Balance. 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.