Saturday, January 16, 2016

Pete Nelson: When “Balance” Becomes Rhetoric

IMG_1819Balance. The very definition of fairness, reason, harmony, and goodwill. Recently here in the Adirondacks, the word balance has been in the air – and why not? What’s not to love?   That’s the beautiful thing about rhetoric. And if I know anything, I know balance has entered the pantheon of Adirondack rhetoric.

A significant proportion of policy makers who talk about balance however, have an agenda that implies an imbalance in favor of Forest Preserve protection – a long-standing imbalance that needs to be corrected for the good of local communities. The debate underway now over how our Adirondack Park’s wildest places will be managed in the future offers a case in point.

Currently, the Adirondack Park Agency has a plan to amend the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (they are accepting public comments through January 29). The SLMP governs how state land is classified, protected, and managed in the Adirondack Park.  The APA’s impetus to change the SLMP is tied to their plans for the newly acquired Essex Chain Lakes, where they seek to expand bicycling on existing road systems in two areas classified Primitive. The current Primitive classification does not allow bicycling so at least some at APA want to change the definition of a Primitive Area.

A little background is important. The guiding principle of the SLMP is that preservation and protection of the Forest Preserve is paramount. Accordingly, protection of state land as Wilderness is the loftiest goal.  Some parcels that would otherwise deserve Wilderness protection however, don’t meet the criteria for a Wilderness designation, often because there are structures from prior private use of the land such as roads, buildings, and the like. These parcels can be classified Primitive to allow Wilderness-level protection despite the non-conforming characteristics, without diluting the standard of Wilderness as places “untrammeled by man.”

The State Land Master Plan’s explicit policy is that Primitive Areas should be managed as Wilderness Areas with the eventual goal of remediating the non-conforming characteristics and reclassifying the area as Wilderness. It may take decades, or a century, for roads to disappear into the Forest Preserve, but the people of the state are patient. Eventually the Wilderness character returns more fully, and the Wilderness designation more fully applies. The wisdom of this strategy is self-evident: most of the Wilderness Areas in the Park have recovered in just this manner.

In practice, however, the Primitive designation has become the “wink-wink” arena of state land policy. Parcels, lots, even narrow corridors are designated Primitive Areas to accommodate structures, from roads to houses to fire towers, that no one ever intends to remove or reclaim. It’s akin to political gerrymandering and it’s no wonder then, that the Primitive land classification has become the locus of the preservation versus “balance” debate.

No mechanized recreation is allowed in Wilderness Areas (no bicycles, cars, or snowmobiles, for example). Therefore, because they must be managed as Wilderness Areas, by definition Primitive Areas do not allow these things either.  For those whom balance is code for opening more state land to mechanized forms of recreation, the “wink-wink” precedent with Primitive areas offers opportunities.  Because exceptions here and there don’t constitute substantial policy changes on their face, they are more palatable, redolent of “compromise” and “fairness.” But beware.

As is pro forma, the APA is offering for consideration several alternative versions of the “major change” to allow bicycling in the Essex Chain.  I’ll agree that there is a reasonable discussion to be had as to whether biking should be allowed on the roads in the Essex Chain, but in the APA’s proposal we find Alternative #3 (actually 3A and 3B).

I doubt that many of you fine readers wake up in the morning, grab a hot cup of coffee and sit down to ruminate over Alternative 3.  This, of course, is part of the “wink-wink” dynamic.

Know then, that as measured by the intent, spirit and letter of the SLMP, Alternative #3 constitutes a fundamental change in protection of the Forest Preserve. It would allow bicycling in all Primitive areas, not just the Essex Chain. A classification that was meant to protect land as Wilderness and ultimately lead to Wilderness would become unrecognizable. The default for roads on these tracts would be permanence, not a return to the forest.

The fact that an alternative that is so completely inconsistent with precedent is being considered, tells me that state policy now instantiates this version of balance which assumes we have to fix all this protection stuff to make it more fair. That’s deeply troubling.

But this shouldn’t be a big deal, many will say.  After all, we’re not talking about allowing ATV’s on these roads. Isn’t this a reasonable approach to support communities that will benefit from an influx of recreational bicyclists? Isn’t that balance?

I have a different question. A are we really locating the heart of a critical debate over the future of healthy Adirondack communities around trails in Primitive Areas?  Will violating the long-standing principle of Wilderness protection make Newcomb and Minerva healthier? Does anyone really believe that? I think there are much better and more important ways to help struggling hamlets.

