The globally unique Adirondack Park is ready for new wilderness, according to the Adirondack Council’s State of the Park report for 2016.
The report concludes that the Adirondacks are ready for the largest expansion of motor-free wilderness in a generation. National media have been focusing attention on the upcoming Presidential election and on the hottest summer on record. But there is another story of national importance unfolding in the Adirondacks right now.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has an historic opportunity to expand New York’s most popular wilderness area to a size that would rival some of the greatest national parks out West. This fall, the public will be asked to help the state decide the fate of the Boreas Ponds and other lands and waters by testifying at public hearings. Expanding public access and wilderness will protect clean water and wildlife from motorized recreation and generate new economic opportunity for local communities, securing the legacy of the Adirondacks for future generations.
Governor Cuomo took the necessary first step of purchasing new lands for the Adirondack Forest Preserve near the High Peaks, in 2016. The next step is to classify and manage most of those lands as wilderness, by adding large portions of them to the High Peaks Wilderness Area. Public hearings are expected in November and December.
Two scientific studies completed in 2016 showing that a wilderness classification is the right choice for the majority of each of the new parcels, plus an economic study by Clarkson University School of Business showing that buyers of Adirondack real estate pay 25 percent more to be near wilderness areas.
An expanded High Peaks Wilderness Area is a top priority for the Adirondack Park as we look ahead to 2017. We will work with our partners in the BeWildNY Coalition. Together with state and local government and other stakeholders, we hope to achieve that goal.
Progress in the Past Year
Over the last 12 months, the national treasure we know as the Adirondack Park achieved significant gains in funding for public lands and environmental programs via the $300-million Environmental Protection Fund. A $250-million program to provide clean water grants to small towns was approved, with $10 million already awarded to Adirondack communities. The state also doubled funding for controlling the spread of invasive species (to $12 million annually).
The legislature further assisted Adirondack communities by granting first passage to a constitutional amendment for community infrastructure. If it passes again in 2017 and is approved by the voters next November, a new land bank would be used to avoid the need for additional constitutional amendments for qualified community projects.
Federal and state officials made progress in the battle against climate change this year. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized the Clean Power Plan, which is on hold pending a lawsuit from polluters. NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman battled against acid rain and climate change in Court, while the NYS Energy Research and Development Authority eased the transition toward a “critical loads” standard for air pollution by publishing a new guidebook for policymakers.
A critical loads standard would determine how much pollution could be allowed in upwind areas, based on the sensitivity of natural resources in places where the pollution will land.
Setbacks in 2016
Pressure and damage from state-authorized, off-road motorized recreation got worse over the past 12 months.
We need a general ban on all-terrain vehicle use on the Forest Preserve. The disturbing level of recent crashes involving injuries is cause for concern, as is the damage to trails, water quality and wildlife habitat.
Oil trains were another source of grief. While local, state and federal officials completed an emergency response plan for oil train derailment disasters, Congress and federal agencies did nothing to curb or reroute oil trains away from the Adirondack Park.
The use of science in public land planning remains sporadic.
Little progress was made on curbing the overuse of road salt: Recent estimates show that six million tons of rock salt have been applied to Adirondack Park roads since 1980 – one ton for every acre of land in the park. That is unsustainable and is contaminating underground water supplies.
In addition, the Governor and Legislature didn’t restore staff positions at key environmental agencies such as the Adirondack Park Agency and Dept. of Environmental Conservation. Both have lost more than 20 percent of their staff since 2008. No agreement was reached on better incentives for healthy private forest management.
The NYS Assembly introduced a bill that aims to better protect wildlife, water quality and open space when private development is proposed in the park’s remote backwoods: This legislation can be the starting point for a discussion and development of a solution to the problem of sprawling development ruining the backwoods for wilderness wildlife. Scientific studies show we lose up to 30 acres of wildlife habitat when a new home is built on wild lands, even if the cleared area is only an acre or less. We need to do a better job of designing subdivisions to consume less of the landscape.
Priorities for 2017 government actions include:
• Expand Wilderness: Protect the Boreas Ponds and the most sensitive parts of the 20,500-acre Boreas tract and other new state lands as Wilderness. Protect water and wildlife from invasive species and motorized uses. Provide recreational access. Help communities benefit from new state lands.
• Protect Forests and Wildlife: Expand the use of science and regional coordination in state land planning. Adopt science-based conservation reforms of the Adirondack Park Agency’s 1970s-era rules for backcountry development and clearcutting. Support healthy forests.
