Environmental groups are alarmed by a conceptual proposal floated by the Cuomo administration to establish lodging facilities near Boreas Ponds — in an area they believe should be classified as “untrammeled” Wilderness.
The groups say they would fight any such proposal vigorously, contending that it would violate both the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan and Article 14, the section of the state constitution mandating that the Forest Preserve “shall be forever kept as wild forest land.”
State officials have not released details of the proposal, but they have discussed it with the Park’s green groups.
Environmentalists say the idea is to designate an Intensive Use Area along a five-acre stretch of an old logging road leading to Boreas Ponds and erect semi-permanent structures such as yurts or walled tents with amenities such as cooking stoves, tables and chairs, and beds. There is even talk that the state could furnish meals. The structures would be removed part of the year.
Governor Andrew Cuomo alluded to the proposal in his State of the State Message in January, saying the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) “will construct infrastructure at Boreas Ponds in the Adirondacks and build trails as part of the ‘hut-to-hut’ system that links state lands to community amenities.”
In mid-April, DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos described the Boreas Ponds proposal as merely conceptual. “It’s not anything that’s in front of the Adirondack Park Agency,” he told the Explorer during a visit to Lake Placid.
Seggos said the state was looking at the idea as part of a larger initiative to establish hut-to-hut hiking routes in the Adirondacks. “The Boreas property might not be appropriate for it,” he added.
North Hudson Supervisor Ron Moore, whose town includes Boreas Ponds, had heard nothing about the lodging proposal when contacted by the Explorer, but he said he likes the concept.
Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), has little doubt that environmental groups will sue if the state tries to implement the proposal. “I don’t think we’re making a mountain out of a molehill,” Woodworth said. “This is quite a substantial departure” in the management of the Forest Preserve.
Intensive Use is one of the Adirondack Park Agency’s seven land classifications for the Forest Preserve. The designation is usually used for state campgrounds and ski areas. Several years ago, the state classified a stretch of dirt road in the Moose River Plains as Intensive Use, but that road is open to motor vehicles and its only amenities are primitive campsites similar to those found throughout the Park.
Woodworth, who is a lawyer, and others point out that the State Land Master Plan declares that Intensive Use Areas “will not be situated where they will aggravate problems on lands already subject to or threatened by overuse, such as the eastern portion of the High Peaks Wilderness.” The Boreas Ponds Tract borders the High Peaks Wilderness and may be added to it.
The State Land Master Plan also says Intensive Use Areas “will be adjacent to or serviceable from existing public road systems or water bodies open to motorboat use.” The stretch of road in question (less than a mile from the ponds) is not open to motorists, though the state could make it so.
Environmentalists argue that the proposal also would violate Article 14. Woodworth pointed to an opinion by John Bennett Jr., the state attorney general in 1934. That year, the Conservation Department (the predecessor of DEC) wanted to build shelters and serve food in remote parts of the Forest Preserve. Bennett advised that the scheme was probably unconstitutional. “It would lessen … the solitude and wildness, which many consider lends charm to the north woods,” he wrote.
Woodworth noted that several proposals to amend Article 14 to allow cabins in the Forest Preserve have been voted down by the public over the years.
Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, questions whether Intensive Use Areas—anywhere in the Preserve—accord with Article 14. “Intensive Use Areas are managed within the guidelines of the State Land Master Plan,” he said. “I don’t know if they’re legal or not.”
Asked about the legal questions raised by environmentalists, Seggos told the Explorer: “Since it’s not an actual proposal, it would be premature to speculate on its legality.”
Last fall, the APA held public hearings on four classification options for the 20,758-acre Boreas Ponds Tract, which the state purchased from the Nature Conservancy a year ago. Because none of the alternatives included an Intensive Use Area, environmentalists argue that the APA cannot approve the new proposal without more hearings. However, the APA is expected to vote this spring or summer on the classification—too soon, presumably, to schedule hearings and analyze feedback. One idea is to leave the proposed Intensive Use Area unclassified for the time being while making a decision on the rest of the tract.
ADK, the Adirondack Council, Protect the Adirondacks, Adirondack Wild, and Adirondack Wilderness Advocates all want Boreas Ponds and the stretch of road in question classified as motor-free Wilderness. The master plan defines Wilderness, in part, as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man—where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Local towns want Boreas Ponds and lands in the immediate vicinity classified as Wild Forest, which would allow mountain biking and greater motorized access. Even under their proposal, though, more than half of the tract would be Wilderness.
A few years ago, the state hired Leading Edge, based in Saranac Lake, to prepare a conceptual plan for hut-to-hut hiking routes between Adirondack communities. One of the proposed routes passes by Boreas Ponds. In most cases, hikers would stay at existing hotels and inns on private land, but the plan does contemplate the use of temporary lodging on the Forest Preserve. “Our directive was to think out of the box,” said Jack Drury, the co-owner of Leading Edge.
“To have the first experiment of this sort of camping in the middle of the Boreas Ponds Tract is very troublesome,” said David Gibson, a partner in Adirondack Wild.
Photos from above: Aerial view of Boreas Ponds in the summer, courtesy Nancie Battaglia, and Kayakers portage on Gulf Pond Road on the Boreas Pond tract courtesy Phil Brown.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.