A notice inviting public comment about what seems a relatively innocuous, relatively short (1.25 mile) road construction has been circulated by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, or DEC.
The Adirondack Almanack headlined the matter as “DEC planning new road east of Carry Falls Reservoir.”
This is not a small deal. In fact, the 1.25 miles of new road cut through the forest will result in nearly 20 miles of new public motorized access within a sensitive low-elevation boreal ecosystem. For many years, our DEC has been badly conflicted about balancing resource protection and motorized access to this area.
It’s all part of an amendment to several private conservation easements (5 Mile and Kiladare Conservation Easements) and to the Raquette-Jordan Boreal Primitive Area of the NYS Forest Preserve which adjoins the easements east of Carry Falls Reservoir in St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties. The relatively small amounts of Forest Preserve east of the Reservoir – about 15,000 acres in all – have long been interspersed with twice that acreage in private land blocks of industrial forest, and private, non-industrial holdings as well.
Here is some background.
The question of how the State would classify the Forest Preserve in this northwestern sector of the Park was a subject of much contention at the turn of the 21st century. Many recreational users, knowing the extensive wood road mileage in the area, wanted Wild Forest to be the classification to facilitate public motorized uses and snowmobile connections between the Towns of Colton and Tupper Lake. There were many at NYS DEC who favored Wild Forest.
Nonetheless, in the year 2000 the NYS Adirondack Park Agency had to acknowledge the field work done in the 1970s and 80s by George D. Davis, Mike DiNunzio, Clarence Petty, Gary Randorf, Greenie Chase and others who documented the area along the Jordan River and Cold Brook as possessing rare, high quality low-elevation boreal habitats.
As stated in the State Land Master Plan, natural resource protection is the paramount priority and recreational uses, while very important, are secondary in priority and on condition that natural resources are not compromised. In recognition of the area’s special resource values, around 2000 the APA recommended a Primitive classification for the Jordan River and parts of the Raquette, and recommended Wild Forest closer to the Reservoir and the mouth of the Jordan River. Upstream the Jordan flows through a checker block of State and private holdings. Those classifications were accepted by the Governor. Everybody familiar with the area acknowledged that illegal ATV traffic was a big problem up and down the old roads, now trails, along the Jordan River and along the haul roads as well.
In late 2006, the NYS Adirondack Park Agency voted to adopt the Raquette- Boreal Primitive Area Unit Management Plan (UMP) as compliant with the State Land Master Plan. APA’s approval resolution was adopted unanimously. It stated, in part, that:
WHEREAS, the Adirondack Park Agency has reviewed the proposed Raquette-Boreal Area Unit Management Plan; and WHEREAS, the Raquette-Jordan Primitive Area which forms the core of this unit plan was recently classified as a Primitive Area due to the presence of biological resources of Statewide significance as well as unique and significant resource values for its sense of remoteness and outstanding opportunities for solitude; and WHEREAS, the Plan recognizes the need to improve public use and enjoyment of the area, avoid user conflicts and prevent overuse of the area according to the guidelines and criteria of the State Land Master Plan; and WHEREAS, the Plan calls for the monitoring of public use to assess changes in use levels, monitoring of motor vehicle use of roads within the unit which are utilized under reserved rights, developing a Limits of Acceptable Change system to monitor and address environmental impacts related to the existence of improvements and facilities in the Unit and prevent illegal motor vehicle use; and WHEREAS, the Plan’s objectives include providing reasonable public access where appropriate, maintenance of roads to prevent degradation to natural resources, and improving overall access once rights of use are available in order to provide visitors with a trail system that offers a range of recreational opportunities while minimizing resource impacts” (underlining is my emphasis).
The “core” area of Forest Preserve with “biological resources of Statewide significance, remoteness and outstanding opportunities for solitude” would be co-mingled for UMP management purposes with private conservation easement lands laced with a former logging roads stretching from the eastern shore of Carry Falls Reservoir to the West Branch of the St. Regis River. To succeed in protecting ecologically sensitive, low-elevation boreal woods as well as conserving opportunities for solitude, all the while seeking new public motorized access on a system of haul roads built by private industry would be extremely challenging for any land manager. It has so proven.
Put another way, when our DEC doesn’t know know where it’s headed from a mission and management perspective, any direction will get it there.
