Wednesday, December 23, 2015

APA, DEC Proposals Would Alter Wilderness Protection

Adirondack Park Open-for-Business VignetteThe 2015 report Adirondack Park at a Crossroad: A Road Map for Action begins this way:

“We document recent permit decisions and management practices by the NYS Adirondack Park Agency (APA) and Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) which we believe are inconsistent with the constitutional and statutory requirements designed to ensure long term protection of the Park’s integrity and which are irreconcilable with the agencies’ obligations as the public’s trustees of the Adirondack Park…We illustrate how this significant shift in priorities at APA and DEC…are part of a larger pattern of allowing increasingly destructive development to proceed with little or no environmental baseline data, only cursory environmental review, and little in the way of avoidance or mitigation of negative impacts.”

As the year ends, we see the pattern described in our report of favoring recreational use over the State Land Master Plan’s “paramount” purpose of natural resource and wilderness protection continuing. Several of the State Land Master Plan (SLMP) amendment alternatives sent by the APA in December to public hearing in January would, if selected as the preferred alternative, fundamentally alter wilderness protection policies in place since 1972.

Under the SLMP, Primitive areas are to be managed in a condition “as close to wilderness as possible” where most public motorized and mechanized uses are prohibited (SLMP pg. 27). Among the alternatives sent by APA to public hearing in January are two allowing bicycling on “former all season roads, now trails” in all Primitive areas and allowing motor vehicles such as tracked excavators to maintain those bicycle routes. Bicycling is already allowed under the SLMP on designated routes within 1.3 million acres of Forest Preserve classified as Wild Forest, as well as on Intensive Use areas such as Mt. Van Hoevenberg.

Why is this potential change important? Our National Wilderness Preservation Act of 1964 was modeled on New York’s “forever wild” constitution. In turn, our state’s State Land Master Plans and Wilderness (Primitive) guidelines were modeled after the National Wilderness Act. That act states: there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area” (Subsection 4c of the National Wilderness Preservation Act of 1964).

Off-road Bicycles constitute prohibited machinery and mechanical transport because they profoundly affect wilderness character and conditions. As Wilderness Society founder Bob Marshall wrote, wilderness is “a region which … possesses no possibility of conveyance by any mechanical means.” The lead House sponsor of the National Wilderness bill, Representative John P. Saylor, a conservative Pennsylvania Republican, explained to his colleagues in 1964: “the stress and strain of our crowded, fast-moving, highly-mechanized and raucously noisy civilization create another great need for wilderness — a deep need for areas of solitude and quiet, for areas of wilderness where life has not yet given way to machinery.”

I do not expect the citizens of New York State to favor bikes and motorized maintenance of bike routes in all Primitive areas, nor do I expect the APA to ultimately favor that alternative. Nonetheless, its inclusion as one possible alternative under consideration once again shows how recreational activities are trumping wild land protection considerations (those “paramount” concerns in the law) at the DEC, APA and Governor’s office. None of the impacts of this possible change to wilderness character and standards in Primitive was analyzed in advance by APA staff. No one at the APA analyzed in advance how the alternative would impact the following statement: “The objective for 22 of these areas (Primitive) is to eventually upgrade them to wilderness” (SLMP pg. 29). Should the bicycling-in-all Primitive area alternative be chosen and signed by Governor Cuomo, this “wilderness-in-waiting” policy for at least 22 Primitive areas would be foreclosed.

One might reasonably conclude that most members of the APA would be vocally concerned about a fundamental policy shift lacking sufficient study. And one would be wrong. Only the chairman of the State Land Committee, Mr. Booth, raised strong objection. “Primitive is near Wilderness according to our master plan,” he told his colleagues. “Think of motor vehicles traveling all through these primitive areas to maintain bike trails. This alternative will change primitive areas and is a major policy shift.”

“There is no factual basis to consider bikes and motor vehicles in all primitive areas,” Booth continued. “You have not presented information about the extent and location of former all-season roads in primitive. Therefore, it can’t be justified as an alternative.” APA staff admitted that “we did not map out the roads in primitive to be able to say which are all-season roads. We were unable to determine their condition or make an assessment.” Booth moved that alternatives 3a and 3b (the ones that would authorize biking and motorized maintenance of bike routes in all primitive areas) be eliminated. Mr. Booth also moved that alternative 5 which would authorize the use of non-natural materials, such as steel, in bridges within all Wild Forest areas be eliminated because it too had not received sufficient study and analysis as to current locations and conditions of bridges and impacts of the alternative on 1+ million acres of Wild Forest. Booth did not move to strike the alternative that would limit bicycling and related maintenance to the Essex Chain of Lakes Primitive area.

