Part of the Adirondack Park’s vast infrastructure of outdoor recreation options include two drive-up mountains – Prospect Mountain in Lake George and Whiteface Mountain in Wilmington – where one can drive an automobile to the summits. In all likelihood there will soon be a third drive-up mountain – Blue Mountain in Indian Lake.
The summit of Blue Mountain is a mix of public Forest Preserve and private lands encumbered by a conservation easement [map]. There has long been a firetower on the summit and a tower used by the State Police, Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), Department of Homeland Security, public radio, and local government emergency services, among other users. This tower has been rebuilt and made taller over the years. In 1995, a private tower for cellphone operators was approved by the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) on the private lands just below the Blue Mountain summit, the first of a Park-wide system. Finch, Pruyn and Company owned these lands then and the reconstituted Finch Paper owns the private lands around the cell tower today. Different cell phone companies were added to the tower over the years and its overall service area has greatly expanded.
Since World War II there has been a service road on the north side of the Blue Mountain. It was built for an early warning radar installation based on the mountain during the war and the subsequent red scare in the 1950s. This road runs from Route 28N/30, northeast of the Blue Mountain trailhead, to the mountain summit.
For the past year, crews have steadily worked to “rehabilitate” this access road, which is now paved nearly to the summit (see a video from above here and another here). The “rehabilitation” work included widening, reconstructing the road base with thousands of tons of rock and gravel, paving the road surface, digging ditches and lined with tons of riprap, and expanding the cleared areas on both sides by removing trees. With nearly all of this work completed, the road corridor is now 50 feet wide or wider.
The road is governed by a conservation easement that provides access for maintenance of the various facilities on or near the summit. This easement prohibits public use, though for years when there was snow the road was skied by backcountry skiers. The hiking trail from the Blue Mountain Trailhead to Tirrell Pond, part of a cross-country ski loop, crosses the maintenance road near Route 30/28.
Prior to the reconstruction, this had been a narrow gravel road. There was asphalt on some steep stretches, though it was deeply worm. The road was narrow and had long been in disrepair, accessed by various people using ATVs or 4-wheel drive vehicles. People would drive up as far as they could make it and walk the rest of the way to service the various installations.
I hiked the road in a drizzling rain on July 4th 2015 to watch fireworks from the Blue Mountain firetower in Indian Lake, Raquette Lake and Newcomb. In the rain that night the road was a treacherous and slippery streambed.
There was no public review for this project because it was a road reconstruction, not a new project. The conservation easement for the road references a 50-60 foot road right-of-way, but it does not appear that this means that the ROW should all be cleared space. The APA said it did not need to get involved in any regulatory review of the lands under easement, which is the majority of the road, as long as the reconstruction remained within the right-of-way.
The cost of this project must be immense. Involved parties at the state and local level say that the Department of Homeland Security, which has emergency communications facilities on the summit, footed most of the bill. It is doubtful that we’ll ever get a full accounting of the total costs of this project.
The reconstructed road is significantly different from what was there for the last three decades that I have been hiking Blue Mountain. Near the top are three small parking areas, which were not part of the original road.
The picture of the road on the summit shows the hard packed road reaching the broad slabs of bedrock on the Blue Mountain summit. The short stretch of several hundred feet of road through the Forest Preserve on the summit was heavily built up with several feet of new material, is now fully ten feet wide, with extra spaces for riprap, but is not paved. The decision not to pave was a nod towards it being forever wild, though the Blue Mountain Wild Forest Unit Management Plan (UMP) does not classify this corridor as a formal road.
The APA determined that no UMP Amendment was necessary, nor was a public hearing, though there was an Environmental Notice Bulletin about tree cutting on the Forest Preserve. The rebuilt section through the Forest Preserve removed many trees. Many others will die in the years ahead as the roadbed gravel and hard packed materials cover their roots and lower trunk areas.
This project would have benefited from public review and formal public hearings. There were none. The powers that be determined that public review simply was not something they were interested in. A public discussion about the costs and necessity of this project would also have been beneficial. Decisions were made behind the scenes and work was undertaken out of sight. Public scrutiny would have produced a better product. The road now is overbuilt, a visual blight, and will be challenging and expensive to maintain.
I expect that in the months and years ahead we’ll also hear a variety of proposals for various kinds of motorized access for the public in one form or another to help people reach the summit by utilizing this new road. The argument will go something like this: Now that we have such a fine road, certainly the public, especially those who cannot hike to the summit of Blue Mountain, should be able to use it. Will these proposals receive public scrutiny? While the easement on the road limits access to services now, the DEC has shown an appetite for changing easements and the Cuomo Administration has show an appetite for public motorized access to the Forest Preserve. Will we see a new mountaintop shuttle service? Will a golf cart or ATV outfit shuttle visitors to the summit?
A third drive-up mountain summit, which very few of us ever envisioned, may soon be a reality.