Previously I wrote in the Almanack about “a notice for 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… This is actually not a small deal at all.”
Indeed it is not a small deal. I wanted to follow up my earlier post with one that examines whether the State DEC has properly applied the law in its initial review of this project affecting more than 20,000 acres of private land easement, as well as State Land near the border of St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties. All of this area is part of a low-elevation boreal ecosystem identified for its significance by State and private ecologists since the 1970s.
To review, SEQRA (the State Environmental Quality Review Act) requires any State or local agency that undertakes, funds, or approves a project to evaluate the actual or potential environmental impacts of the project prior to taking final action. The agency must require preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) if the proposed action may have any significant environmental impacts. Even one such likely adverse impact triggers preparation of an EIS, or it should.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) announced its intention in September to amend both the 5 Mile Conservation Easement (CE) Interim Recreation Management Plan and the Conservation Easement portion of the Raquette Boreal-Jordan Unit Management Plan (UMP) to construct a connector road between the Five Mile and the Kildare CEs in the town of Hopkinton, St. Lawrence County. The area is due east of Carry Falls Reservoir. “This road will allow motor vehicle access for the first time to thousands of acres of the Kildare Conservation Easement” DEC wrote in a press release.
The DEC announcement neglected to mention tasks that DEC agreed to undertake under an approved 2006 Unit Management Plan to evaluate whether significant environmental impacts could result from opening up more motorized access to this very area. Were those tasks done? What were the results? Did the agency responsible for administering SEQRA actually comply with it?
In late October, Adirondack Wild asked for and DEC provided relevant SEQRA forms that the department filled out about the draft amendment to the plan including the road connector project. They show the following, as detailed in a joint comment letter from Adirondack Wild and Earthjustice submitted to DEC earlier this month .
- Concerning the draft amendment, DEC issued itself a negative declaration of significance under SEQRA, meaning that the road project would have not a single actual or likely adverse environmental impact, and would therefore not require preparation of an EIS;
- In its Environmental Assessment Form for the proposal, or EAF, DEC limited its description of the proposed action to just five acres around the 1.25 mile road connector despite the fact that the connector would for the first time since the easement was acquired in 1988 allow motorized access to 17 miles of the Lassiter Haul Road and spur roads that come off of it. In all the project truly affects more than 20,000 acres;
- The spur roads off the Haul Road extend to the border of Forest Preserve classified as Primitive and Wild Forest. In fact, the proposed amendment acknowledges that “in addition to providing access to and through the Kildare CE (Conservation Easement) lands, these roads also provide access to the adjacent Raquette River Wild Forest and Raquette-Jordan Boreal Primitive Area.” Forest Preserve Primitive classification must by law be managed as wilderness. That wilderness management is impossible if this proposal brings new motorized uses right up to very border of Primitive and facilitates illegal motorized access beyond that border.
- Furthermore, the EAF fails to identify or describe the natural resources that exist in those potentially affected areas, including the designated “Scenic” Raquette, Jordan, and St. Regis rivers; the numerous high value wetlands in the Unit; the eleven notable ecological communities identified by the New York Natural Heritage Program; and the six endangered, threatened or special concern species in the Unit;
- The state endangered spruce grouse was the subject of a 2012 DEC “recovery plan” describing grouse habitat from Kildare Pond on the west, to the West Branch of the St. Regis River on the east, and extending to Cold Brook to the south. This area includes the location of the proposed 1.25-mile connector road and many of the roads which will, for the first time, be opened to public motorized access. Yet, this spruce grouse habitat is neither described nor mapped in the EAF, nor does the EAF identify areas which spruce grouse are known to currently occupy, such as the upper Jordan River. In fact, the proposed public motorized access to the terminus of the Cold Brook Road and East Haul Road appears to come within several miles of occupied spruce grouse habitat. This fact is not acknowledged or its potential impacts assessed in the Department’s SEQRA analysis;
- In addition to the spruce grouse, five other endangered, threatened or special concern species were identified by the 2006 UMP. Nothing is mentioned in the DEC EAF except the spruce grouse. Even for the spruce grouse, the 2017 EAF fails to note that the area contains nine of the most significant sites in the State still thought to support this endangered bird. “The number of sites and their close proximity to one another undoubtedly makes the Raquette Boreal Forest one of the most important areas in the state with regard to the preservation and possible recovery of spruce grouse populations in New York State” (from 2006 UMP).
