While casting her vote for the Boreas Ponds land classification known as Alternative 2 on February 2, 2018, one Adirondack Park Agency board member told the audience gathered at the agency’s headquarters in Ray Brook that we should “take a leap of faith,” even if the public wasn’t getting the wilderness classification it wanted. She said that we should trust the Department of Environmental Conservation to protect the Boreas Ponds in its forthcoming unit management plan (UMP) for the area, where environmental safeguards would be written into the proposals for recreational access.
Unfortunately, that faith has proven to be unwarranted. DEC has released a pair of management plans that will impact the future of not just the beautiful Boreas Ponds, but the entire High Peaks Wilderness. The scope of these two documents far exceeds the available time to read and assess everything they contain, but even with a cursory review it is abundantly clear that our state agencies are failing to meet the public’s expectations.
One obvious issue is the absence of public involvement in the creation of these two plans, which cover the Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forest and High Peaks Wilderness. We are all aware of the stewardship woes affecting the High Peaks region, from unsafe parking areas to crowded summits and trampled trails. It is necessary and timely for DEC to address these issues, but viable resolutions can’t be vetted in one 45-day comment window.
The original High Peaks Wilderness UMP from 1999 took years to develop, and it was based on the work of a citizen advisory committee that convened in the 1970s and again in the 1990s. The role of that committee, which was comprised of numerous stakeholders, was to work with DEC to investigate and discuss ways to better manage the park’s largest wilderness.
By contrast, the current UMP appears to be a reaction to news headlines. It itemizes all of the issues that have been raised here on the Almanack or in the Adirondack Explorer, as well as those that have been voiced by local officials such as Joe Pete Wilson from Keene.
The documents also list all the things that DEC plans to do to address these problems. That’s great, but where did these proposed resolutions come from? How have they been vetted, and have all the ramifications been thought through? There are many proposals for trail realignments and new parking areas found within the 150-page UMP, and maybe some of these ideas are good ones. Or maybe they will prove to be expensive boondoggles. The point is, without direct public involvement in the development of these ideas, many of them come off as potentially ill-conceived. And the fact that DEC and APA are giving us only 45 days to read, digest, and respond to the plans adds to the perception that public input is, in fact, not wanted.
One of the best examples of how the new High Peaks UMP will almost certainly have unintended consequences can be found on pages 68 and 69, where a proposal to construct three new parking areas with a combined capacity of 65 cars near Chapel Pond is outlined. Obviously, the goal is to improve the safety of the area, which is the trailhead for Dix Mountain, Giant Mountain, and numerous climbing routes. The area attracts dozens of cars every weekend, all of them parked along the side of NY Route 73 — one of the busiest highways in the region.
At first glance, this would resolve a troubling public safety issue by providing a place for hikers and climbers to park off the main highway. However, the UMP cannot guarantee what will happen to the old roadside parking areas. If the new parking lots are built before confirming anyone has the authority or wherewithal to close the old ones, then DEC will merely be building additional capacity to further overload the trails. People will continue to use the old parking areas after the new ones fill up, thus failing to resolve the safety issue while directly contributing to the overuse issue.
In the case of Boreas Ponds, the basic plan is to open all the gates to maximize access to the roads south of the wilderness boundaries, and then photograph the resource impacts as they happen. This is not hyperbole on my part, but a summation of a proposal that first appears on pages 46-47 of the High Peaks plan and is repeated several places elsewhere. The word “impact” appears 108 times in the course of the plan’s 150 pages, but in every instance DEC does a conceptual dance around that word. While the Department acknowledges that its actions will result in impacts to the resource, the UMP attempts to assure us that these are things to worry about in the future, not the present. The assumption is that the Boreas Ponds Tract is so new that we can’t know what the impacts will be, so it’s OK to start building things and then see what happens over time.