This is where the “balance” agenda operates in a pernicious manner. It’s a false promise that compromises the Adirondack Park’s greatest assets for a calculation that is more pejorative than rational. Never mind that there are millions of acres of Forest Preserve already (mostly Wild Forest) where bicycling is allowed – we need 50,000 more acres for that use.  I myself support more bicycling in the park; I think bicycling is great.  But this isn’t the right way to do it.

The idea of balance looks a lot different beyond our own back yard. It’s impossible to argue that wilderness has the upper hand in the Eastern United States, much less the rest of the world. Rather, it’s a rather rare and precious asset, and becoming more rare and precious all the time.  We hold here the largest intact temperate deciduous forest left on Earth.  That’s an incredibly sobering reality that ought to call into question any idea that we should be compromising its protection.

And asset is the right word to use. I’ve written extensively about the opportunity to leverage our wilderness as a national draw, and I have provided economic research to back it up.

In our current public-private mix of land uses we already have a balance that is unique in this country. It’s an appealing, even compelling balance for those who might seek a life integrated in a world where nature is still ascendant.

There are a lot of people who fit that description. We need to make that vision work better. When we dilute wilderness protections we only make our Adirondack communities more like everywhere else. But when we protect and preserve what we have, we position ourselves to offer what can be found almost nowhere else.

That’s where our real opportunity lies.

Photo: Sunset at Roaring Brook.

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

40 Responses

  1. Smitty says:

    Peter: Yes, I’m one of those individuals that hasn’t taken the time to ruminate on alternatives 3 and 3a, but I’m not convinced that the main value in a primitive classification is to eventually turn something into wilderness. It makes perfect sense to me that some facilities or uses, such as fire towers, bike trails, camps, and maybe even a bridge, are desirable and worth keeping and significantly enhance public enjoyment of the resource. But a wild forest classification opens the door to other uses, such as ATVs or snowmobiles or vehicular traffic, that would have a very negative impact. As an out-of-state resident, I’m always amazed at the amount of anguish caused by these classification disputes. Maybe I’m missing something, but doesn’t a middle-of-the-road classification (the dreaded balance) make sense for new acquisitions that aren’t quite wilderness but shouldn’t be overrun with motorized vehicles?

  2. Curt Austin says:

    The SLMP was created, I believe, before the modern mountain bike became popular. As is typical, this vacuum has not been filled by thoughtful consideration; it is filled by stretching words, by litigation, by the practical limitations of enforcement, by rancor.

    It seems to most people, by and large, that bicycling on a substantial dirt road is harmless to the forest. “Most people” are entitled to set the rules in our society. “Forever Wild” is such a rule – manmade. It’s not an absolute and requires interpretation; hence the SLMP and other regulations that essentially carve out exceptions. One exception is that we actually allow people to walk and even camp in the Wilderness. Trammeling* is actually allowed!

    So, what exception should be carved out for bicycles? I have not read the proposed changes in the SLMP, but I’d suggest something like “Bicycles are permitted on all roads used by DEC for maintenance and emergency purposes, or roads that DEC may reasonably believe to be useful for those purposes.”

    * “Trammel” is an odd word, whose actual meaning is different than most people realize, including me (I had to look it up just now). A gate blocking access to a road is a trammel; open the gate, and now you have a route that is untrammeled. The authors of Article 14 might have confused it with “untrampled”.

    • mike says:

      Thanks, I had not understood the definition at all. Un – gated is a whole different thing than not trampled! I wonder what the writers were thinking back then? No gates, trample freely, is a good reflection of our current wilderness…..

      • John Sullivan says:

        The authors of Article 14 were not the least bit confused as to their language or their intentions, nor should we allow a shower of lucre to obscure their purpose or the enduring value of that vision. That value — wildness in an increasingly tamed world — will be destroyed by the creation of an amusement park in the Essex Chain.

    • John Warren says:

      Curt, my dictionary says:

      untrammeled: not deprived of freedom of action or expression; not restricted or hampered.

      So, it’s “wilderness untrammeled by man” or “wilderness not hampered by man” – exactly the meaning we thought it was all these years.

      • Curt Austin says:

        The meaning is different from what I have long assumed, that signs of man should be substantially absent.

        “Untrammeled” means something more like “let that tree grow as it wishes” and “don’t interfere with fish swimming upstream”. As an absolute it leads to minimizing the signs of man, but when you are forced away from the absolute – when you must add “substantially” as I did above to allow foot trails, camping sites, etc. – I think it suggests different criteria than is currently used. For example, it does not imply at all that trail bridges must be made of natural materials; it suggests you must use a design that interferes least with the stream bed. Fire towers can stay in place if located on bare rock, where they do not deprive nature of its “freedom of action”.