There was a unified vision for the area, just not one shared by the DEC. In 1988-89, Adirondack ecologist and planner George D. Davis called “for the creation of a Low Elevation Boreal Reserve in southern St. Lawrence and western Franklin Counties. Since the low elevation boreal biome (an extensive area of spruce/fir forests and sphagnum bogs) is not found in any units of the Adirondack Wilderness system, a portion of the proposed Adirondack Boreal Reserve should be designated a Boreal Wilderness” (20:20 Vision, Volumes 1 and 2 by the Adirondack Council).
Davis proposed that the core of the Boreal Wilderness should logically be the Jordan River drainage. “Perhaps nowhere in the Adirondack Park can the northern wilderness so completely engage all senses as when one canoes on the Jordan shortly after dawn,” he wrote. “Civilization could be hundreds of miles away as the mist rises from the leather-leaf dominated fens, as the white-throated sparrow and the ruby-crowned kinglet call, while the towering old-growth pines drift in and out of the mist.”
The ownership pattern and history of land use were obstacles to George’s vision. Most of the proposed 73,000-acre Boreal Wilderness was privately owned, much of it logged and roaded. The State Forest Preserve parcels totaled less than 15,000 acres. The balance would have to be purchased. The State did acquire rights here, but not fee simple, only a conservation easement from Henry Lassiter, a timber kingpin in Atlanta, GA. That fee land is now owned by Molpus Woodland Management. International Paper owned adjacent property to the West Branch St. Regis River, long since sold, where NYS also owns an easement. Other private parties controlled road access from the north at Joe Indian Pond and from the southeast at Kildare.
Although the State acquired public recreational rights from Lassiter, the State could not work out a road maintenance agreement with the fee owners. This was enormously frustrating to the DEC, which had paid public money for these recreational rights. The public, from 1988 to this day, the public is still blocked from driving through the lands east of Carry Falls Reservoir or south of Joe Indian Pond. Only leaseholders and private in-holders can access them.
In 2000, DEC announced intention to develop a UMP for the area comprised of lands along the Raquette River acquired from International Paper and lands along Carry Falls Reservoir acquired from Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. This announcement came before the State Lands were even classified. DEC expected it would take 2 years to develop the UMP.
Even before work began on State Land classification or a UMP, a motorized bridge across the scenic Raquette was proposed by the Town of Colton and snowmobile clubs, and pressure was placed on the DEC to authorize it and to fund it. Without warning, in 2000 the DEC Region 6 regional director in Watertown appeared to endorse the idea of a new steel bridge across the Raquette. An uproar followed this apparent endorsement. DEC’s Potsdam office held many meetings to discuss the matter. I and many others viewed the bridge idea as extremely threatening to the ecology of the area by facilitating more illegal ATV traffic that could disturb rare peatland systems up and down the Jordan River, Cold Brook, and in other sensitive areas.
We urged DEC to sponsor more natural resource surveys that would inform a UMP. Towards that end, DEC sponsored a field visit by members of the NYS DEC Forest Preserve Advisory Committee, then chaired by author Barbara McMartin. The committee was given permission by the landowners to drive down the haul road, beginning near Joe Indian Pond in the north and ending at the Jordan River and Raquette Rivers in the south. We observed and discussed natural resource and facilities conditions in preparation for a DEC UMP. I recall a seemingly endless drive down to the Jordan, and then a further drive to the Raquette River. The driving took much of the day. The Jordan River was just as George Davis had described it, sprucy, boggy, meandering, peaceful. The low elevation boreal habitats were long linear features in a sea of northern hardwood. The Raquette River was lined with huge silver maples and other floodplain trees. It was a chance to lobby APA and DEC staff present on the trip. There did not appear to be much enthusiasm for a new bridge across the Raquette River. Illegal ATV traffic already plagued the area. Ultimately, the bridge was not built. The State Lands were subsequently classified Primitive or Wild Forest, and work on a UMP began.
In 2006, Dan Plumley visited this area to meet with private landowners concerned with the issue of overuse and damage to natural resources from ATV uses. Dan scouted the rivers, and that evening appealed before local government why their proposed change in the status of an old road along the Jordan River should not result in motorized traffic upstream. “The interests of the Town of Colton should join with ours towards full protection of the Raquette Boreal’s unique ecosystem – truly a jewel in the crown…” he said to the Town. This represents “the heart of the park’s low elevation boreal ecosystem that demands full wilderness protection free from the impacts of motorized uses… We recognize,” Plumley said, “the interests of snowmobiling and ATV communities seeking east-west connections across Colton but the Town has many other alternatives that can be developed on private lands and forest-based easement lands without harming this sensitive area.”