Mr. Booth’s motion to amend failed in the committee 3-2. Chairwoman Ulrich voted with Booth. But when a motion was made to approve the amendment package as presented by staff and send it to hearing, the chairwoman changed her vote and Mr. Booth was the lone “no” vote. Then, when the full board was prepared to vote Mr. Booth made one more effort. “You have not considered the alternative of creating an entirely new state land classification which could authorize bicycling in backcountry areas (without affecting existing Primitive areas). Without such an alternative, this is not a reasonable environmental impact statement.” Booth urged his colleagues not to support the EIS going out to public hearing. The vote was 9-1 to send the package to hearing in January. Those hearings are currently scheduled for Jan. 6 in Ray Brook, Jan. 7 in Newcomb, and Jan 13 at the Albany DEC headquarters.

APA staff and DEC were quick to react to Mr. Booth’s objections. They asserted that any motorized maintenance of bike routes in Primitive would be occasional, not routine, and only for major emergencies or major wash-outs and would require the approval of the DEC commissioner. Furthermore, they asserted that by using motor vehicles to repair wash-outs the repairs would be faster and therefore might cause less natural resource damage. Mr. Booth responded by stating that use of vehicles and motorized equipment to respond to sudden, actual and ongoing emergencies involving protection of human life or intrinsic resource values (search and rescue, forest fire, oil spills, large scale contamination of water bodies) in a Wilderness or Primitive area is already authorized by the SLMP. Secondly, he said that if motor vehicles were ever authorized to maintain bike trails in Primitive it is completely unrealistic to assume that such motorized maintenance would be used sparingly.

See you at the SLMP hearings in January.


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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

23 Responses

  1. Scott says:

    It seems like the real problem is not bikes and not lack of environmental study, the problem is all these primitive and wilderness areas with all these roads.

    • scottvanlaer says:

      What wilderness area has a greater road complex then the Western High Peaks? That doesn’t seem to be a problem for anyone. One could easily drive all they way to Duck Hole if it were legal.

  2. M.P. Heller says:

    With regards to alternatives 3a and 3b:

    Perhaps it’s time to review that list of primitive areas and see which ones have become ripe to transition to Wilderness. That takes them off the table and moves the stated desired process along, converting primitive to wilderness. If for some reason a given primitive area has not moved towards the desired characteristics for conversion to wilderness in an appropriate amount of time then perhaps other uses or classifications should be considered once that determination is made.

    Maintainability of bike facilities must be considered if a multitude of new biking opportunities is going to be provided to the public. Currently resources including labor are stretched thin when it comes to availability for maintenance of existing public lands. Adding more facilities for the public without the proper resources for proper care is going to make it harder than it is already to accomplish an adequate and consistent level of usability. Mechanization is a valid consideration for non routine and emergency maintenance in these conditions.

    Alternative 5 addresses the use of non native/natural materials for backcountry construction. On some levels this is done on a widespread basis already. Permits have been issued and work has already been completed on 3 of 4 massive construction projects in the high peaks wilderness area. A 5 storey 4 foot wide pressure treated staircase was installed on the Ore Bed Trail after hurricane Irene, one was just completed on Mount Colden with a second to begin construction in 2016, and the last on Cascade Mountain. This doesnt consider the dozens of newer construction bridges throughout the wilderness nor tge other hiker improvements such as boardwalks and butter boxes. Pressure treated is not natural despite it originally being just plain lumber. No study has been done to see what the impacts of large scale use if ACQ lumber is in fragile alpine settings such as the boreal bog on Boundary Peak in the alpine zone which now hosts many feet if it might be. Nor has anyone bothered to study the effects of the copper that leaches into the watershed from the countless uses of pressure treated might be.

    To reduce the use of these toxic materials in the Forest Preserve I think it’s worth considering safer materials when constructing these accommodations. For water crossings some type of metal or aggregate material might be a safer and longer lasting solution. This could be applied to adopting a policy of turnpuking rather than boardwalking in areas that it’s needed. By using certain non natural materials in this way cleaner and safer methods of maintenance would be possible. It would also enable the structures made with these types of materials to have less of a visual impact by reducing their profile and thus enabling a more ‘untrammled by man’ appearance.

    • Boreas says:


      My friend and I had a nasty case of ‘turnpuking’ after a questionable breakfast when climbing Redfield once… ; )

  3. Bill Ingersoll says:

    I’m glad to see the Backcountry Area idea got a bit of traction with at least one person at APA.

    • Justin Farrell says:

      Seems to me like a perfect time & opportunity, and makes perfect sense to adopt a new unit classification such as a “Backcountry Area”!

  4. adkDreamer says:

    Dave, great post. Easy to understand the APA is recommending that NYS break it’s own laws. Far more difficult a task to hold our state government and it’s agencies accountable for their transgressions against the collective owners of the Adirondack Park. This is the way of the continuum, entropy prevails when governments fail.

  5. Ed Zahniser says:

    Thanks, David, for laying this out so carefully. A major irony is that, as ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote, the value of outdoor recreation inheres in its contrast to daily life.

    Motors and mechanical conveyances — and the latter will bring more motors no matter what the APA scofflaw proponents maintain, as Mr. Booth points out — minimize and erase the contrast and its special value. Do they require APA members to uphold the State Constitution? Maybe they should. Their actions here are actionable.

