Thursday, February 1, 2018

Bill Ingersoll: Boreas Ponds Plan Process Manipulated

Boreas classification mapThe buzz this week, of course, is the announcement of the state’s planned classification of the Boreas Ponds. This news came roughly ten years after we learned that the state intended to purchase this tract for the Forest Preserve, and fifteen months after the Adirondack Park Agency kicked off its formal procedure to classify the land according to the guidelines of the State Land Master Plan.

My neck is still sore from the whiplash I experienced late last week when I first heard the news. It wasn’t the classification decision itself that did it, because my first reaction to the map was one of déjà vu, as I’ll explain in a moment. What caught me off guard was the sight of the various “watchdog” groups tripping over themselves to congratulate the state for its decision, and the press that praised Albany’s direct intervention in what should have been the APA’s independent deliberations.

The map released last week, dubbed “Alternative 2B,” speaks for itself. Nearly everything north of Gulf Brook Road will be added to the High Peaks Wilderness. The road and everything to the south will be added to the Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forest. The one exception will be a corridor leading to the Boreas Ponds dam, a spot-zoned inroad within the wilderness boundaries; this is intended to keep the state’s management options open.

The reaction to this map is something else entirely. In an editorial dated January 28, the Daily Gazette of Schenectady described this as “good governing in action” and added that “all parties involved — the various interest groups that contributed information and perspective, citizens who enjoy the Adirondack Park and who care about its future, and representatives from the Adirondack Park Agency, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office — deserve praise for how they arrived at the decision.” And here on the Almanack, Willie Janeway of the Adirondack Council described the outcome as a “compromise” that “respects public opinion.”

People are entitled to their opinions, but the narrative as I see it is much different, pointing not to good governance, respect of the public process, and a compromise achieved through mutual participation. The evidence that I see points to a broken system in which decisions are issued virtually by decree, with a public that is powerless to do anything about it.

When the APA was created by law in 1971, the state legislature granted it the primary authority to classify the Forest Preserve based on each area’s intrinsic characteristics. Whatever the APA proposed was first reviewed by the public, modified accordingly before being voted upon by the board, and then submitted to the governor for final approval.

That is the classification process as it was intended. DEC does have the ability to make recommendations to the APA, but ultimately the decision rests with the agency — and it’s DEC’s responsibility to abide by that decision.

Nominally, something like this has just occurred with the Boreas Ponds action. After all, it was the agency that issued the alternative maps, conducted the hearings, and accepted the public comments, and it will be the agency’s board that votes on the preferred alternative at the end of the week. But it has been a widely known secret all along that those map options were prepared on the APA’s behalf by the Cuomo administration in Albany, and that the preferred alternative has come from the same source. The agency’s involvement has been mostly a formality, the bureaucratic equivalent of a notary public.

So to refresh everyone’s memory, here is what really just happened in regards to Boreas Ponds:

In 2013, the Department of Environmental Conservation issued a set of “Conceptual Access and Recreation Strategy” maps for the largest pieces of the newly acquired Finch Pruyn lands, including the Essex Chain and to the two MacIntyre tracts flanking Tahawus. One of these maps focused on DEC’s plans for Boreas Ponds, which at the time was still owned by The Nature Conservancy; it would be another three years before the state took title to Boreas.

Phil Brown reported on these maps here on the Almanack in March of 2013. The Boreas Ponds map, I can’t help but notice, is nearly identical to today’s Alternative 2B. “DEC would split the parcel more or less evenly between Wild Forest and Wilderness,” Brown wrote at the time. “The ponds themselves, with their spectacular views, would be added to the High Peaks Wilderness. DEC wants to keep open about five miles of [Gulf Brook Road], as far as LeBiere Flow. From there, canoeists could paddle and portage to Boreas Ponds, while hikers could walk on the closed stretch of road to reach the ponds. The road would be used by snowmobilers in the winter.”

The state closed on the Boreas Ponds Tract in the spring of 2016, although the first gate on Gulf Brook Road was not opened until later that fall. In October, the APA began the process of classifying the lands by issuing four maps for public review. Although these maps bore the agency’s name, it was an open secret that they had come from Albany. The second map in the set bore a strong similarity to DEC’s conceptual map from 2013, although at this point no preferred alternative among the four was formally announced.