- The EAF also fails to note that the area “also supports populations of several other rare boreal specialist bird species that, in New York State, are restricted to the Adirondacks, including palm warbler, gray jay, blackbacked woodpecker, boreal chickadee, yellow-bellied flycatcher, and olive-sided flycatcher” (UMP). All of these species are in decline in the Adirondacks and all are sensitive to various kinds of disturbance;
- In the EAF, DEC checks “No, or small impact may occur” in every box related to Impact on Plants and Animals, despite the documented presence of historic and occupied endangered spruce grouse habitat, the other rare boreal bird specialists, and the known eleven ecologically significant communities identified by the Natural Heritage Program in which DEC staff play a very significant role;
- The EAF fails to take note of the State of New York Commission on the Adirondacks in the 21st Century (1990) recommendation that eventually a good portion of this area be incorporated in a Boreal Wilderness area;
- The 2006 Unit Management Plan for this very area clearly states that DEC is obligated to carefully assess the potential impacts of new public motorized access on the unique and sensitive resources in the Boreal Primitive Area and adjacent conservation easement lands: “Prior to any management proposals to open roads or trails for public motorized uses, a careful assessment of projected use must be conducted, in order to relate how those proposals may impact areas surrounding roads or trails. The New York Natural Heritage Program identifies eleven notable ecological communities, four rare or endangered animal species and two rare plant species within the Raquette Boreal Unit. The protection of these resources is a primary management objective for this plan. Therefore, prior to any increased public motorized use an assessment of impacts on these communities, associated with that use, must be conducted.”
- The UMP continues: “Currently, there is no public motor vehicle access to the Lassiter Easement lands nor the Forest Preserve lands east of Carry Falls Reservoir . . . Should motor vehicle access to the unit be proposed in the future an amendment to this plan will be required along with a more detailed analysis of potential impacts associated with motor vehicle access.”
To our knowledge, none of these studies and detailed analysis has been conducted and completed. The 2006 UMP also identified an ongoing problem with illegal motor vehicle use, and cited the need for increased law enforcement resources as another potential impact of increased public motorized access. However, neither the EAF nor the Negative Declaration recognize, much less assess, these potential impacts.
Having failed to collect the baseline data and monitor the area, DEC cannot justify its confidence that the limited motor vehicle use to date (restricted to the private owners, and their leaseholders and guests, and illegal ATV traffic) has not had adverse impacts. Now those uses are to greatly expand.
Yet, lacking the promised studies from 2006 and the data that might result, the Sept. 2017 DEC EAF form concludes:
“There are no significant adverse environmental impacts associated with construction of the proposed road…. Accordingly, this negative declaration (of significance) is issued.”
In sending Adirondack Wild and Earthjustice the EAF, DEC wrote: “The Department anticipates receiving public comments that will result in revisions to this proposal. If that occurs, a revised proposal together with any corresponding SEQRA documents will be re-noticed with a new opportunity for public comment.”
Adirondack Wild’s is by no means the only comment letter. DEC has received many. Hopefully, this degree of public pressure on the DEC will cause it to take SEQRA seriously, withdraw its road construction proposal and undertake the studies and monitoring that were conditions of the 2006 UMP approval by the Adirondack Park Agency.
Simply opening up more roads to public motorized use without understanding the actual and potential impacts on an ecosystem of such statewide significance, impacts accelerated by climate change, is a clear violation of law.
DEC needs to do its job, follow up the work of its own biologists and protect this very sensitive and rare low-elevation boreal ecosystem. We’re not making any more of it.
Photo: DEC and APA staff visit the Jordan River with members of the Forest Preserve Advisory Committee in 2001.