        I’m not trying to make any big points. Just expressing a little linguistic surprised.

      • mike says:

        John, can you find a dictionary from the late 1800s to look up the words Trammel and untrammel?

  3. Tim says:

    I agree, Pete. I have enjoyed biking the Essex Chain but do not wish it to be at the expense of Primitive areas.
    I believe the APA does wish to turn Primitive areas into Wilderness, a scenario repeatedly raised during the Hurricane Primitive area fire tower debate.
    I also agree, you can’t have too much wilderness.

  4. Well said Pete. But will anyone listen? DEC and the APA seem more and more on board with development than preservation these days.

    • Paul says:

      If this were even close to accurate we would have a significant potion of the Forest Preserve classified as intensive use. Zero point three nine percent falls under that classification. All the rest falls under Wilderness, Canoe Area, Wild Forest, or Primitive (with a little pending classification). It is all well protected and basically off limits to any real development. These debates are simply about slight differences in levels of preservation.

  5. Bruce says:


    In essence, you are correct about Primitive being managed as Wilderness. However, if you look closely at the Wilderness definition, it says in part, “maintained in unimpaired condition.” To me that means no hiking trails with their associated bridges, boardwalks, campsites, and lean-tos are to be constructed.

    In other words, Wilderness is meant to be enjoyed as you find it.

  6. ADKerDon says:

    This article and comments further supports the biases, prejudices, and contempt the greenies have for our Adirondacks. They hate our disabled veterans and all others less than physically fit. They would deny access and use to all citizens except their elitist greenie hikers. These lands and waters belong to everyone. They are not the private playground of hikers. This article is just one more reason why the forest preserve must be abolished! All the Adirondacks must be open to all the people for recreation, not just these elitist greenies! Abolish the forest preserve now!

    • Taras says:

      *Hate* disabled veterans?!?

      Undoubtedly, your home and place of business are adapted for the disabled. If they aren’t then, by your (il)logic, it’s automatically a sign of, nothing less than, *hatred* for the disabled.

      Your inflammatory, boilerplate response to any and all zoning issues has firmly established you as the Adirondack Almanack’s resident troll. It’s not an honorable distinction yet, for some inexplicable reason, you work tirelessly, and tiresomely, to achieve it.

      You are aware the Adirondack Park is criss-crossed with public roads offering motorized access to everyone, right? It’s not like everything within the blue line is only accessible to so-called “greenie hikers”.

    • Woody says:

      Adirondack residents should be abolished. The entire permanent population of the park should be loaded onto buses and permanently relocated to Long Island. The entire Adirondack Park should become a wilderness area, with a giant fence around the perimeter to ensure that only hikers can enter.

      Problem solved. 😉

      All kidding aside, the only thing this eco-freak hates are trolls that copy and paste their one-dimensional, close-minded opinions time after time after time after time.

    • Todd Eastman says:

      Climb back into your cave…

  7. Dave Gibson says:

    Pete, well thought out and written. Integrated thinking, meaning of the Park as a whole, state, private and municipal, and the system of protection including recreational activity throughout is extremely difficult in 6 million acres. Opportunities for bicycling abound within that system, but not necessarily in any one locale. As with private sprawl development, we all have difficulty, including the APA and DEC seeing that state land compromises in one area as affecting other areas in an area one-fifth of the entire state. Thank you for encouraging us all to think of the Park more systematically.

  8. Jeff says:

    This is an excellent article, and well written. I think that Pete address the issues well. I have lived in the Adirondacks- seasonally for 4 years while working as a guide, and full time for a couple of years when I worked as a forester on a private 75,000 acre commercially managed forest. I have seen both sides of the land classification debate 1st hand. As an out of state resident ever since, I have returned to the ADK’s for 34 years for recreational opportunities, mainly canoeing. What I see the APA doing with the SLMP, specifically the reclassification of primitive areas (using alternative #3), and promoting the upgrading of train corridors through wilderness areas causes me a great deal of anger and anguish. The Adirondack Park is a unique gem of wilderness that offers wonderful recreational opportunities. There is no other place like it in the NE USA. One would need to travel to Minnesota or Canada for similar recreational opportunites.

