Sunday, April 8, 2018

Bauer: Buildings on the Forest Preserve

The pressure by local governments and historic preservation groups on the state to keep the inner Gooley Club buildings shows some of the challenges the state has had in organizing a coherent management program for buildings on the Forest Preserve. This is not a new issue.

It’s been a struggle for decades. Different administrations have dealt with the issue in different ways over the decades; some making ad hoc choices with long-term implications for Forest Preserve law and policy, and others trying to sort out durable long-term solutions. This is the first of three articles that look in depth at the issue of buildings on the Forest Preserve.

The root of the matter with building on the Forest Preserve is the State Constitution. Article XIV, section 1, the famed forever wild provision, of the NYS Constitution states:

“The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.”

If Forest Preserve lands are to be managed as forever wild, how can buildings be allowed?

The issue of buildings on the Forest Preserve has never been litigated, but it has been the subject of a proposed Constitutional Amendment, which was voted down, and opinions by the NYS Attorney General. Today, buildings on the Forest Preserve are limited to two uses by more than 40 years of state policy in the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan: 1) state administration as necessary facilities for Forest Preserve management; 2) educational and historic preservation purposes. Under no conditions, can buildings on the Forest Preserve be used for any kind of public recreation or residential purposes. (The classification of Historic areas for buildings is the focus of part 2 of this series and public residential use through a formal lodging network is the third.)

The Pataki Administration, which purchased nearly 120,000 acres of new lands for the Forest Preserve, far more than Governor Andrew Cuomo, worked to prevent problems with buildings on the Forest Preserve by removing them before the final purchases of Little Tupper Lake, where Camp Bliss at the far west end of the lake was taken down. Camps and clubhouses were also removed prior to final state purchases of Clear Pond, Bog Lake, and Round Lake. If buildings were not removed, such as the Whitney Headquarters complex at Little Tupper Lake, the Pataki Administration made sure that their use conformed to the Master Plan. The Whitney Headquarters complex is classified as State Administrative and houses seasonal staff that works on Forest Preserve management projects.

The Pataki Administration also was not above playing games. It agreed, as part of the Henderson Lake purchase and eventual Wilderness classification, to retain the log cabin at Preston Ponds as a private in-holding after pressure to keep it from the Town of Newcomb. It’s been nearly 10 years since this agreement was reached and there is still no discernible purpose to keeping that cabin.

The Cuomo Administration has played it both ways. They did assent to the removal of the Finch corporate retreat complex that overlooked Boreas Ponds. All these buildings all gone, for which we’re grateful to The Nature Conservancy, and their removal was one factor that allowed for a Wilderness classification for the Boreas Ponds.

The Cuomo Administration however, has retained the farmhouse on the Chain Lakes Road, known as the outer Gooley Club, and the cabin at the 4 Corners on the Boreas tract. The Cuomo Administration has not announced plans for how these building will be used or committed funding for their upkeep. These buildings could be managed as interior outposts/caretakers cabins, which in the case of the farmhouse on the Chain Lakes Road would be kind of weird given that the public can drive to its front door. Or, these buildings could be Historic areas and managed for public use as some form of museum, like Great Camp Santanoni.

Today, the state manages a small number of state administrative buildings on the Forest Preserve, such as the caretakers cabins at Lake Colden, Marcy Dam, Raquette Falls and Wakely Dam. The state also manages a complex of buildings at the Whitney Headquarters on Little Tupper Lake in an area classified as State Administrative.

The Master Plan provides clear direction on the question of new structures of the Forest Preserve:

Insofar as forest preserve lands are concerned, no structures, improvements or uses not now established on the forest preserve are permitted by these guidelines and in many cases more restrictive management is provided for. (p 16)

This passage makes it clear that the Master Plan does not contemplate new structures or improvements being allowed on the Forest Preserve where they are not currently established. Furthermore, three definitions shape Master Plan prohibitions on buildings for public use on the Forest Preserve.

19. Improvement – any change in or addition to land, which materially affects the existing use, condition or appearance of the land or any vegetation thereon, including but not limited to foot, horse, and bicycle trails, roads, administrative roads, snowmobile trails, cross country ski trails, improved cross country ski trails, trail heads, picnic areas and individual primitive tent sites. (p 18) 

29. Ranger Stations or Ranger Cabins – enclosed buildings constructed or maintained by the Department of Environmental Conservation, suitable for human habitation and manned seasonally or year-round by administrative personnel to facilitate administrative control of lands and public use thereof under the jurisdiction of the Department. (p 19)

36. Structure – any object constructed, installed or placed on land to facilitate land use, including but not limited to bridges, buildings, ranger stations or ranger cabins, sheds, lean-tos, pit privies, picnic tables, horse barns, horse hitching posts and rails, fire towers, observer cabins, telephone and electric light lines, mobile homes, campers, trailers, signs, docks and dams. (p 20)

These definitions make it clear that the only time that buildings are allowable on the Forest Preserve is if they are used for state administrative purposes and used by administrative personnel.

The Cuomo Administration has chosen to complicate this already complicated issue by retaining on the Forest Preserve the two new buildings mentioned above without specifying their purposes. The state says it will resolve issues around the use of these buildings as part of upcoming Unit Management Plan amendments. The farmhouse on the Chain Lakes Road is in the Blue Mountain Wild Forest. The cabin at the 4 Corners, a mile or so from the Boreas Pond, is in the Vanderwhacker Wild Forest area.