Thus began the public comment process, required under state environmental review law. Agency staff conducted eight hearings in a whirlwind session before and after Thanksgiving, from the Hudson Valley to Rochester, and from Ray Brook to Northville. The most memorable part of this phase was the unprecedented level of public interest. The hearings attracted hundreds of people, and a concerned citizenry sent well over 11,000 written comments to the agency.

The breakdown of these comments was very interesting. By now you have probably heard multiple times that 84% of the written comments supported strong wilderness protections. This figure was derived by a manual count that Adirondack Wilderness Advocates performed a year ago, with myself as one of the counters. The motivating issue for nearly all of the comments was the status of Gulf Brook Road, and to what degree it should be open to motorized recreation: entirely, partially, or not at all.

Of the four state-issued alternatives, only Alternative 1 received any substantial public support. Under this proposal, both the road to the ponds and the roads around the ponds would have been open to motorized access. It was supported by local government and sportsmen’s groups, who had united under the moniker “Access the Adirondacks.” Their message was one of recreational access for all, but even so, only 1233 comments – 10.9% of the total – could be directly attributed to their efforts.

Another 420 commenters (3.7%) asked for an all wild forest classification. Alternatives 2 through 4 had almost no support. We counted only 72 public comments total endorsing these three proposals, with just 40 (0.4%) for Alternative 2. As I recall, most of those forty letters originated from a single classroom at Paul Smiths College, where the students had apparently been assigned Boreas Ponds as part of a civic engagement lesson. Lacking personal familiarity with the tract, these students settled on the alternative that seemed most middle of the road to them.

Not only did the public not endorse the state’s alternatives, a majority of commenters explicitly rejected them. The message was not simply that wilderness was good and people wanted more of it; these were specific calls for the state to consider options that were not in the official map packet. Basically, 84% of the people with an interest in the future of the Boreas Ponds wanted the state to start the process over.

That is an impressive figure. Many politicians dream of approval ratings that high; most would claim a mandate if voted into office by such a popular wave. If state officials had been concerned about the controversy behind a strong wilderness classification, this high expression of public interest should have eliminated those fears.

But as we now know, they didn’t. What followed the comment period was a full year of inaction, with rumors that the Cuomo administration was more interested in glamping development and biking trails.

So, yes, it was a relief that the final proposal issued last week contained none of that nonsense. I also concede that the proposed classification follows a more coherent logic than the Essex Chain decision a few years ago, in that the boundaries are easily identifiable and the spot zoning is minimized. Then again, the Essex Chain classification set a very low bar.

However, I do not agree that the state’s decision for Boreas respects public opinion, because the public heartily rejected the map known as Alternative 2. Rather, this is a spit in the eye to all of us, because despite that tremendous swelling of wilderness advocacy we put forth, the state is about to proceed with the same plan it crafted five years ago — with the most significant change being a rollback in the proposed boundary to accommodate the dam.

Nor is this an example of good governance, because the decision — whatever we think of it — is not originating with the APA as is legally required. On Wednesday, January 24th , 2018, DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos held a meeting with the leaders of multiple watchdog groups, at which he informed them what the Boreas Ponds outcome is going to be. At this time only Sherm Craig and Terry Martino from APA are aware of this decision; the APA staff — the people who should be presenting their findings to the board — were to be informed the following morning, just hours before it went public.

In other words, the actual legal process for land classification is being manipulated by Albany. Yes, we are going through all the proper machinations, but this is essentially the emasculation of the APA, stripping it of its most important authority over the Forest Preserve. This is autocracy, the willful dismissal of public opinion for the purpose of implementing a preordained outcome.

Those watchdog groups who support this outcome are complicit in Albany’s actions. It matters not whether any of them still have the political influence to affect the outcome; all the historical record will show is everyone standing by at the moment the agency was rendered impotent. And when the press displays no curiosity or skepticism about the blatant political interference in the functioning of a state agency — and indeed sees only “government working the way it’s supposed to work” — then perhaps no one cares anymore about the APA or its mission.