• Help Communities: Secure new funds for hamlet revitalization, community infrastructure and working farms. Support efforts to address legitimate local road utility infrastructure needs while protecting the Park’s wild character.
• Address threats from off-road- vehicles: Update all-terrain vehicle law to protect state Forest Preserve lands, water, wildlife, and public health from negative impacts stemming from all-terrain vehicle use.
• Combat Water Pollution, Invasive Species and Climate Change: Protect clean water, forests and wildlife from threats posed by invasive species, road salt, acid rain, unsafe oil transportation, and climate change. Address non-compliance with the Clean Water Act. Support the federal Clean Power Plan. Advance “critical load” air pollution standards for sensitive downwind forests and wildlife.
• Strengthen Agencies: Restore essential agency staff at the APA, DEC and in other state agencies. Hire clean water engineers, foresters, rangers, planners, law enforcement, and education and compliance staff.
• Fund Conservation: Realize the full potential of a $300 million Environmental Protection Fund, with funding for open space protection, state land stewardship, invasive species, climate change, biodiversity science, and smart growth planning and project grants. Expand clean water grants. Dedicate all Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) revenues to energy conservation and clean-energy development.
In State of the Park’s “Tip of the Hat” section, the Adirondack Council recognizes some of the other not-for- profit organizations and individuals whose work advanced environmental protection and helped to show that people and nature can thrive together.
The 24-page State of the Park report, which has been published every year since 1986, covers the decisions and actions of local, state and federal officials that helped or harmed the Adirondack Park in 2016. This year’s edition provides brief summaries and critiques of nearly 100 substantial Adirondack issues. It has a new format and also includes recommendations for 2017.
Willie, thanks for this summary. The politics of conservation are complicated and your article helps unravel some of the strands. What is occurring in the Park is being played out throughout the nation as public lands develop management plans.
“plus an economic study by Clarkson University School of Business showing that buyers of Adirondack real estate pay 25 percent more to be near wilderness areas.”
I’m betting buyers generally want to be next to undeveloped lands of the Adirondack park and really don’t follow the distinctions of wilderness, wild forest and primitive areas.
The operation of motor vehicles outside designated routes is already illegal on Forest Preserve lands. The problem is that fines are low, and local courts have discretion, which they are often too ready to exercise in favor of errant riders. Conservation officers have spent days pursuing cases of illegal ATV use which might culminate in a $25 fine. During my days with DEC, an officer relayed the response of one enthusiastic explorer after getting such a fine, who said, “That’s a pretty reasonable ticket price for so much good riding.”
My days as a DEC land manager have been over for about 6 years, and that’s the vintage of my knowledge on the topic. But back then, there was strong support within the ranks of DEC land managers and enforcement staff for stiffer penalties. Over 10 years ago, an idea to have a simple flyer inserted in the envelope with all ATV registrations educating owners about the law was tabled. Ironically, decision-makers balked for political fear of upsetting organizations representing off-road recreational vehicle users.
Education is good. But what we really need is simple legislation to raise penalties, making it very clear that the State is serious about protecting State lands from illegal use. And there should be mandatory minimums to obviate the sympathies of some local judges. Good models are on the books in downstate counties. For instance, chapter 822 of the Suffolk County code provides that anyone who rides on public lands will be fined $250-$500 for the first offense, $750-$1,500 for a second, and $5,000 possibly with jail time for a third. In addition, the ATV may be impounded, and after the third offense, forfeited to the county.
The State should get serious about protecting State lands from illegal motor vehicle use. Maybe now’s the time?
Well put. I agree 100%!
Good point about the ATV problem Rick. Presently the fine range for prohibited ATV use is $0-$100, with no minimum fine required. The minimum should be at least $100. Everyone is concerned with not allowing ATVs on roads already open to other vehicles. That’s not the problem because that has no impact, yet the easy solutions addressing the problem of the off road use goes untouched.
Very well stated. Thank you.
The report is to be commended for once again bringing up the ATV problem. A related problem, at least for certain areas, is jet skis. As one example, Star Lake is at times overrun with them and they operate with impunity, regardless of behavior. I would like to see a minimum lake size where they can operate, or at least enforcement of no-wake zones.
Excellent summary, thanks Willie and the Council! Keep up the fight for Wilderness!