  9. Tanner says:

    I am an avid cyclist and mountain biker. I also enjoy hiking and backpacking. I can tell you there are a LOT of cycling opportunities in the Adirondacks for those who want to take the time to explore, primarily on Wild Forest and conservation easements. BUT, most mountain bikers are not interested in riding roads. They want single track trails that are designed specifically for mountain biking, with varying degrees of difficulty. Look at the Kingdom Trails in Vermont, or any number of mountain bike systems around the country. So it truly puzzles me that this is even a serious consideration. Unless these roads access networks of single track trails (which they don’t , and which would not be legal in Wilderness and Primitive Areas), I think these proposed changes are a lot of wasted time and energy. If the APA and DEC want more mountain bikers (and my friends and I do indeed drive hours for mountain bike based vacations), give mountain bikers what they want, single track, sustainable trails built to IMBA standards. Opening more roads is NOT going to bring more mountain bikers to the area.

    • Todd Eastman says:

      The Adks offer opportunities for outdoor recreation that Vermont simply cannot offer because Vermont has different land use regulations; nor will the Adks offer what Vermont can offer. They are different. Not that Vermont isn’t really cool, but that the legacies of different regulations have developed two different landscapes for preservation, conservation, and recreation.

      Do not alter the terms of SLMPs to allow biking in Primitive Areas.

  10. Running George says:

    Nice job, Pete.

  11. Tim says:

    I hope you’re all sending your comments in to the APA:

  12. Joe Smith says:

    I don’t get it. Why does “Primitive” land need to become “Wilderness” Land? Isn’t there enough of the latter already listed as such? Balance.

    • Running George says:

      Enough wilderness? They don’t make it anymore and people are everywhere. We need to protect what we’ve got and expand it at every opportunity for future generations. Everything doesn’t need to be a playground. No matter how much the motorized interests get they scream for more. Case in point, snowmobiles and their highway like trails that I believe are illegal.

      It would be shameful to be the generation that allowed to unravel what previous generations established.

      • Joe Smith says:

        To paraphrase you Running George… What I am hearing said is,

        Where’s the balance.

    • John Warren says:

      You seem to have missed the whole point of this essay. Look around the eastern half of the United States and ask yourself again – where’s the balance?

  13. Joe Smith says:

    My view is a bit more parochial, and I don’t see balance. I see a land grab.

    • John Warren says:

      parochial: having a limited or narrow outlook or scope

      Yes, that about sums it up, but I don’t think of being narrow minded as a virtue.

      • Joe Smith says:

        Funny… I see you and you ilk as being narrow minded (More wilderness, less land for use by the masses, only for the fit… etc).

        parochial: limited in range or scope (as to a narrow area or region)

  14. Boreas says:

    We need to step back and define what we mean by “balance”. Are we talking within the US? Within NYS? Within the Park? I believe many wilderness advocates are thinking on a larger scale – globally, nationally, statewide – and in their view wilderness is by far the least common land use in those cases, and that wilderness should be increased whenever possible. But where can it be increased – in the middle of Iowa? The only way it can typically be increased is when government purchases private land with the intention of adding it to a defined area in hopes of expanding an area to ultimately become wilderness.

    So yes, there are people clamoring for more wilderness at every opportunity, because these opportunities are few and far between. There are many areas in the country where one can ride bikes and snowmobiles and car camp, etc. – at state and national parks, state forests, BLM lands, etc.. So what NYS residents need to decide is how they envision the future use of the Park. Do they want to balance the land uses over the ENTIRETY of the state with a large wilderness area within the Blue Line, or do they want the land within the Blue Line to be a reflection of land use patterns across the state and nation – meaning less wilderness and more multi-use.

    I believe when the Park was envisioned from the start, it was intended that wilderness would be maximized (untrammeled). But there were essentially no motorized vehicles (other than steam rail and boats) and even bicycles were a novelty. There really was no multi-use. Multi-use is a construct that has arisen since then. I believe only a statewide referendum to determine the future land use goals within the Park and a roadmap to get there is the only fair way out of this quandary. I am not sure the APA and SLMP are the best tools for this task as it seems their goals are constantly changing.

    • Paul says:

      The park was envisioned from the start to protect the timber that had gotten wrecked from over logging. All of these classifications protect the timber. Trees don’t care if there is a biker or a hiker going by them.

      • Boreas says:

        Actually, I believe the initial practical and financial incentives were regarding water navigation and drinking water quality for NYC. The clearcutting of the trees and subsequent fires along with toxins from tanneries and forges along the waterways caused flooding and siltatation downstream and interfered with river and canal navigation and general water quality. NYC derives much of their drinking water from the Catskills, so that area was to be protected as well. So it became desirable for the area to become reforested.

