Thursday, January 11, 2018

Dave Gibson: Protect Adirondack Boreal Habitat

Road Network affects boreal habitat near the Raquette-Jordan Primitive AreaThe 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.

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

14 Responses

  1. Boreas says:

    I agree with David. DEC shouldn’t rush to build a connector road before its consequences are studied. Perhaps this study could be used for other sensitive areas as well. Take your time & do it right.

  2. adkcamp says:

    My family belongs to a leased hunting club bordering these lands.
    Thank you to DG for keeping this issue in the public’s eye. This is a beautiful, unusual, unspoiled area in the Adirondacks – boreal bog lands that are home to spruce grouse and moose (personal observation of both in that area) in addition to bobcats and other more common wildlife.
    There are miles of logging roads in the area and this fact tends to lend strength to the argument that another short road will have little to no impact at all. If this is the case, then let the DEC study that assertion and support it with data. This is not a tree-hugger’s obstructive demand, this is the standard the DEC set for itself in the 2006 management plan.
    There is active logging in this area – this fact tends to lend strength to the argument that this area is already spoiled. One should only talk to the foresters who monitor logging activities to learn that the science of logging is aimed not only at responsible cutting, but also at restoring/protecting habitat. Pine boughs create cover for ground birds and brouse for deer, erosion issues are addressed, unique/rare physical attributes of the forest are protected. Logging operations are designed by and monitored by foresters in a way that public activity on those lands will not be.
    Further, this connector road will provide public vehicular access to roads that lead to private property. The current DEC proposal has not addressed the placement of gates to keep the general public off these private lands.
    The DEC claims that when they open access to these remote roads, there will be increased law enforcement where now there is none. However, the DEC does not address staffing or funding issues, much less the logistics of how they will monitor these miles of remote roads and lands. Pardon skepticism, but this taxpayer knows that the DEC does not have the financial heft to provide the level of monitoring that would be needed to protect these thousands of unspoiled acres.
    Once the access is changed, there is no taking back the impact.

    • Paul says:

      In other words please keep the public away from the state land that borders the private land that we lease. As a lessee myself I totally agree with the concept.

      Hasn’t there already been several iterations of this same story here? Is there anything new?

      • adkcamp says:

        OK, so one less gate needed.
        Self serving interest doesn’t invalidate opposition to the construction of a new road.
        The point is to hold the DEC to the standard/expectations it set for itself when it assumed responsibility for the management plan.
        As stated at the conclusion of this submission, this is not a new article; no harm in repetition – the broader the reach of any information related to the proposal, the more the public will be prepared to make a decision to support or oppose.

        • Paul says:

          Yes, but if you really want to keep the public engaged you gotta keep it interesting, otherwise it looks like propaganda.

          “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.”

          Not misleading but certainly biased.

        • Boreas says:


          “The point is to hold the DEC to the standard/expectations it set for itself when it assumed responsibility for the management plan.”

          I agree.

          FWIW, I found your original argument quite interesting and germane. All opinions are biased to some extent. It is the PRESS that is supposed to be unbiased, not the readers.

  3. David Gibson says:

    I find the comments very informative. Thank you.
    Since the article was submitted, DEC has notified Adirondack Wild that it has completely withdrawn the proposal and will redraft it next summer. That’s due to the volume of public comment.It was very good news.

  4. Dominic Jacangelo says:

    So let me get this straight… The private landowner sold recreational easements to the State and holds private leases with others who don’t want any more visitors to the property to protect the value of their lease and we are arguing over a road that the land owner could build as a logging road by asking no one for permission or undertaking any environmental review.
    Great discussion. I expect the local towns will oppose any action by the state to acquire the land in fee through use of the EPF. I hope these lands stay in active timber management for a long time! Based on what they have done with other tracts they are a responsible steward of the land.

    • adkcamp says:

      good point about roads being built by logging companies “by asking no one for permission.”
      It might be helpful to know that the logging roads in this area are used for the duration of the logging operation and then remain dormant for seasons, years or even decades.
      Roads built to provide woodland access to the public are usually not rotated out of use or likely to remain dormant.

  5. Smitty says:

    The lack of public access to easement land that public money was spent on troubles me greatly so constructing a short connector route makes sense. Of course, if DEC previously committed to first do a study on environmental impacts then they should make good on that committment. I doubt that there will be that much public use here, even with the connector, and I doubt the impact on spruce grouse would be significant, but I really don’t know. Right now, public access to areas east of the Carry Falls Reservoir is virtually impossible without extraordinary effort. As for the private landowners and leaseholders, they have a vested interest in restricting public access and their comments should be viewed in that light.

    • Paul says:

      Was the intent of the purchase environmental protection or public recreational access?

      • Boreas says:

        “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”

        I read this as an increased access amendment could be considered WHEN the analysis has been done. Seems to me this sets the priority of protection over access. It doesn’t sound to me like build the road and worry about the environment impacts after.

        • Paul says:

          I agree. I also predict then when the assessment is done and if the conclusion is that the impacts are minimal we will see articles on how that was a scam and an APA/DEC conspiracy. The process is broken. Keep it all private till its fixed.

          People here (who have in their comments clearly said that they do not trust the DEC scientists, or the state, or the governor, or the APA scientists) want a DEC analysis? I find that surprising.

  6. Charlie S says:

    “Since the article was submitted, DEC has notified Adirondack Wild that it has completely withdrawn the proposal and will redraft it next summer. ”

    There’s hope!

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