On February 2nd, as the Adirondack Park Agency’s board was listening to its staff’s proposal for a final agency recommendation to Gov. Andrew Cuomo on the classification of Boreas Ponds and the 20,500-acre parcel surrounding the ponds, board member Chad Dawson asked some tough questions of his fellow board members.
Dawson is a professor at the State University of NY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and an internationally recognized expert on recreation, natural resources and wilderness management.
Coming into the discussion that day, Dawson knew he was likely to be outvoted on the fate of the Boreas Ponds classification. The APA’s staff had opted to recommend a compromise that protected about half of the parcel as motor-free wilderness. The other half will be allowed to host some measure of motorized access and recreation.
Importantly, Dawson seized the opportunity to establish – for the public record – that there were still important state protections needed to keep Boreas Ponds from being degraded by the invasive species, noise and water pollution that automobiles can bring.
The agency’s staff had proposed a classification for the Boreas Ponds tract that it labeled “Option 2B.” That option keeps most parking and automobile access a mile or more from the ponds, but includes a road that extends to within 530 feet of them. Dawson wanted to know why his fellow board members seemed to support the idea of maintaining a road and parking lot within 1/10th of a mile of the ponds.
If the ponds should be protected as wilderness, as the other members agreed, why then should the state bring automobile traffic so close to them, he asked?
He reminded them that nearly every lake and pond in the park was accessible to cars and most were also accessible to motorboats. Why, then, with thousands of other options, should protecting one set of ponds cause such controversy?
“There’s certainly plenty of waterbodies in the state of New York that are public and accessible that everybody of all abilities can access,” Dawson said. “There are very few of them that are isolated, that are there for the future.”
Everyone wants opportunities, he said. “But everyone can’t have an opportunity to everything.”
Dawson also reacted to his fellow board members – and the Local Government Review Board’s – continued insistence on including “CP3 Access” and “Universal Access” within the final 1/10th of a mile. He reminded them that they were using terms with specific meanings.
While other board members seemed to use the terms to imply they wanted access for person with disabilities, they were actually opening the door to something quite different.
The term “CP3” refers to a NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation policy allowing enhanced motorized access to the disabled, including all-terrain vehicles. In their annual reports to headquarters, DEC’s rangers call ATVs their biggest recreational enforcement problem on public lands.
“Universal access” means parking and trails designed so anyone can use them, whether they have a disability or not. This type of parking would be available to anyone who asks to reserve it. Dawson was trying to show that real wilderness protection for Boreas Ponds required the state to be careful about automobile traffic.
“Does every lake have to be CP3 accessible?” Dawson asked. “Does it have to have universal access? I think it’s a public policy question. We don’t have a lot of direction in the (State Land Master Plan). That’s something we need to discuss and talk about because it shapes how I think about these alternatives.
“We’ve sort of got this battle line drawn around this road, and it disturbs me that it’s come down to that as sort of this philosophical argument,” Dawson said. “There are a lot of places someone can go in the Adirondacks and get motorized access. Let’s just leave one of them alone for present and future generations.”
“I don’t believe that handicap accessibility in one way or another is required for every resource that we’ve purchased,” APA Chairman Sherman Craig said. “However this particular one is incredible, so I would have a hard time arguing this was a resource that’s not appropriate for CP3 or universal (access).”
In explaining his support for Alternative 2B, DEC Regional Director Robert Stegeman, who is also an APA board member, said: “This classification here offers possibilities — not certainties — and the [DEC’s upcoming Unit Management Plan] is where that would be entertained, including all the controls that would go for controlling access, whether a permit system, or what have you.”
Many wilderness advocates are calling for a gate one mile from the ponds, with a ranger posted to control access to the final stretch of road and a small parking lot for access by people with disabilities only. That must be worked out in the next step.
When the board finally voted on the APA’s classification proposal, Dawson cast the sole dissenting vote. He explained why:
“I am going to engage in a long American tradition of free speech, of freedom of choice and I’m going to do it respectfully. I admit there’s a lot of people who worked very hard on this decision for very long and I know we as a board have had to keep quiet for a year and a half, and for some of us that was difficult to do. Again, I thank, as everyone has, everyone that’s been involved within DEC, the Agency staff, I thank the public for their involvement. It is the voice of the public that I am responding to.
“The majority of the people said they wanted more wild areas, wilder areas. They said they wanted more areas that were healing. I don’t know how that gives people hope or why it works, but it does. It works.
“Why have people for so long supported the Forest Preserve? Supported the concept of wilderness, all across the country? And many of them will never go to wilderness. For them, it’s not whether or not there’s a road. It’s ‘does it exist?’
“There are over 54,000 square miles of land in the State of New York. They were asking for a few thousand more acres. And I know to local people that is psychological theory, you don’t feel like they know what they’re doing, they don’t know what they’re thinking about. Somehow, they do. And they’re asking for something. And I must be their voice.
“I am not representing any particular type of organization. I’m representing the spirit of people who have hope. And in this world, do we not need hope? Opioid epidemics, wars here and there, strife and discord, people killing each other. But if there is something that gives people hope, I’m for it. I’m for it. I stand behind it firmly.
“I don’t know who they all are, I don’t know why they all come, but they keep coming and they keep asking. And I feel obligated to be their voice, I feel obligated to be their voice.
“I don’t know who they are but I wish them well. I like that they look to the healing of a natural place as an important symbol to them, whatever it represents, whether they come here or not, I vote in favor of that.
“And that does not mean to negate anything anyone has done, I just want to be that spark. I feel it, they feel it, and I’m their voice. So with all respect, everybody who has been involved with this and the continued working together, I respectfully vote no.”
As Robert Marshall said, “There is just one hope of repulsing the tyrannical ambition…to conquer every niche on the whole earth. That hope is the organization of spirited people who will fight for the freedom of the wilderness.” Thank you to Chad Dawson and Bob Marshall for your inspiring words and actions.
Photo: Takeout at northern tip of Boreas Ponds (Photo by Phil Brown).