There will be no decision on the classification of the Boreas Ponds at the November meeting of the Adirondack Park Agency (APA). The APA often does not meet in either December or January so it could be that there is no decision until February 2018 or after. The Governor has made it clear that he will make the final decision on Boreas Ponds and will instruct the APA on what to do. For it’s part, the APA has prepared the paperwork for the Boreas classification, but patiently awaits the decision by the Governor.
The Boreas Ponds sit as the centerpiece of a classification package of over 50,000 acres of Forest Preserve lands that the APA took to public hearing one year ago. Once the hearings concluded in mid-December a decision was supposed to be speedy with management set by the summer 2017 field season. Yet, here we are a year later with no decision in sight.
Delay, in this case, is good news because the Governor is getting a lot of bad advice from the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and local government leaders. These folks remain infatuated with the idea of making Boreas Ponds a beachhead in the Forest Preserve for a larger hut-to-hut network they envision spreading far and wide on both public and private lands. Local government leaders have also been pushing for widespread bicycle trails on old logging roads and motor vehicle access throughout the Boreas Ponds tract with routes that loop around the ponds and extend deep into the tract to places like White Lily Pond.
The key hurdle that prevents Governor Cuomo from a full embrace of the huts idea pushed by the DEC and his political allies is the law. The Governor faces a series of decisions at Boreas Ponds about where to draw the Wild Forest and Wilderness boundary lines. And, while these decisions are complicated, the Governor has chosen to muddy the waters even more by entertaining ideas to build some form of public lodging and dining facility at Boreas Ponds – some form of tent platform/glamping facilities, cabins or yurts or huts – where the public could rent a shelter, sleep in a bed, enjoy a warm shower, get a meal, and perhaps get a beer too.
Establishing some kind of hut system at Boreas Ponds makes an already complicated set of decisions even more difficult. Some form of huts for public use would require changes to state laws and policies, which would be controversial and involve public hearings, and would also be challenged as unconstitutional under Article 14, Section 1, of the NYS Constitution. The huts in the DEC’s dreams are only legal on the Forest Preserve through a constitutional amendment.
Governor Cuomo should abandon ideas that he’s being pitched for huts at Boreas Ponds, but this means saying no to some of his most loyal aides and political supporters. The Governor can delay as long as he wants, but the months that pass will not change the law. It’s time for the APA, DEC and Governor Cuomo to state publicly that any form of hut for public use on the Forest Preserve violates existing state laws, regulations and Article 14, and move on to other decisions. Hut-curiosity has paralyzed the Cuomo Administration with inaction.
Once the Governor abandons the huts idea, one thing he could do to focus his decision-making on the Boreas Ponds would be to consider only options that are currently lawful within the covers of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan. If the Governor decides to make classification decisions that stick to the Master Plan, then he would be smart to spend some time examining what has worked and what has not worked in his most recent Forest Preserve classifications.
The Essex Chain Lakes Primitive Area was created by Governor Cuomo at the end of 2014. Here, the Governor embraced a plan to facilitate a number of different recreational uses concentrated in one area. I have argued previously, and heard from staffers in the APA and DEC who agree, that the Essex Chain Lakes Primitive Area is a failed classification. I think its failure is born out in part by low public use. In early September, I paddled the Essex Chain Lakes in my Hornbeck canoe and on my way in I counted the number of people who had signed in at the Deer Pond parking lot in June, July and August 2017. There were just 281 people, roughly three per day. 281 people are less than those who hike Cascade Mountain on one summer weekday.
How does the Governor explain the low public use numbers at the Essex Chain? Does he even know how low the use has been there? I have heard DEC leaders talk, without referencing any data, about numbers at the Essex Chain Lakes Area as being off the charts and the area being heavily used. Is the Governor getting good information from his advisors? The Governor should ask DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos why the numbers at the Essex Chain Lakes are so low.
