Monday, October 14, 2019

Advocates Seek Sentinel Range Management Plan Improvements

Adirondack Sentinel Range Wilderness Map courtesy Adirondack AtlasThe Adirondack Council on October 4th sent a letter to Adirondack Park Agency Deputy Director for Planning Richard Weber urging that the proposed Sentinel Range Wilderness Area Unit Management Plan be incorporated into a larger landscape-scale plan for all public and private lands around the High Peaks Wilderness Area.

The Council also urged the APA to improve its monitoring of impacts of recreation on the ecology and wild character of the Forest Preserve, especially in wilderness areas. As it does with other unit management plans, the APA must decide whether it complies with the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan.

With its close proximity to the High Peaks Wilderness Complex, the Sentinel Range Wilderness Area (SRWA) is integral to the protection of one of the most scenic, accessible, and most used wilderness complex units in the Forest Preserve. While the Council considers the SRWA UMP to be in conformance with the State Land Master Plan (SLMP), we strongly encourage the APA and DEC to further expand the proposed monitoring and reporting protocols as part of a larger complex planning effort. The health and well-being of our state lands, particularly our Wilderness areas, depend on it.

One of the defining traits of the 24,000-acre SRWA is the large trailless area at the heart of the unit and the limited amount of trails and roads that help preserve its wilderness character. The Sentinel Wilderness exemplifies how management strategies that prioritize a wilderness recreational experience can also protect the landscape’s ecological integrity while fostering reasonable access, a sense of solitude and remoteness, and sound resource management techniques. It is a near-perfect canvas to begin implementing the wildlands monitoring framework when it is ready.

In reviewing the latest draft of the UMP, the Council continues our support of many of the management actions and intents listed, including the following actions:

The increased detail on monitoring actions and the commitment to “implement successive phases [that] will be informed by monitoring and comparisons between defined desired conditions and existing conditions” (Page 58). Any phased implementation should still be a component of a robust and transparent review process.

The acknowledgement that the impacts of recreation in the unit are unknown, therefore “an assessment of waterbodies that integrated recreation and ecology is proposed” (Page, 59). This is the first real commitment we have seen DEC and APA make to understanding water resource impacts.

The clear prohibition of illegal motor vehicle in the SRWA, with particular emphasis on ATVs entering the Wilderness area via private property and a town road. The Council has long called for a comprehensive solution that addresses unlawful and inappropriate off-road motorized use (including ATVs) throughout the Park, especially on the Forest Preserve.

While the plan meets SLMP requirements, and contains many proactive management elements, the Council would like to highlight the need for expediting the monitoring efforts on this and other UMPs that have recently come before the Board. In particular, the Council would like to highlight the valuable discussion the APA Board at the September meeting where the discussion focused on the need for more regular updates on the progression of the wildlands monitoring framework currently being developed. Given the current and on-going state land stewardship discussion, the time is ripe for implementing a monitoring framework and for those protocols to become the defining practice in Forest Preserve management.

In addition to the comments provided above, the Council offers the following comments, many of which we captured in our December 22, 2017 letter, to strengthen the proposed UMP:

Complex Planning

The proximity of the SRWA to the High Peaks and McKenzie Mountain Wilderness Areas, as well as the Mount Van Hoevenberg Intensive Use Area, necessitates a stronger consideration of complex planning in the UMP than is currently present. Although DEC acknowledges these adjoining wilderness units are a part of a larger and connected wilderness complex, it does little to address comprehensive management between the units and adjacent private properties containing easement lands.

The Adirondack Council recommends DEC initiate a complex planning process for the greater High Peaks (or Cloudsplitter) region including various state land management units, in cooperation with private landowners, local governments and other stakeholders. We strongly recommend the development of this UMP in coordination with updates or amendments to the adjoining units as part of a ‘Cloudsplitter Complex Plan’.

Need for Innovative and Unique Management Actions

Given the overall low amount of recreation-induced degradation the SRWA has experienced, with the exception of a few areas, this UMP could serve as an opportunity for DEC to take proactive action and experiment with modern management practices to assess what is most effective in such a high-use region of the Park. This would mean enhanced visitor education, front country infrastructure, creating and promoting alternative non-wilderness hike options (especially those that are short with good views), investments in improved resource protection (such as trail work and backcountry campsite hardening consistent with wilderness standards), wilderness management, planning and enforcement, to sustain and share with other towns in the Adirondack Park the success of this region.

Fixed Anchors

The issue of fixed anchors in the SRWA is a complex one. Beyond the legal implications, their use requires consideration of impacts to natural resources, challenges to wilderness management, cultural disruptions to local climbing communities, safety issues, and feasibility concerns of state maintenance and enforcement. For these reasons, the Council currently supports the proposed temporary moratorium on the placement or replacement of fixed anchors in this unit until a working group can be convened to collaboratively form recommendations to address this issue. We request the Council be a part of this group and look forward to working with other stakeholders on ways to safeguard important natural resources while still honoring a major recreational use in the Park.

Trailless Area

The designation of a trailless area over 10,000 acres is highly laudable. This management action prioritizes wildlife and habitat protection, within the interior of the SRWA, while also sustaining and encouraging traditional forms of recreation. However, steps should be taken to inventory and ensure baseline conditions and use levels are understood to inform and define carrying capacity limits that, when exceeded, will trigger management controls on use. For example, informal herd paths or “trails that are not officially maintained” should be documented if they exist and should not be ignored.

In closing, the Adirondack Council believes the SRWA UMP is SLMP compliant and is an overall strong management plan. However, we strongly encourage APA and DEC to finalize and implement the wildlands monitoring and reporting frameworks for this unit. Designing and implementing modern and effective UMPs is integral to protecting our state lands. Continuing to approve UMPs without the wildlands monitoring and carrying capacity frameworks in place jeopardizes the long-term health of our cherished public resources.

Map of Adirondack Sentinel Range Wilderness courtesy Adirondack Atlas.

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As Director of Conservation for the Adirondack Council, Rocci Aguirre is responsible for the design and implementation of the Council's conservation strategy. Rocci graduated from SUNY Cortland in 1995 and holds a MS in Resource Management and Conservation from Antioch University New England.

Rocci's connection to the Adirondacks goes back to his days as a student in Cortland's recreation department. When not fly fishing or hunting, Rocci can usually be found hiking in the woods looking for chanterelles or other delicious ingredients to add to the supper pot.

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