        At about the same time, new environmental groups pushed not only for reforestation, but restoration of wilderness quality as much as possible, to the exclusion of man’s influence. What we ended up with was a hodgepodge of land interests and uses within the Blue Line. Anyone will agree the Park is a compromise. Some interests push for more wilderness, others push for more access, others still for logging and mineral rights – similar to State and National Forests in other areas. No one is right, no one is wrong. Compromise is the key, as long as it complies with the wishes of the residents of NYS, not just special interests.

        I haven’t heard any trees complaining lately either…

        • Paul says:

          Many early (and deep pocketed and influential with the legislators) supporters of the FP had one other thing in mind. That was to consolidate their grip on the Adirondack timber markets and take state land off the table for cutting and as competition for logging on their lands.

  15. Charlie S says:

    Running George says: “Enough wilderness? They don’t make it anymore and people are everywhere. We need to protect what we’ve got and expand it at every opportunity for future generations.”

    > There’s a book that came out some few years ago by an author at the NY State Museum at Albany. For the life of me I cannot find it in my heap and so its name and author eludes me these moments, but in the book the author stresses how important (urgent) it is for us to start preserving what species remain on this planet. It is a well thought out book and when reading it I thought how every person who has sway on things relative to the protection of species on this planet should be required to read it.It should be subject matter in grade school on up to high school and beyond. It should be the new Bible! Yet hardly a one is even aware the book exist.If sports players were thrown in as content and ‘Peoples Court’ and ‘Entertainment Today’ the book would become a #1 bestseller in a matter of weeks.

    Your synopsis is well thought out Pete.On this matter the APA is accepting comments within a deadline in a narrow time frame as is per norm and of course their hearings are limited and anyone who has an inkling of smarts knows that most people just don’t have the time to make these meetings or don’t give a hoot or are misinformed about these matters…and the odds are always stacked against the last remaining sacred things because of these and because this is the United States of American Idol first and foremost.

  16. Bruce says:

    Charlie S,

    “their hearings are limited and anyone who has an inkling of smarts knows that most people just don’t have the time to make these meetings.” How much time should be allotted for hearings and meetings? 6 months, a year, ten years? Will a year of meetings make a real difference over say, 6 months, when all that happens is the same issues are hashed and rehashed over and over? I mean what’s the point…is one side hoping the other will get tired and back down?

    Where I live, there is a much needed highway connector which has been in the works for over 10 years, including a part of I-26 which is shunted down onto a city street. That’s right, a couple miles of interstate highway on a city street for over 10 years! Every time the DOT gets close to making something happen, people come out of the woodwork, claiming there have not been enough public hearings, or enough time for discussion, and it’s always the same comments over and over. There are 4 workable plans on the table, and someone doesn’t like any of them.

    My point is that there’s a time for hearings and meetings, and a time for action. No matter how the outcome goes down, someone won’t like it, so lets move on.

  17. Charlie S says:

    I get you Bruce and I agree but too often things get pushed through as quickly as possible to serve special moreso than public interests and in the meanwhile three-quarters of the population are either ignorant or apathetic to these very issues that too few of us are concerned about and that oftentimes turn out to have negative effects which prove irreversible somewhere down the road.

    There ‘is’ a time for hearings and meetings which there seem to be too few of and who has the time anyway? We’re too busy trying to feed our nuclear families, keeping up with the Smith’s next door and then there’s Ellen Degeneres & Dr. Phil sedating us. There’s too few of us greenies (as ADKerDon calls those who like trees) out there Bruce and it sure as heck is a struggle being up against a society which,in the majority,seems to be in a stupor of sorts. It seems to me the majority are in favor of any thing other than the things that have real meaning in life!

    • Bruce says:

      I agree Charlie about the bulk of us being apathetic, but when I see public meetings dominated by the same special interest groups at opposite ends of the spectrum over and over, I have to wonder if meetings are serving a truly useful purpose. And yes, environmental groups are every bit as special interest as snowmobile or ATV groups.

      It’s not surprising the state is left with a difficult situation they have to make a decision about.

      I’m reminded of the flap concerning the St. Lawrence Flatlands when new snowmobile and multi-use trails were announced recently. Those against motorized use came flocking out of the woodwork, including many who are regulars on here. I don’t remember anyone except myself, pointing out the fact that the land in question is virtually all State Forest, which is managed quite differently, including car camping, logging, firewood cutting, etc.

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