Because the entire public process that we just witnessed was pro forma in nature. Nothing that anybody did had any impact on the outcome. There was no compromise, nothing that any of the pro-wilderness groups can rightly take credit for; indeed, we got no considerations at all, just the consolation that things weren’t much worse. The classification that we are going to see the APA discuss and approve this week is almost exactly what DEC said it was going to do five years ago.

Know what the best part is? We’ll get to witness this process all over again later in the year when DEC starts the recreational management planning phase. There will be public comment opportunities then, too, so be prepared to be ignored a second time.

In the meantime, if you haven’t had a chance to ski Gulf Brook Road to the Boreas Ponds yet, I strongly recommend that you try it this winter. By this time next year the road will likely be opened as a snowmobile corridor, just as DEC proposed in 2013. When that happens, the ponds will be lost to non-motorized winter recreation, despite the partial wilderness classification.

Editor’s Note: The Adirondack Park Agency is widely expected to approve Alternative 2B at it’s meeting in Ray Brook on Friday.

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Bill Ingersoll

Bill Ingersoll has hiked and backpacked in wildernesses across America, but feels most at home in the grand forests of the Adirondacks. He became a co-author (with Barbara McMartin) of the Discover the Adirondacks guidebook series in 2000 and is currently the series' publisher. Additionally, his articles and photos have appeared in Adirondack Explorer, Adirondack Sports & Fitness, and Adirondack Life magazines.

A graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology, You will find him exploring the North Country with his dog Lexie in all four seasons, by trail, snowshoe, and canoe.




24 Responses

  1. Larry Roth says:

    Welcome to the club.

    Those of us on the rail side of the debate over the Adirondack Scenic Railroad and the Remsen-Lake Placid transportation corridor warned that the process before the state agencies was not quite what it should have been. We had to go to court over it, and it’s not over.

    So, I suppose I could say “we told you so” when we tried to call attention to what was happening. The ‘winners’ all told us to shut up and accept the ‘compromise’. Other foot, meet shoe.

    It’s possible to accept the painful reality of democracy, that just because you get a vote doesn’t mean you get what you want – but you’d at least like to feel you had an honest shot at it. There’s a thing called “the rule of law” and the biggest problem with it is it’s only as good as the people behind it.

  2. Boreas says:

    Bill,

    I agree 100%. Gulf Brook Road was always the crux of the argument, despite what the media and others are using to call this tail-wagging-the-dog farce a compromise.

    On a separate note, I wonder who the DEC will station at BP over the winters to keep snowmobilers on the approved roads. That will be a tough assignment. Perhaps the localities who called for motorized access should be tasked with enforcing it. Then again, perhaps not…

    • Boreas says:

      FWIW, Something I just noticed on the attached map – Gulf Brook Road is not marked as a “seasonal road”. I would think it would be difficult to keep open and safe in winter or mud season. A long way to walk if you get stuck – conceivably fatal in the right conditions. I assume there is no cell reception there. I assume the UMP will address this.

      • Paul says:

        It’s a long way to walk when you are carrying a boat too. Sounds like you are coming around! Just kidding – I get your point. Maybe just a glitch on the map labels? I am sure this road would be seasonal. There is an off chance the town would plow it in the winter but I doubt it given the expense. The state never plows any of these type of roads. It will make a nice ski trail ion the winter, I wish we could groom it for skating. Perhaps a small lodge for warming and food, no wait we already tore that down!

  3. James Marco says:

    Well said, Bill! What is the sense of having a public comment process if not to find out how a parcel of land should be treated?

  4. Rob Gdyk says:

    As a disabled veteran, I’m ecstatic with the announcement of the state’s planned classification for Boreas Ponds. I’ve always supported a Wild Forest classification to seek easier access into the tract to accommodate a wider range of users than just the most physically fit.

    • Justin Farrell says:

      Amen…Woohoo party at Boreas Pond soon, can’t wait!
      I for one hope the road is open to the public all the way to the ponds. Some friends & I are planning a special keg party soon up in “the Dacks” and I’m thinking this might be exactly what we’re looking for! 🍻

      • Justin Farrell says:

        …we were thinking maybe trying nearby Cheney Pond or the Essex Chain but heard the scenery is better at Boreas Ponds, and a mile or less is definitely within our range. Hoping for mid to late July before our buddy gets married, please stop in & join the festivities.

