One could almost hear the exhalation of relief by environmentalists when they learned this week that the Governor’s DEC and APA had decided on “Alternative 2 B” for the Boreas Ponds State Land classification.
Large, obvious violations of law were to be avoided, so they learned. Fears held over the past year were apparently allayed. There would be no unclassified area reserved for a future glamorous camping (“glamping”) in the interior, and no bicycle route on vanishing old roads cloaked by balsam fir leading north towards White Lily Pond and the High Peaks Wilderness. Under “2B” the Boreas Ponds themselves at 1200 feet elevation would be incorporated in that Wilderness, as would the boreal forest stretching north to 3,700 feet and the existing High Peaks Wilderness border. Motorized and mechanized access would end at the Boreas Ponds Dam, eight miles in from county highway, or Blue Ridge Road.
I confess I exhaled as well. After all, one year ago the Governor had declared in his State of the State that there would be infrastructure developed and a Hut to Hut program installed in the Boreas Ponds tract. Rumors of a long “Wild Forest corridor” to allow biking far to the north of the Ponds abounded. Wilderness advocates had dodged a bullet, it seemed. A Solomon-like compromise of Wilderness and Wild Forest access to the Ponds had been reached, or so it seemed.
Some reflection, extending back to the public hearings a year ago, would show, on the other hand, that this decision had badly fallen short of advice within the APA itself and from the guidelines of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (APSLMP), which has the force and effect of law. “2B” creates a Wild Forest corridor extending not only the entire length of Gulf Brook Road, but then slicing through Wilderness from the “Four Corners,” where a gate would be established, for about a mile further on to the Ponds, both for administrative motorized use to maintain the Dam, for bicycling to the Dam and for motorized access for persons with disabilities to within 500 ft. of the Ponds.
Wilderness guidelines under the APSLMP state that where a Wilderness boundary abuts a public highway, “the DEC will be permitted, in conformity with a duly adopted unit management plan, to locate within 500 feet from a public highway right‑of‑way, on a site‑specific basis, trailheads, parking areas, fishing and waterway access sites, picnic areas, ranger stations or other facilities for peripheral control of public use, and, in limited instances, snowmobile trails.”
Wilderness guidelines do not permit a mechanized road to penetrate into Wilderness well beyond 500 feet.
Furthermore, where is the Wild Forest in a narrow “Wild Forest corridor” slicing through Wilderness? This is not Wild Forest with wild forest character; it’s a road for recreational and administrative access into Wilderness. Its creation is a political solution for authorizing mechanized access up to the Ponds but has little or nothing to do with Wild Forest guidelines of the State Land Master Plan, or natural resource protection which is of paramount importance according to the APSLMP.
Of even greater importance is the failure of “2B” to consider the opportunity now to create a large, motor-free Wilderness extending from the highway to the High Peaks and Dix Mountain ranges. “2B” emphasizes what’s on the landscape now – a formerly private and very good road, Gulf Brook Road, and dams at Boreas River and Boreas Ponds and clearings where the former Boreas Lodge once stood (thank you, DEC, for removing the Lodge in 2016).
But, as APA Member Chad Dawson reminded his colleagues in 2016, APA ‘’should focus on the whole landscape and consider not just what’s on the land now, but on what the landscape could look like in the future.” The Gulf Brook road could revert to a foot trail, as it has been since the tract was purchased in 2016. People of all ages and abilities have readily walked from the existing parking lot 3.8 miles in from the highway the more than 4 additional miles to the Ponds. The existing dam, as environmentalists reminded APA in 2016, could legally be maintained in Wilderness without any permanent mechanized access to the structure itself, or not maintained at all, and the Ponds allowed to eventually, many years from now, to revert to lower levels, with more streams and wetlands that existed prior to the dam’s construction. This is Wilderness.
Former APA State Land Chairman Richard Booth wrote in his public memo of June, 2016 that the State Land Master Plan fourth classification determinant which requires consideration of “established facilities on the land, the uses now being made by the public and the policies followed by the various administering agencies lends no weight to any potential suggestion that the great majority of the Boreas Ponds tract should be classified as something other than Wilderness. Because the tract has been in private hands until very recently, there are no established facilities used by the public that could arguably prevent the great bulk of these lands from being classified as Wilderness. In determining how the tract should be treated under the SLMP, the Agency will be ‘writing on an essentially clean slate’ with respect to this fourth determinant,” Booth wrote.
I readily appreciate that the Town of North Hudson (and other local governments) had initially wanted much more mechanized access to the Ponds and beyond than “2B” would allow. I respect the Town’s Supervisor and his love of the outdoors, the land and his personal history with it, and his willingness to compromise. I acknowledge that “2B” would classify over 11,000 of the 21,000 acre Boreas Ponds tract as Wilderness. I support public access to the Ponds and have been impressed how readily the public has walked, wheeled boats and helped each other to reach the Ponds since 2016.
But “2B” is a political solution that fails the State Land Master Plan as much as it fails to close a road suddenly to be thrown open to the public with significant ecological impacts over an eight mile stretch, and fails to consider a great deal of public testimony and evidence since 2016 that supports an expansive Wilderness here and is more than ready to imagine what the motor free landscape here could look like the future.
Finally, APA failed to include an all-Wilderness alternative among its 2016 Classification alternatives and environmental impact statement, a glaring omission. The agency can still correct this, and debate it. Nor must the Agency come to a decision on “2B” or any other classification on Feb. 1-2. Given the highly controversial nature of this classification, why not take several meetings to thoroughly deliberate what the State Land Master Plan has to say about this key classification, consider public comments, and imagine not what is on the landscape today, but what that landscape could look like tomorrow?
Map: Boreas Classification decision map, Jan 25 2018, courtesy APA.