At the time of the Essex Chain Lakes classification at the end of 2014, the Governor held a victory rally in Saranac Lake where he crowed that the classification was accomplished in record time. He proudly stated that he got a bunch of people together, worked out an agreement, and then sent it to the APA for approval. Since December 2014, has the Governor reflected on that process? Has he revisited his decisions in light of anemic public use? It’s been nearly three years – a lifetime in politics – but what lessons has Governor Cuomo learned, if any, from the Essex Chain Lakes classification?
At the Common Ground Alliance meeting in Old Forge in July, the crowd was treated to a speech by Venetia Lannon, the Governor’s top environmental staffer. In the days before that meeting, DEC officials had driven her around the Boreas Ponds tract and she told the assembled crowd that she was blown away by what she saw. She said that her trip affirmed in her mind “We have to get the classification of the Boreas Ponds right.”
Lannon provided no details about what getting it right meant. As one of the key people feeding information to Governor Cuomo in preparation of his decision on the Boreas Ponds classification, Lannon would benefit from investigating what the state got wrong with the Essex Chain Lakes classification, the only Forest Preserve classification handled exclusively by the Cuomo Administration. Here are some lessons from which the DEC, APA, Lannon, and Governor Cuomo could learn from the Essex Chain Lakes classification.
I’ve already written that just about three people per day visited in the Essex Chain Lakes in the summer of 2017. But I think it’s important to contrast that with the more than 3,000 people who hiked into OK Slips Falls during that same period. OK Slip Falls was classified as Wilderness as part of the Hudson Gorge Wilderness area at the same time the Essex Chain Lakes Primitive area was created.
The difference between the Essex Chain Lakes and Ok Slip Falls areas are many, but one thing that strikes me is that OK Slip Falls benefits from efficient, coherent and streamlined management provided by a Wilderness classification. These lands were classified as part of the new Hudson Gorge Wilderness Area, and as such management around OK Slip Falls was limited to hiking on a foot trail. The public expectation was set: a hike on a foot trail to reach a beautiful waterfall. In this way, both the natural resources and public experiences were protected. The success of the Ok Slip Falls trail is born out in the relatively high public use for a trail in a Wilderness area outside the High Peaks. I’ve hiked into OK Slip Falls several times, the most recent being twice on summer Saturdays, once in 2016 and again in 2017, and on both days I met more than 50 people on the trail, similar to what I encounter when hiking Blue Mountain or a less popular High Peak.
The Essex Chain Lakes classification by contrast is a hodgepodge of uses crammed into one area. The public has no idea what to expect. Management is not efficient, coherent and streamlined, but rather incoherent, forced, and unwieldy. Will there be bikes? Will people drive down to Fifth Lake? Will state agency staff be driving through area? On my visit in September, I had a hard time squaring the stunning beauty of the Essex Chain with the emptiness of the lakes. Over the years I have paddled a good deal on Low’s Lake, Little Tupper Lake, Round Lake, Lake Lila, and many other places, and I don’t think I’ve ever been alone in these places in the way I was alone on the lakes of the Essex Chain in September. The scene was a heartbreaking paradox: the beauty of dead calm waters reflecting clouds and shorelines tinged with fall colors was enveloping and overwhelming, yet it gnawed at me because in my mind it showed the failure of state policy, the profound opportunity lost, profound mistakes made.
While the protection of the natural resources on the Forest Preserve is paramount, and while I can certainly see that low public use numbers are beneficial for forest recovery, and for the quadrupeds, birds, amphibians, and fish of an area, as well as to other things, I also know that the Forest Preserve needs public use to be successful, to galvanize and engender public support for its growth and stewardship. But right now memories are not being made in high numbers on the Essex Chain Lakes like they are on Lake Lila or Low’s Lake or Little Tupper Lake. There are few young people today paddling the Essex Chain who dare to dream decades into the future of bringing their grandchildren there to reprise the same wild and beautiful experiences they enjoyed. Such dreams are dreamed every day all summer long on Lake Lila or the Oswegatchie River, among scores of other places.