    • Boreas says:

      I think NYS voters need to re-assess the function of the APA. It still has teeth, but is using them to chase its own tail. NY can no longer predict how it will come down on any decision. It has lost its compass. If the compass cannot be reset, it needs to be abolished, as currently it is providing erratic decisions and frustrating both development and preservation – thus leaving the entire Park in a type of legal limbo.

      • John Warren says:

        “frustrating both development and preservation”

        The APA has almost never turned down a project, maybe two in 40 years.

        • Paul says:

          That is because projects are designed to meet the regulations. What is the point in applying for a permit you won’t get? It doesn’t mean the regulations are not strict.

        • Boreas says:


          Good point, but I was trying to give them the benefit of the doubt – in the holiday spirit…

  6. Bruce says:

    APA staff admitted that “we did not map out the roads in primitive to be able to say which are all-season roads. We were unable to determine their condition or make an assessment.”

    Based on that statement alone, neither APA staff nor environmental groups are in a position to make any blanket statements about these lands. Without knowing the specifics of a particular tract, decisions concerning use will be based on guesswork and/or particular agendas, rather than fact.

    Environmental groups may actually have a better grasp on the character of these lands than the APA, because their members are more likely to have been on the land. The downside is it gives the groups leverage towards arriving at the designation they want. It’s the APA’s job to know what they’re dealing with so an equitable plan can be put forth.

  7. ADKerDon says:

    Gibson and Booth both show their prejudice against our disabled veterans, wounded warriors, elderly, and all others less than physically fit. They would deny all the people except healthy access to and use of these lands. These lands belong to all the people, not just these haters of the Americans with Disabilities Law! Booth and Gibson continue to lie about “forever wild.” There is no such provision. Article XIV reads that all lands shall be kept as WILD FOREST lands and to benefit the local communities! It is time to restrict the forest preserve to those lands above 3,000 feet elevation only and open all the lands 3,000 feet and below to all the people for all types of outdoor recreation.

    • John Warren says:

      Don, making the same exact comment on every post is spam. Please stop doing that.

      John Warren

    • adkDreamer says:

      AdKerDon – You have misquoted Article XIV.

    • Marco says:

      ADKerDon, There is no restriction on disabled people. This is a false statement. They can go anywhere. No, none of the trails are maintained specifically as trails for them. Indeed there is a grey area about trails, anyway. They change. I don’t believe any ranger would give you a ticket for having a wheelchair on one of the trails. The typical ADK attitude is do what you think you can do. If you can’t, you will find out…usually the hard way.

      I simply cannot see spending so much on trails to every hill under 3000′. Specific trails to ease access for those that cannot walk can be done, but it is hardly a matter of doing so on every peak. All the DEC camps have at least one, sometimes two sites designated for people with disabilities. They are rarely used as such. I fear that those with disabilities found that even with special bathrooms, showers and sites, it was still a lot of work. They did NOT adopt the idea as something to do.

      And you say people with “disabilities.” You actually mean those that cannot walk. People with missing limbs, or damaged legs/feet/hips or spines do fine. I hiked along the NPT with a disabled vet that has a walking difficulty. I fell, he did not. You are a spammer that is looking for the state to pay for your way. My friend does not look at it that way. He is looking to make himself productive DESPITE is injury. Not have his way with the world because he was mortared. Nope, he is not what you call physically fit. But, he does not quit and beg. I am technically disabled, myself. But I keep on going.

      I am well past 60 years old. I still head out into the wilderness regularly. I don’t hunt, but I do fish. Nope, I am not a prime specimen of physical fitness. I will not stop until the outside kills me, though. I will likely not die in bed.

  8. Matt says:

    Besides you, Dave, I wonder how many other folks have rode their bikes in the Essex Chain since its been open for that particular activity? I don’t hear much discussion about it. Why?

    • Dave Gibson says:


      From my very limited use and observations since 2014, bicycling in the Essex Chain is not for the serious off-roader but mostly for family groups looking for some good summer exercise, including members of the Goodnow Flow Association residing just north of the Chain Lakes. We will learn more about biking in the area at the State Land Master Plan amendment public hearings on Jan. 6, 7 and 13.

  9. Lauren pereau says:

    Generally, it is considered, that an APA approval means the impacts have been considered very thoroughly. There will always be dissenters, particularly on large decisions.

  10. Bruce says:

    “as close to wilderness as possible” Not the same as saying “primitive” SHALL become “wilderness” at a later date. It’s an option which may or may not be exercised.

    “In turn, our state’s State Land Master Plans and Wilderness (Primitive) guidelines were modeled after the National Wilderness Act.” “Modeled after” is a set of guidelines, not hard and fast rules.

    There’s nothing stopping the state under the SLMP from reclassifying primitive to wilderness, or reclassifying any category to any higher category for that matter, as conditions change. Let’s keep things in perspective.