      • Bob K says:

        Just what we need, a bunch of drunks to define exactly what
        most of us DON”T want happening at Boreas Ponds

        • Boreas says:

          And after the road is improved, tour buses!

          Bob K,

          Justin is being facetious – likely out of frustration – but that is only one of many problems of unrestricted access. Hopefully the UMP will foresee the problems with unlimited access deep into the parcel and take steps to mitigate them.

          • Dennis says:

            As long as one of those steps is NOT to increase the ridiculously low DEC Forest Ranger headcount for at least the 10th straight year (as indicated once again in the Governor’s proposed budget). As has been demonstrated with the increased volume in the High Peaks in recent years, we can certainly trust everyone to behave responsibly.

            • Scott van Laer scottvanlaer says:

              In 1971 there were 56 Forest Rangers assigned to Region 5. Today there are 46. That is not manipulation of stats. Those are the numbers when all items are staffed, not cherry picking right after a bunch of retirements or immediately following an Academy/Hiring. In 1971 the average acreage a Forest Ranger was responsible for patrolling was 28,516. Today that number 53,752.

              • Paul says:

                Plus they also have the added responsibility to deal with easement lands. Scott, that must really bring up the number of acres they have to deal with?

            • Jim S. says:

              With the ease of access Justin and the rest of the beer guzzling “elite” will have plenty of opportunities for epic parties, let us sober wilderness enthusiasts pray that the state in its wisdom will ban campfires just like they did in the Essex chain of lakes so that nobody frequents Boreas Ponds and that way serenity is still possible.

          • Bob K says:

            I hope your right, Boreas.

  5. Pat Smith says:

    I look forward to visiting Boreas Ponds and other nearby areas. The larger parking lots should accommodate my three horse trailer, so my friends and I can enjoy horseback riding in this magnificent area.

    • Boreas says:

      Pat,

      I would do a recon BEFORE you take a trailer down that road. It isn’t really designed for much opposing traffic, so if two people that are pulling trailers meet, someone may have to be very adept at backing up for quite a distance. Log haulers could avoid these “meetings” with radios. Just sayin’…

  6. adkDreamer says:

    Among all the ideas, rhetoric, attempted compromise ‘solutions’, etc. there is only one argument that requires anyone’s attention:

    “…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.” – Richard Booth, As APA State Land Chairman, June 2016.

    This quote is the most compelling argument presented to date. Thanks to David Gibson for this quote.

  7. Paul says:

    If things don’t work out you can always re-classify. You can never please all the people all the time. If some law has been violated a suit can be brought. I mean a real one not a frivolous one like we often see with these things. The APA has the legal might of the state behind it they are usually right when it comes to the legality of their decisions. Some here will have their Cuomo conspiracy theories – that is one of the reasons it’s so. much fun to listen in. Do the UMP (and I assume it is in the long line of undone UMP’s) and this one is in the bag. Everyone can move onto something else. Follensby I guess?

  8. Charlie S says:

    I heard on WAMC a few hours ago that the decision was made and they will be allowing cars to park an 8th of a mile away from the ponds.

    • M.P. Heller says:

      You must stream that huh? Cool.

      I’ve heard thru sources that it will be less than an eighth of a mile. Closer to a tenth.

      • drdirt says:

        that was when Andrew wanted to turn the former lodge into his newest Casino .., the lodge is gone, so no casino and quarter mile access.

  9. Big Burly says:

    @Bill Ingersoll

    For years I have read your posts with great interest and in many instances with empathy. For certain that sentiment rises with your description of this classification process.

    Reading it reminded me of meetings I have observed with the senior leadership of DEC in Albany — if I did not already consider myself there, those folks in their profundity attempted to make everyone else in the room feel that only they sit at the right hand of God when deciding matters related to the DAKs.

    Larry Roth’s comment above is pertinent and apropos. RR folks reached out to the many groups that also share a love of the DAKs to express the real concerns regarding how the public consultation process was misused and misrepresented to achieve what the court of law deemed illegal in the formulation of Alternative 7 in the Remsen-Lake Placid Transportation Corridor UMP.

    Another example of Albany folks dictating what they think best without regard for what residents and visitors believe. You have cited the stats to prove it.

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