The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) announced in September that it would construct 1.25 miles of new road on private lands between Carry Falls Reservoir and the West Branch of the St. Regis River. The new road would connect two existing, much longer forest roads. To understand what’s wrong with this idea, here is some background.
In 1988, large commercial forest owners began to sell their enormous holdings in the Adirondack Park. DEC entered a new era of acquiring conservation easements and public recreational rights. The first large easement acquisition occurred in the part of Park in question. There was a disagreement over who would maintain the miles of industrial haul roads — nearly twenty miles. As a result, the public has been blocked from this easement ever since. Only leaseholders and private owners have access. The new road, paired with negotiations to gain more public rights, would finally open year-round motorized access for the public.
After studying the project, Adirondack Wild concluded it was a bad idea. This area of the Park contains large swaths of low-elevation boreal forest — an ecosystem uncommon in the Adirondacks. Our boreal forest is a southern outlier of the vast circumpolar boreal woods stretching across Canada and Russia. It includes habitat for the endangered spruce grouse and a number of other sensitive boreal birds.
This boreal habitat exists on both public Forest Preserve and private land, about forty-five thousand acres in all, which seamlessly adjoin each other. Impacts on one affect the other. Building this road and opening up the area to more motorized use would put this sensitive habitat and its wild denizens at risk. The boreal forest already is threatened by climate change. DEC’s plan would make things worse.
DEC has failed to undertake the legally required ecological-impact studies that it once promised in order to protect the area’s rich natural resources and remote character.
The Forest Preserve in this region is known as the Raquette-Boreal Primitive Area. When it approved the unit management plan (UMP) for this tract in 2006, the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) noted that the Primitive classification — which is similar to motor-free Wilderness, the most protective designation — was based on the presence of “biological resources of statewide significance” as well as on “unique and significant resource values for its sense of remoteness and outstanding opportunities for solitude.”
The APA reached that conclusion, in part, because of earlier work completed in 1990 by the Adirondack Council and the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century, which called for creating a 73,300-acre Boreal Wilderness. (This is a long-term vision, as it would require the acquisition of commercial forests.) The connector road would open to motorized access areas within the boundaries of the proposed Wilderness Area, including Cold Brook and McCuen Pond. To comply with the law, DEC should have considered this important fact, but it didn’t.
In the 2006 management plan, which covers the easement land as well as Forest Preserve, DEC itself warned that the “Raquette-Boreal Unit … cannot withstand ever-increasing, unlimited visitor use without suffering the eventual loss of its essential, natural character.” To protect the tract’s fragile resources, DEC committed to study motorized-use impacts prior to any expansion of such use:
“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 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” (emphasis mine).
DEC repeated that commitment elsewhere in the document:
“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” (emphasis mine).
DEC never completed the motorized-use studies it promised in the UMP.
So why is this important? For one thing, the private road system leads directly to Forest Preserve classified Primitive, a region that contains the watershed of three remote and scenic rivers: the West Branch of the St. Regis, the Jordan and the Raquette. The state’s Natural Heritage Program has documented no fewer than eleven notable ecological communities; four rare, threatened, or endangered animal species, including the critically endangered spruce grouse; and two endangered plants. Almost a third of the Adirondack sites still thought to harbor the spruce grouse are found here. Six other declining bird species also depend upon these boreal wetlands.
Were DEC to open thousands of acres of fragile habitat to more motorized use in the absence of critical information and analysis of impacts, it would be in violation of the 2006 UMP, the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, and the State Environmental Quality Review Act.
DEC should withdraw the road proposal and, instead, do what it promised: do more to study and protect this rare example of low-elevation boreal forest in the Adirondacks.
This article originally appeared in the January/February issue of the Adirondack Explorer.
Map: Road Network near the Raquette-Jordan Primitive Area.