“It’s Debatable” appears in each issue of the Adirondack Explorer. This essay by Matthew J. Simpson of the Adirondack Association of Towns & Villages is a companion piece to “Opinion: Adirondack Park Needs More Wilderness” by Adirondack Wilderness Advocates’ Bill Ingersoll.
The Adirondack Association of Towns & Villages was invited to provide the “No” response in this debate, but in truth, this is not a yes-or-no question.
First, a little background: Any state-owned land in the Adirondack Park is given one of seven classifications by the Adirondack Park Agency. The type of classification dictates the type of human activity allowed. This is important because the types of recreation and amenities allowed directly impact the number of people who might like (or even be physically able) to use the property and, therefore, be present to patronize nearby businesses. “Wilderness” is the most restrictive classification, with no motor vehicles or bicycles allowed, and no buildings.
When considering the addition of new wilderness areas to the park, beyond the 1.1 million acres already designated, New York State and its taxpayers should ask these three questions:
1. Does the expansion require the purchase of private land, and is this the best use of taxpayers’ money?
2. Will the purchase of private land, or re-classification of existing state land, have a positive or negative impact on the local economy and environment?
3. Does the land to be classified as wilderness meet the state’s own very clear definition?
Questions 1 and 2 should only be answered on a case-by-case basis following a comprehensive economic and environmental evaluation. The answer to question 3 should be much clearer. And if the answer is “no,” the land should not be classified as wilderness.
Unfortunately, this has not always been the case.
The Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan defines wilderness, in part, as land that “generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.” When determining how to classify state lands, the Adirondack Park Agency is required to base its decision on this definition and a scientific evaluation of the land’s “characteristics and capacity to withstand use.”
Yet one need not look far to see examples where state-designated “wilderness” extends right up to the edge of heavily used — and substantially noticeable — public roads.
In other instances, the state has acquired private lands on both sides of a long-used public road and declared those lands wilderness.
In each of these examples, and numerous others, lands that in no way met the written definition of wilderness or provided what anyone could seriously consider a “wilderness experience” have been designated as such — and following these classifications, roads have been closed and man-made features that had been present on the land for generations, such as fire towers, cabins and boat docks, have been removed. In short, the state has fabricated an artificial “wilderness” experience.
One of the things that makes the Adirondack Park such a special place is its diversity of landscapes and land classifications. There is certainly a place for wilderness in this mix, but only the truly authentic kind. No lands should be classified by New York State as wilderness—and saddled with those very serious land-use restrictions — unless they clearly meet the state’s definition.
Photo of High Peaks Wilderness Area by Carl Heilman II.
Matthew J. Simpson is president of the Adirondack Association of Towns & Villages.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.