What the state has not said anything about is the cost of maintaining these buildings. This is a time of limited funds for Forest Preserve management by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). It faces an enormous backlog of management and stewardship projects throughout the Forest Preserve. The most highly used part of the Forest Preserve, the High Peaks Wilderness Area, suffers from chronic under-investment.

Years ago when I advocated legislation around roadside buffers to protect highway corridors in the Adirondacks and use of earth tone colors on houses in scenic vista areas, a friend cautioned about the underlying message. She saw in these actions a consequence where some residents of the Adirondack Park would react with feelings that we were trying to make them invisible and that the merits of the arguments would be lost. The issue about preserving buildings on the Forest Preserve is caught in these same cultural tripwires.

The relationship between the built environment, where buildings and communities hold local cultural traditions and values, and the Forest Preserve, where the grand expanses of wildlands hold environmental traditions and values, has been a balancing act in the Adirondack Park. In many ways, life on this fault line is what the Adirondack Park is all about. The checkerboard mix of public and private lands, Wilderness intermixed with developed and populated communities, has created a political dynamic where things like taking down buildings that serve no real purpose for Forest Preserve management, or educating the public about the cultural history of the Adirondacks, has become a political impossibility.

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Peter Bauer is the Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks. He has been working in various capacities on Adirondack Park environmental issues since the mid-1980s, including stints as the Executive Director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and FUND for Lake George as well as on the staff of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century. He was the co-founder of the Adirondack Lake Assessment Program (ALAP) in 1998, which has collected long-term water quality data on more than 75 Adirondack lakes and ponds. He has testified before the State Legislature, successfully advocated to pass legislation and budget items, authored numerous articles, op-eds, and reports such as "20% in 2023: An Assessment of the New York State 30 by 30 Act" (2023), "The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970-2010" (2019), "The Myth of Quiet, Motor-free Waters in the Adirondack Park" (2013), and "Rutted and Ruined: ATV Damage on the Adirondack Forest Preserve" (2003) and "Growth in the Adirondack Park: Analysis of Rates and Patterns of Development" (2001). He also worked at Adirondack Life Magazine. He served as Chair of the Town of Lake George Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on numerous advisory boards for management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve. Peter lives in Blue Mountain Lake with his wife, has two grown children out in the world, and enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities throughout the Adirondacks, and is a member of the Blue Mountain Lake volunteer fire department.Follow Protect the Adirondacks on Facebook and Threads.

11 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    “The most highly used part of the Forest Preserve, the High Peaks Wilderness Area, suffers from chronic under-investment.”


    This is not the most highly used part of the forest preserve. Whiteface mountain has more skier days per year (especially this year!) than the HPW has in hiker days. Certainly far more when you combine just WF and Gore, that’s probably more than double the hikers in the HPW in one year:

    The best data that I could find for the HPW was in the UMP where the estimate was there were about 140K users ten years ago. Being very conservative lets say the increase was 10% per year for the past 10 years – so lets double the number (It’s probably much lower) – That would only be the same as Whiteface (and that’s only the winter, it has use in the summer as well)

    I would also check on the number of users in places like the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest before making this claim. I bet there are more users there in a summer than in the HPW? HPW might not even be second on the list. Given your main constituency I am sure you would like to think that the HPW is number one but the data seem to say otherwise.

    • Boreas says:


      I don’t know the numbers either, but don’t forget, the HPW just got considerably bigger.

      • Paul says:

        I don’t think that Peter’s data is based on a future thing. Let’s just be honest here. The HPW is important for tourism, no doubt, but lets keep it fact based.

        • Boreas says:

          Dry facts, statistics, footnotes, and citations don’t make for good reading for many of us.

          What better defines that area of the Park – the HPW or the Whiteface Ski Area? Do people come year-round to ski in a public, commercial ski area, or to simply visit the backcountry or view it from a vehicle? I would say the HPW defines the area more than a commercial, developed microcosm? I believe that was the point Peter was trying to make and the impression most of us understood. Whiteface charges a fee which goes back into the business, and is state subsidized. The HPW does not, so its sources of revenue are limited to taxpayers and budgets.

  2. Paul says:

    I also looked at the camping stats for the SLWF. There are 87 sites on the lakes. They are pretty much booked up all summer. So lets say just 3 months. That’s about 32,000 campers over those 3 months. That just the campers. It doesn’t include all the boaters using 5 or 6 boat launches for day use in the SLWF. Or the people parked all over route 3 to climb Ampersand all summer. And the beach on Middle Saranac…

    • Paul says:

      BTW I estimated 4 camper per campsite – probably a low number. Since most sites seem to have 4 or more tents!

    • M.P.Heller says:

      LGWF crushes those numbers Paul. If you count lake users as well it obliterates everything else in the park as far as use numbers.

  3. Justin Farrell says:

    Agreed…cabins in the Adirondack backcountry are nothing new, and you always need to watch out for the rodents!

  4. Mick Finn says:

    Peter is talking about how the State bends the rules of Article XIV. Didn’t the state bend the rules to acquire the land? Works both ways, right?

  5. Bill Keller says:

    As mentioned in the article the state took over Clear pond and Bog lake and the club lodge, built by Abbot Augustus Low. Owned by Herbert Henry Lehman (governor of New York State from 1933 to 1942), and International Paper Company. Bog Lake, Clear Pond, and Rainer Pond are NY State owned water bodies contained entirely or mostly within club borders. Historic lodge had to be removed. Today you might see a dozen paddlers ( and I stress “might”) per year.

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