Lest anyone concede the apparent wisdom of this line of reasoning, consider that DEC can trace its origins to the administration of Governor John A. Dix in 1911, meaning it was founded the year before the sinking of the Titanic. The Department therefore has 107 years of institutional experience to inform its stewardship decisions in matters like this, and therefore should have every ability to predict the outcome of its actions in the Forest Preserve. As members of a concerned citizenry, it is our role not to let DEC get away with playing dumb. Any forester who can’t see the difference between the Fish Creek Ponds (easily accessed, crowded waterways, densely packed campsites, aquatic invasive species everywhere) and the West Canada Lakes (remote, miles of untouched shorelines, healthy except for a slight acid rain hangover) is not qualified to hold the job.
One might say that Albany’s willful dismissal of the public support for strong wilderness protections at Boreas is a form of government without the consent of the governed. Public participation was built into the state land management process for good reason, and in this case the public made it abundantly clear that wilderness was the preferred outcome. In fact, the proponents for a full wilderness classification for Boreas outnumbered those favoring motorized access at a rate of three to one.
While a state land classification proposal should not be decided entirely on public opinion, state agencies discount the public’s support at their own peril. When so many people speak in favor of something, and yet the state acts directly against that public will, people don’t see history in the making, as the APA board seemed to think on February 2nd. What the public sees are political agendas being fulfilled, backroom deals being honored, and the public trust being betrayed.
One respected local government leader recently confided to me his belief that the acquisition of the Finch Pruyn lands was a model for how all Adirondack issues should be handled going forward. To him, the events of the last ten years represented an instance where The Nature Conservancy got buy-in from the counties and towns before proceeding with the acquisition, thus giving local government a seat at a table at which it never felt welcomed previously. It was unfortunate that the tone of the discussion regressed during the 2016 classification hearings, he said, when the various players regrouped behind their old battle lines and started talking past each other again — highlighting the need to get everyone together at the beginning of the process.
I don’t disagree with this county leader’s view about involving all of the relevant stakeholders early in the process. But the general public’s involvement should never be discounted in the way it has been at Boreas. The public’s support for wilderness at Boreas Ponds was and is genuine. Nobody paid anybody to show up at any of the eight public classification hearings and wear one of those green shirts; and although some groups arranged for their own buses and vans for the convenience of their members, nobody was “bused in” by a third party just for the sake of inflating attendance.
People came to the hearings and submitted written comments because they felt compelled as individuals to speak in favor of an idea that was extremely important to them. You might disagree with what these wilderness supporters said or the way they combed their hair, and your feathers might have also been ruffled by the fact that some of them came from out of state, or that a few of them were too young to even buy beer.
But this doesn’t make any of the people who spoke for wilderness extremists, or elitists, or people who hate the disabled and elderly. It is human nature to want to preserve something, to know that the ideals of the current generation will survive to enrich the lives of future generations. This is what motivated people to speak up. It was not born from the idea that all land should be wilderness, but that some places possess unique qualities that need to be protected above all other concerns.
Thus the outcome at Boreas Ponds will not be remembered as an historical achievement. All of the decisions made so far by New York State have placed at hazard the wilderness characteristics we implored our civil servants to protect: the sensitive shorelines, the wetland habitats, the waterways unclogged with invasive species, the sense of remoteness. As a new addition to the Forest Preserve, the Boreas Ponds Tract is about to face public use pressures that it never had to endure in more than a century of private stewardship. This almost makes the state’s acquisition of the property seem regrettable, given the circumstances.
Boreas Ponds has inspired more ordinary citizens to speak in favor of wilderness than any other tract in the history of the Adirondack Park. That’s a great and inspiring outcome. Trashing that public interest for the sake of forcing through a political deal, on the other hand, is just bad government in action.
The most important actions that APA, DEC, and local government could take are to respect public opinion and invite public involvement in the management of the Forest Preserve. If you think a certain tract should not be wilderness for reasons X, Y, and Z, then by all means make your case. Court the public’s blessing in the same way you would to win approval for a constitutional amendment, which is the ultimate form of public input in Forest Preserve matters. Just be prepared to accept the consequences if the zeitgeist never swings your way.
And never underestimate the degree to which people value wilderness.