legal arguments of Booth and the environmental groups. He said the WSR Act clearly allows pre-existing uses to continue. “The law doesn’t talk about public or private uses,” he told Adirondack Almanack. “It talks about existing uses.”
The state purchased the Essex Chain Lakes from the Adirondack Nature Conservancy in 2012 and promised leaders of local towns that the land would be open for a variety of recreational uses. The management plan attempts to fulfill that promise. Although most of the land is classified as Primitive or Wilderness – designations that typically prohibit snowmobiling and biking – the plan provides for both.
To provide for snowmobiling, the state created a narrow Wild Forest corridor – a classification that allows motorized uses – between the Essex Chain Primitive Area and Hudson Gorge Wilderness Area. The snowmobile trail would cross the river at the Polaris Bridge and continue north through the Vanderwhacker Wild Forest to Newcomb. Critics contend that the snowmobile route duplicates a nearby route and violates the department’s snowmobile policy.
DEC also is allowing mountain bikes on dirt roads in the Primitive Area. Critics say it should not do this without first amending the State Land Master Plan. The APA is considering an amendment to the master plan to allow bicycles in the Essex Chain region and perhaps in all Primitive Areas, but that decision won’t be made until next year.
Booth said he is not against biking in the Essex Chain region, but he thinks the master plan should be amended to create a new classification he refers to as Backwoods Recreation. Such a tract would be managed as a Primitive Area except that bicycling would be allowed.
Booth noted that most Primitive Areas have the potential to become a Wilderness Area in the future. They might have uses that do not conform to Wilderness guidelines but are managed as Wilderness with the aim that someday those non-conforming uses will cease. An example of a non-conforming use is an old road that is still open to motor vehicles.
In the case of the Essex Chain Primitive Area, DEC’s intent is to allow bikes indefinitely. He said that isn’t the intent of the Primitive classification as defined in the State Land Master Plan. “I want biking to be allowed in the Essex Chain, but in a way that doesn’t do damage to the Primitive classification,” Booth told Adirondack Almanack.
Photo of Polaris Bridge by Lynda McIntyre.