As noted above, the UMP was approved in late 2006. The plan promised that DEC would monitor public use, monitor motorized traffic on the road system, develop projects to measure environmental change over time, prevent illegal ATV use, and further protect natural resources. Notably, the UMP stated that DEC would “improve overall access once rights of use are available in order to provide visitors with a trail system that offers a range of recreational opportunities while minimizing resource impacts.” It’s impossible to discern a clear mission in such a statement, especially problematic for such a rare Park ecosystem.
Now, under this proposed amendment to the easement the DEC and private landowner have agreed to build a 1.25 mile road connector through undisturbed forest to extend public motorized uses from the West Branch St. Regis to nearly 20 miles of roads to the south and west that have never before been open to public motorized pressure. That pressure would extend right up to the Forest Preserve Primitive area along the Jordan River. No buffers, no seasonal restrictions on public use (as of 2019 the reserved hunting rights will expire), and no gates are proposed in either this amendment or the UMP in consideration of the wilderness and ecosystem integrity of the Jordan River or Cold Brook. No attempt to reduce the ecological footprint of the roads is suggested. No access restrictions are proposed to prevent disturbance to low elevation boreal habitats for those unique and steadily declining species of Adirondack birds and mammals which are utterly dependent on such habitats and shown to be highly sensitive to human uses, especially given climate change.
In fact, the amendment to the easement could in future threaten adjoining Forest Preserve. The amendment states:
“In addition to providing access to and through the Kildare CE (conservation easement) lands, these roads will also provide access to the adjacent Raquette River Wild Forest and Raquette-Jordan Boreal Primitive Area. There are existing roads that the owner of the Kildare Tract has the right to use through these Forest Preserve units but consideration of opening them, or a portion of them, for public motor vehicle use will be addressed in the future” (emphasis mine).
This, like all Primitive areas, is required by the State Land Master Plan to be managed as if it were Wilderness, with all public uses of motor vehicles prohibited. Our DEC should not be proposing that the new motorized road system on the easement might some day be considered for extension into the Primitive area. That would be illegal.
And it is clear that DEC has no intention of conducting natural resource studies that would mitigate the impact of close to 20 miles of new motorized routes on this sensitive low elevation boreal ecosystem. Here is what the easement amendment considers the highest priority for its coming work plan, having nothing to do with natural resources:
” A work plan for this project will be developed by the Potsdam DEC staff. The work plan will address best management practices, road improvements, and facilities development such as the placement of: parking areas, road and trail signs, an information kiosk, and any gates necessary to permit access while providing mandated protections to the landowner and neighboring private property owners” (emphasis mine).
Regarding the Raquette-Jordan Primitive Area UMP approved in 2006, have the promised DEC studies to monitor existing human use, to establish baseline conditions and to measure environmental change over time and “protect natural resources” taken place? If so, where are the results?
Until the requisite and promised studies are completed and a science-based assessment undertaken about the ecological impacts of nearly 20 miles of new motorized uses extending into the heart of the low-elevation boreal ecosystem, the proposed 1.25 mile new road construction should be disallowed by the DEC in Albany.
While public motorized access on conservation easement lands is a priority, it is not DEC’s sole priority. Here, the road system being opened on easement lands extends right up to the Raquette-Jordan Primitive Area of the NYS “forever wild” Forest Preserve. It’s high time that Recreational Management Plans on conservation easement lands should apply ecological information to an assessment of potential impacts on habitats and species found nowhere else in NYS. It’s the DEC’s job to protect an Adirondack Park ecosystem of such rarity and regional significance.
Comments or concerns about this matter are encouraged. Public comments are due Nov. 10 to [email protected] or in writing to Peter D’Luhosch, Conservation Easement Specialist, NYS DEC, 6739 US Hwy. 11, Potsdam, NY 13676 or by calling 315-265-3090. Please copy comments to Judith Drabicki, Regional Director, NYS DEC, 317 Washington Street, Watertown, NY 13601, Rob Davies, Director of Lands and Forests, NYS DEC,. 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233, and DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos, same Albany address.
Map: Extent of new public motorized roads proposed by DEC near the Boreal Area.