The purchase of the Boreas Ponds tract is a major milestone in the history of the Adirondack Forest Preserve, a stellar accomplishment by the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy and a feather in the cap of the Cuomo Administration. This marks the completion of the state’s purchase of 69,000 acres of new Forest Preserve announced in 2012. While over 95,000 acres of the former Finch, Pruyn and Company lands were protected as conservation easements, the 69,000 acres purchased for the Forest Preserve included natural gems like OK Slip Falls, the Blue Ledges of the Hudson Gorge, the Essex Chain Lakes, 15 miles of the Hudson River, the West Stony Creek river valley, five miles of the Cedar River, and much much more.
At the Governor’s announcement of the Boreas Ponds purchase last week at Elk Lake he said he wanted to see a speedy classification of the newly purchased lands. There are more than 35,000 acres of land to be classified, mostly bordering the High Peaks Wilderness, but also in scattered parcels in the southern Adirondacks.
This classification process, I hope, will be cleaner and far less of a legal and policy morass, and without the poor long-term management precedents than we experienced during the Essex Chain Lakes Complex classifications. Below, I talk a lot about the Essex Chain Lakes Unit Management Plan because many of the decisions in that UMP were a result of the flawed classification.
In looking ahead to the possibility of a better classification process, here are seven easy rules for the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) and the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which really calls the shots, that will ensure a far better classification result than we saw with the Essex Chain Lakes.
The first rule for Forest Preserve classification is that everybody should speak up, and be listened to, during Forest Preserve classification. The Essex Chain classification and the public review of the Essex Chain Lakes Unit Management Plan were noteworthy by how many people were not listened to. The public hearing for classification ran 4-1 in favor of a Wilderness classification and the Essex Chain UMP saw 85% of comments opposed to retention of the Polaris bridge and cutting a new 5-mile snowmobile trail through a trailless section of the Vanderwhacker Wild Forest area.
It is simply not credible public lands management to see such overwhelming public comments ignored.
The second rule is that there should be no more Forest Preserve classification gerrymanders or spot zoning. The Essex Chain Lakes/Pine Lake Primitive areas are separated from the Hudson Gorge Wilderness area by a Wild Forest corridor. This 100-foot wide corridor was created for a north-south snowmobile trail and requires retention of the Polaris Bridge and construction of a new bridge over the Cedar River.
This corridor was a failure of long-term planning because it shoehorned motorized uses prohibited in the Wilderness and Primitive areas into a narrow corridor between these two clasisfications. This type of spot zoning is gaining a greater foothold in Forest Preserve planning as a means to retain nonconforming uses, such as the 1-acre “Historic Areas” on the summits of St. Regis and Hurricane Mountains to retain the firetowers. One doesn’t need to think too deeply to come up with a list of how new classification gerrymanders and spot zoning could be used all over the Forest Preserve.
The third rule is that there should be no more Forest Preserve classifications that require weakening of the State Land Master Plan. The Essex Chain Lakes classification necessitated the historic weakening of the State Land Master Plan to allow bicycle use and management with motor vehicles in a Primitive area. As APA Board member Richard Booth stated after the APA’s fateful decision last March, this type of weakening of the State Land Master Plan can be done again and again and again since the current APA Board, and its DEC overlords, don’t care much for fidelity of the State Land Master Plan.
The fourth rule is that new Forest Preserve classifications should keep motor vehicle use in Wild Forest areas. In the past few years, motorized uses on the Forest Preserve have been creeping outside Wild Forest. This is an ominous trend. The great divide in Forest Preserve management that is simple and coherent is that motorized uses are allowable in Wild Forest and not allowable in Wilderness areas (and Primitive Areas, which are supposed to be managed as Wilderness). We need to return to this rational management of the Forest Preserve.
There’s a major push to classify the entire Boreas Ponds tract as well as nearby Wild Forest lands as Wilderness, but at the same time retain the Gulf Brook Road as a Primitive Corridor and open it for public motor vehicle use. Protect the Adirondacks is pushing for a Wilderness classification of the Boreas Ponds area, while using the Gulf Brook Road as the Wilderness-Wild Forest boundary line, locating the road in Wild Forest. If the entire area is classified as Wilderness, then the road should be closed. There’s coherence to the position calling for a big Wilderness classification for all lands around the Boreas Ponds. It’s unacceptable, however, for a big Wilderness classification that retains the road. If this happens we’re simply creating a new Crane Pond Road into the heart of a new Wilderness area.
The fifth rule is that we should return to coherent and sensible Forest Preserve classifications. Historically, Forest Preserve management was characterized by big blocks of land clearly divided between Wilderness and Wild Forest. Look across the Park land use map, and you will see that these large units of Forest Preserve dominate the landscape. This is clear and coherent management that is easy to understand. More important, classification with clear boundaries provides the public with definite expectations of what they can expect and what they will encounter. This type of coherent management protects the user experience.
The sixth rule is that we should return to legal Forest Preserve classifications. The Essex Chain Lakes classification required not only a historic weakening of the State Land Master Plan, but also novel interpretations of how to circumvent the NYS Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act, which one APA Board member called a “legal fiction.” The APA also ignored its own Snowmobile Trails Management Guidance to approve a duplicative new snowmobile trail and route it through a wild trailless interior area of the Forest Preserve; the Guidance prohibits duplicative trails and trails routed through interior areas of the Forest Preserve. We need to return to a time when the APA had reverence for New York’s environmental laws.
The seventh rule is that state agencies should play it straight. Public proposals from state agencies should contain a variety of options, but these options must include legitimate and viable alternatives. Not only did the Essex Chain Lakes classification, and subsequent UMP, require subverting NYS laws and weakening the State Land Master Plan, but it was also founded on disingenuous state planning. Most of its options and alternative were throwaways designed to fail and be discarded in order to promote the state’s preferred plan.
During the Essex Chain UMP review, one APA Board member chastised the DEC for proposing management alternatives that were “bound to fail.” DEC made many weak arguments. It stated that public use of the Essex Chain Lakes area had been very high, when in fact, it has been quite light. DEC argued that it needed the shortest snowmobile trail to connect Minerva and Indian Lake, when these two towns were already connected with a permanent trail on conservation easement and Forest Preserve lands. DEC also argued that the new trail through the Vanderwhacker Mountain lands, routed to cut through a trailless area that had not seen an axe in 100 years, was not a trail through a remote Forest Preserve interior area.
If the APA and DEC (and Governor Cuomo who pulls the strings) adhere to these seven rules for Forest Preserve classification and management, both public recreational use and natural resource management will be dramatically improved.