The 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.