I’d like to recognize the Adirondack Daily Enterprise for its recent editorial “APA, DEC Skimp on Public Meetings.” The newspaper wrote that two public meetings, both held on the same day (Wednesday, May 23) about numerous management amendments to the High Peaks Wilderness and Vanderwhacker Wild Forest:
“while important, are also severely wanting. These lands belong to the people of New York, and folks near New York City, in Syracuse and Buffalo, Watertown and Ithaca all deserve to have APA and DEC staff come explain what the plans mean and hear the public’s concerns. Together, the two UMP amendments run to more than 300 pages, and it would be beneficial to the public to have them explained by the people who wrote them.”
Now that the classifications are decided and amendments to the unit management plans (UMP) are underway, the process seems highly accelerated and rushed.
Furthermore, despite the complexity of these UMPs and controversies surrounding the extent and location of public motorized access, APA and DEC are holding joint public comment periods of 45-days. APA Member Chad Dawson raised appropriate questions at the APA this month about this simultaneous review.
It’s important background to know that the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (SLMP) has reserved long-range planning of the Forest Preserve and establishment of basic State Land policy to the APA, in consultation with the DEC. In contrast, DEC has basic day to day management and administrative responsibilities for the Forest Preserve in compliance with the Master Plan and in accordance with approved UMPs.
In fact, this so-called “two-tiered structure” (SLMP, page 12) has been vanishing for years, and is especially blurred today. APA has given up its independent backbone in planning and basic policy for State Lands. Here the two agencies appear to be in lock step.
Simultaneous public comment means that APA after 45 days might be expected to quickly decide Master Plan compliance of the hundreds of new management steps while lacking time to review what the public had to say about an initial DEC draft, and lacking time to review and thoughtfully consider how the DEC might amend their draft to react to public comment.
Because compliance with the Master Plan and other laws are so important, APA and DEC signed an agreement back in 2003 whereby large complex draft unit management plans go through a separate DEC public comment period, after which DEC would review comments, respond to them, and issue a revised draft. That revised draft would then go through a separate APA comment period to consider compliance with the Master Plan. The UMP would then reach the Agency for a final decision. The entire process was supposed to take 90-days.
The current process breaks with the spirit of that agreement. It seeks to make substantial amendments to the High Peaks and Vanderwhacker plans in half that time, or 45 days.
“I get all the pressures” on both the APA and DEC, Chad Dawson said. But, he asked his fellow APA members, and I paraphrase: Realizing that most people offer comments at the last minute, Chad Dawson asked how does the APA thoughtfully react to all the public comments and to any changes DEC may make to two such complex documents in 45 days? When would the APA be expected to make decisions, he asked?
It was explained that APA could decide about Master Plan compliance of these dozens of recommendations as early as July. But, emphasized APA Chair Sherman Craig, we might have to take more time (to decide) depending on what we get after 45 days.
I’m just trying to have a full conversation, Chad Dawson responded, about the pros and cons of a joint 45 day comment period. We’re trying something different, he said. Let’s acknowledge it.
It will come as no surprise that Governor Andrew Cuomo and his agencies don’t appear to want a full conversation. They want these UMP amendments approved quickly and work to begin this summer. Recreational access is all important to the Governor. Contrary to the order of priority in the State Land Master Plan (Executive Law), natural resource protection has become subordinate to public recreational access since the year he became Governor. And, most often, that means motorized access, or at least mechanized access (bikes).
The “pro” side of having a joint, simultaneous APA and DEC comment period was candidly admitted by APA member Karen Feldman at the May monthly meeting. “We’ve had an interim access plan (at Boreas Ponds) for two years now,” said APA member Feldman, “and I’ve heard from a lot of people who can’t walk in to the Ponds.”
Member Feldman and all APA members have also heard from thousands of New Yorkers during the classification hearings who would much prefer that all or much of that road be closed to motorized access in an effort to re-wild the old road and create a larger Wilderness. But those voices currently lack political influence, so Governor Cuomo and his agencies refused to even offer for consideration an all-Wilderness classification.
Even so, where warranted by natural resource considerations the DEC is specifically authorized by the Master Plan to manage the Boreas Ponds tract in ways more protective than the Wild Forest classification of the roads would authorize. That classification makes motorized access along the entire length of Gulf Brook Road a legal option. It does not require it if remarkable and fragile resources demand more protection.
Indeed, the Master Plan also states that “public use of motor vehicles will not be encouraged and there will not be any material increase in the mileage of roads…open to motorized use by the public in wild forest areas” than were present when the Master Plan was adopted in 1972. Other than snowmobile mileage, neither DEC nor APA staff have adopted standards by which to measure motorized use in Wild Forest areas. Public and administrative use of motor vehicles has definitely been encouraged and authorized in the Black River Wild Forest (1996 UMP and 2018 amendment), the Essex Chain of Lakes Primitive Area (2015 UMP), and on other units of Forest Preserve.
If APA’s staff words in February that “the ecological values of Boreas Ponds cannot be overstated” were taken seriously, DEC would seriously consider closing motorized access and use at the current parking lot three miles away from the Ponds in order to minimize the transport of invasive terrestrial and aquatic species there and to maximize the opportunities to experience solitude and naturalness closer to the Ponds. Only certified persons with disabilities should be allowed to get closer to the Ponds.
But that is clearly not what the Governor, his DEC and some APA members want. They want motorized/mechanized access to the Ponds – just 500 feet away from their shores – open to everyone. So, if this UMP amendment is approved, contrary to the Commissioner’s policy (CP-3) certified persons with disabilities will have to compete with the able-bodied for parking at Boreas Ponds.
That’s just one of many important things that is concerning about these amendments and the rushed public process to review them.
The two public meetings to review these UMP amendments are:
May 23, 10 AM, at DEC headquarters, 625 Broadway in Albany, NY
May 23, 6 PM, at Newcomb Central School in Newcomb, NY