At the Essex Chain Lakes, the Governor sought to maximize public use by cramming together as many recreational uses as possible. This decision was wildly cheered by local government officials who held tight to the Governor’s ear. The Essex Chain Lakes Primitive Area includes hiking, paddling, bike riding, state management with motor vehicles, enhanced drive-in motorized access, and is sliced by a motorized Wild Forest corridor. The area stands out on the APA Land Use and Development Plan Map as a Twister board of gerrymandered classifications, while most other Forest Preserve areas stand out as big blocks on light green Wild Forest or blue Wilderness.
By opening this area to so many conflicting uses without clear boundary lines, the Governor, state officials and local government leaders alienated rather than enhanced public use. Governor Cuomo ordered his state agencies to facilitate a wide assortment of recreational uses, yet he ended up with a management program that repels rather than attracts. Coherent management has made the foot trail to OK Slips Falls attractive and inviting whereas, despite the stunning beauty of the Essex Chain Lakes, incoherent management has made the Essex Chain Lakes unattractive and uninviting.
In my trip to the Essex Chain Lakes in September I paddled into the channel between Fourth and Fifth Lakes and reached “The Tube,” which is a large culvert that allows water to flow through a point in the channel connecting the two lakes where significant amounts of fill had been dumped over the decades to make a road. The culvert and roadway at The Tube should have been removed and the channel should have been restored as a healthy meandering wetland channel. But restoration of The Tube was dismissed in favor of retaining the road over The Tube for bicycle riding and patrolling by the DEC in motor vehicles. In this way, management decisions sustained degraded natural resources. Forest Preserve acquisition is an opportunity to right old wrongs, like restoring filled wetlands, rather than enshrining and sustaining past abuses.
While it’s unclear how many times state agency staff have patrolled the Essex Chain and driven motor vehicles across The Tube, of the 281 people that signed in during June, July and August, only a handful wrote that they went there to ride bikes.
Around this same time I visited, hiked, and rode my mountainbike on the Flume and Hardy Road mountainbike trail systems, which consist of specially designed and constructed singletrack trails, while doing fieldwork in preparation of public comments on the APA’s draft mountainbike trails “guidance.” These areas were highly used, with 1,500 – 2,000 people per month. These trail networks have become catalysts for local businesses and people now visit Wilmington specifically to ride these mountainbike trail networks. They have been so successful that the state is planning to build similar mountanbike trail networks outside of Saranac Lake and between Raquette Lake and Inlet.
Whereas the Flume and Hardy Road mountainbike trail networks are singletrack trails designed and built for mountainbike riding, the Essex Chain Lakes Primitive area offers former dirt logging roads for mountainbiking that are often rocky and sandy. Whereas the Flume and Hardy Road mountainbike trail networks are recreational uses that comply with the area’s Wild Forest management guidelines, the guidelines for the Essex Chain Lakes Primitive Area had to be rewritten to facilitate bike riding. Whereas mountainbike riding has been a great success in the Wilmington Wild Forest Area, enjoyed by thousands, mountainbike riding in the Essex Chain Lakes Primitive Area has been a complete dud.
As the Governor and his advisors prepare to make a momentous decision on the future of the Boreas Ponds, they should learn from mistakes made at the Essex Chain. At Boreas, they should draw boundary lines distinctly so that large blocks of Wilderness and Wild Forest stand separate and coherent, and are not convoluted Twister boards of intertwined classifications. They should make decisions based on what is allowable under the State Land Master Plan, and not force through amendments to legalize new uses. They should make decisions that facilitate viable public recreational uses, and not seek to force a variety of uses into one area. They should not make decisions based on the bogus belief that lots of people want to ride bikes on former dirt logging roads.
The Governor is hearing loudly from his small coterie of advisors to double down at Boreas Ponds on the same failed strategies and decisions used at the Essex Chain Lakes. He needs to reject this bad advice. It will take courage for Governor Cuomo to honestly reckon with the bad advice he has received, and continues to receive, about Forest Preserve management and to squarely face up to the management failures that resulted at the Essex Chain Lakes.
I hope that Governor Cuomo demonstrates in his decisions on the Boreas Ponds that he has the capacity to learn from his mistakes.
Photo of Boreas Ponds, courtesy Phil Brown.