Earlier this year I wrote two articles in the Adirondack Almanack (here and here) about how state agencies had switched their focus from a classification of the Boreas Ponds with various Wilderness-Wild Forest options to a new option that included some form of public lodging facilities. My purpose in writing these pieces was to convey the fears of many at the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and state government who were alarmed at these ideas cooked up by Governor Andrew Cuomo and DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos. These articles in the Almanack triggered a round of press scrutiny and helped to inform the public about how state leaders had changed their focus on the Boreas classification (see some here, here, and here). These press reports also authenticated what I had written.
Last week, we saw an op-ed published in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise by Commissioner Seggos making the case for building some kind of rental cabins, lodges, huts, or glamping-style tent platforms in the Forest Preserve. The op-ed talked about the possibility of “full service” and “self service” buildings. It was premised on the idea that the Forest Preserve needs to add a new and different type recreational amenity to facilitate broader public use. The Commissioner promoted the ideas of the hut-to-hut initiative from the Hamlets to Huts organization and listed the ways in which some kind of cabin on the Forest Preserve could provide different opportunities for public use.
The op-ed was light on details and Commissioner Seggos raised far more questions than he answered. While I think many embrace the central concept of the Hamlets to Huts Initiative, especially where people can hike from hamlet to hamlet, through the Forest Preserve, and stay in private existing lodging facilities, many are also concerned about the implications for the “forever wild” Forest Preserve. The Commissioner talked about “Huts,” “primitive platform tents,” and “eco-lodges,” that he envisions for the Forest Preserve. While the Commissioner assured us that these new buildings on the Forest Preserve would be “primitive in nature, temporary and self-serviced,” he never discussed their legality. There are major questions about the legality of these structures.
In many ways the concept of building huts on the Forest Preserve sounds a lot like the “closed cabin” proposal of the 1930s. That proposal to build a series of “warming huts” and “cabins” across the Forest Preserve was voted down by the public in 1932. Any new proposal for public buildings on the Forest Preserve should similarly be in the form of a constitutional amendment and not undertaken through administrative action. The framers of the “forever wild” provision in the NYS Constitution were wise, and showed great wisdom and prescience, when they required that major decisions on the management of the Forest Preserve should be made by the people and not by unilaterally by political leaders or state bureaucrats, influenced by political considerations, subject to political pressure, or corrupt. Major decisions on the people’s lands should be made by the people through a public referendum on a proposed constitutional amendment. A decision like one to build cabins or huts for public use on the Forest Preserve should be undertaken through a proposed amendment and not through state agency decisions, which during the Cuomo Administration have been marked by bending Forest Preserve rules, weakening Forest Preserve protections, secrecy, and ignoring public comments.
The ideas for huts or cabins for public use on the Forest Preserve would be a sharp departure generally with decades of Forest Preserve management and acutely with the last 45 years of management under the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan.
The legal issues for cabins or huts for public use on the Forest Preserve are serious and the Commissioner should treat them so. Here are a few questions for Commissioner Seggos. Has the DEC sought an official Opinion from NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman on building huts for public use on the Forest Preserve? Does the DEC Commissioner plan to do so? Has the DEC developed its own legal analysis on this matter? Will the DEC share its legal analysis with the public? When will the DEC inform the public about what “self service” and “full service” lodging on the Forest Preserve entails? When will the DEC release a formal plan with exact locations, structure types, costs, and building schedule for Forest Preserve huts? Does the DEC believe a constitutional amendment is necessary for these huts? If not, why not?
While the Commissioner is dreaming of an expansive hut-to-hut system across the Forest Preserve, perhaps he should give some thought to the futures, and expenses, of buildings that are currently owned by the state that exist now on the Forest Preserve without plans or purposes. These include the log cabin at Duck Hole, Debar Lodge, the old cabin at the 4 Corners at Boreas Ponds, and the old farmhouse at the Outer Gooley Club on the Hudson River. In all cases, the DEC has not released any plans for how these buildings comply with Article 14, Section 1, of the NYS Constitution or how the DEC plans to use these buildings, their public function, or the costs involved.
The Commissioner’s promotion for the idea of building huts or cabins for public use on the Forest Preserve comes at a time of excruciating silence on the classification of the Boreas Ponds. To great fanfare the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) held public hearings on various Wilderness and Wild Forest classification options at the end of 2016. The APA and DEC promised bold and swift action in early 2017, but since then the lights have gone out and both agencies have said little publicly as the months have passed. The key factor delaying the classification of the Boreas Ponds is the singular infatuation by Governor Cuomo and Commissioner Seggos with the idea of building cabins or huts for public use at the Boreas Ponds.
Without providing any important legal analysis, details or plans about his huts ideas, the Commissioner is already out making big promises about their benefits. He says confidently that his hut-to-hut plan can create or support 303 jobs alone in the five towns of North Hudson, Minerva, Newcomb, Long Lake and Indian Lake. That’s a lot of jobs in those communities. We need to check the Commissioner’s math. The DEC should release its specific plan and analyses for just how it will create or support over 300 jobs in the Central Adirondacks.
In his op-ed in the Daily Enterprise, Commissioner Seggos claims that there is “misinformation” being spread about his ideas for building huts or cabins on the Forest Preserve. Seriously, Commissioner? The best thing that Commissioner Seggos could do is to clear the air and answer all the questions above and produce detailed plans and legal analysis about what appears to be a highly questionable and legally dubious idea.
It’s time for the Commissioner to lay his cards on the table and provide information to the public about his grand ideas, which have not only delayed major management decisions on the future of the Boreas Ponds, but also mark a major change in Forest Preserve management.
Photo: Hamlet to Hut demonstration project in Long Lake, courtesy Tracy Ormsbee.