Friday, November 13, 2015

APA Approves Controversial Essex Chain Plan

Polaris Bridge over the Hudson River (Linda McIntyre Photo)The Adirondack Park Agency board voted 8-2 Friday to approve a management plan for the Essex Chain Lakes region that one of the dissenters denounced for its “legal fiction.”

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.

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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

16 Responses

  1. Bruce says:

    “Booth noted that most Primitive Areas have the potential to become a Wilderness Area in the future.”

    Are the critics saying that Primitive is actually intended to become Wilderness? If so, where does it say that in the Master Plan? It is clear that “potential” use is not the same as required use, and has the “potential” to remain as it is, which may or may not change in the future. It sounds to me as if environmentalists are pushing for a “potential future” to happen now, which could give it the force of precedent law regarding future purchases. I believe that’s what they are really after.

    If the roads in their present state were suitable for motorized traffic before the purchase, then bicycles don’t present a problem so long as they are restricted to existing road(s). A previous article indicated the roads were classified as “all weather”.

    • Paul says:

      Bruce, as far as a Primitive classification goes that has always been the agenda. Call it Primitive, allow the use and get rid of it later when the smoke clears and fewer people are paying attention.

      • Bruce says:


        All I’m saying is that until the state designates the tract as wilderness, those rules specific to a wilderness designation are not being broken.

  2. Pete Klein says:

    I’ll just say this for now.
    Words. Definitions. Lawyers. Lawyers defining what words mean.
    A rose by any other name is a rose.
    It’s the woods. It’s a forest. Forgetaboutit.

  3. RL Stolz says:

    While the politics of the APA’s decision is not difficult to understand, the “logic” supporting their legal stance is more than questionable. The law is inconveniently clear on this matter. The APA’s “interpretation” of the law seems little more than an expedient way to avoid following it. This precedent places politics above the environment but, more significantly, it continues a disturbing trend whereby politics now trumps the law as well. The laws that protect this park are intentionally restrictive and that is why it is still, more or less, intact. The APA’s decision violates both the spirit and the letter of law, and rationalizes it by suggesting that somehow economic concerns make it all OK. This kind of thinking, with regard to a park that was created to preserve wildness, is shortsighted at best. The worst part is that eroding wilderness protections will ultimately reduce the unique character of this place, which is the real economic draw of the park. This is a sad day for the Adirondack Park and for the rule of law.

    • joe says:

      One person’s sad day for the Park is another person’s great day. Such are political decisions. It’s public forever wild land now, regardless of the nit-picking. It actually may have been better protected in private hands, but the combination of public access and forever wild status is good thing. The classification matters little in the grand scheme of things.

      If it is a sad day for the rule of law, so be it. There certainly are plenty of laws that need changing, and many that are ignored even by law enforcement. The SAFE Act comes to mind. The law is not the stable thing people like to think. Never has been, never will be.

    • Todd Eastman says:

      Nicely stated RL!

  4. Bruce says:

    “This kind of thinking, with regard to a park that was created to preserve wildness, is shortsighted at best.”

    I’m curious, the land in question has been in private hands, recently taken over by the state. Until now, that land had whatever use the owners pretty much deemed it to have, including logging and a private club. With those gone, some of the land will inevitably return to it’s natural state regardless of designation. How is that an “erosion,” when it is in fact, a net gain to the park as a whole?

    The managers of the AP and the DEC have the unenviable job of balancing land use within the park. There is nothing in the Master Plan about preserving all forest lands acquired by the state as either Wilderness or Primitive, quite the contrary. Different people have and will always have different takes on what constitutes “wildness.” That’s what this fight is all about.

  5. Todd Eastman says:

    What is the track record for mountain bikers and snowmobilers staying on their designated roads and trails?

    One would hope that by approving bike and snowmobile use in this area, the agencies have planned for the considerable increase in staffing required for managing for corridor based travel.

    Have the differing costs of managing Wilderness and Primitive Areas been considered by the agencies in this decision?

    Will staffing resources be pulled away from other places to manage the Essex Chain?

  6. chris says:

    Grandfather didn’t pass the paternity test on this one. What a scam!

  7. Pete Klein says:

    One of the most boring things about living in the Adirondacks is the constant fight over the classification of state land.
    The so called environmentalist seem to want all state land classified as wilderness.
    If that is what they want, they should say so.
    The world is going to hell and all that is fought about up here is classifications.

    • Bruce says:


      I wish I were able to live in the park, but you bring up a good point. I’ve only been reading the “Almanack” for a year or two now, and you’re absolutely right. Environmental groups do seem to be operating under some notion that the main purpose of the APA is to preserve newly acquired public forest lands as “wilderness.” If that were so, then why have more than one classification in the Master Plan? As I understand it, the main purpose of creating the Adirondack Park in the first place was to control rampant and unrestricted logging, while allowing access for different forms of recreation.

      You’re not alone. Here in NC we have about 1.4 million acres of National Forest. Every 10 years when the US Forest Service comes out with a new management plan (which by USDA charter includes some logging), the environmental groups start spreading disinformation about the forest being raped bare by private business. I’ve been here 25 years and so far I haven’t seen evidence of the forest being “raped.”

      To be fair, the environmental groups do point out specific areas of historic or scenic value which probably shouldn’t be logged anyway, and the Forest Service acquiesces on many of these, giving loggers alternate areas. To my knowledge, the small areas of old growth trees are being protected. Most of the forest is second and third growth.

      • Paul says:

        Bruce, The Adirondack Park was created for just what you describe and a few bikes and a bridge are not a threat to what the park is designed to protect.

  8. Dave says:

    My take: King Andrew made the decision long ago, the agencies were told to make it happen. period.

  9. Paul says:

    So is this finally the end of this?

    “both organizations replied that they are keeping their legal options open”

    Of course not.

  10. ADKerDon says:

    Time to ban all hiking in the forest preserve. Hikers are the most destructive users. They cause soil erosion, pollute all the streams and waters, destroy the vegetation, and leave their garbage all over the forest and roadside. Ban all hiking now! Pass legislation restricting the forest preserve to those lands above 3,000 feet elevation. Open all lands below 3,000 feet to all outdoor recreation – except hikers. Hikers not wanted here.

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