Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Ending the Campfire Prohibition on the Chain Lakes Makes No Sense

The 19,000-acre Essex Chain of Lakes between Indian Lake and Newcomb certainly has received lots of public attention. In 2007, it was a major part of the Finch, Pruyn and Company sale of 161,000-acres to the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, with help from the Open Space Institute.

Today, the first amendment to the Essex Chain of Lakes Primitive Area Unit Management Plan is up for public comment. Should it be approved? Before tackling that question, let us review.

What an earthquake the 2007 Finch, Pruyn sale felt like, with many aftershocks. It promised an exciting time for land conservation and for advocates for open space conservation like me and the nonprofits I worked with. It still is. It was a scary time for Finch employees, contractors, leaseholders, and many townspeople, including guides tied closely to the land and its future uses. The consequences of that land sale are still playing out and will continue to.

Also, it was a time to recall a longer continuum of debate about the Adirondack Park and what the Park should be and look like. During the 1950s people like my wilderness mentor Paul Schaefer had passionate exchanges with people like Lyman Beeman, then chairman of Finch, Pruyn, about the future of Finch’s vast Adirondack holdings, about the practice of forestry, about wilderness, what was it and whether wilderness management of the Forest Preserve was desirable, achievable, worthy.

The National Wilderness Preservation Act passed in 1964, inspired by our “forever wild’ State Constitution. State Lands (Forest Preserve) classified Wilderness, Primitive, Canoe, Wild Forest, Intensive Use came to pass in 1972 via the Adirondack Park Agency Act and its offshoot, the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan.

Paul Schaefer died in 1996. Even in his final year, he was still researching and speaking with Bob Flacke of Finch, Pruyn’s board (now also deceased) about how some of the Finch, Pruyn lands could be protected from development and eventually added to the Forest Preserve. In 2007, Paul’s goal was amply fulfilled.  In 2009 more than 90,000 acres of the 161,000 was sold with a conservation easement that prevented second home development but allowed continued forest harvesting and management, still ongoing. In 2012, Governor Cuomo and his DEC began to acquire on our behalf 65,000-acres for the Forest Preserve, where forest harvesting is prohibited by the NYS Constitution’s Article XIV. The Essex Chain of Lakes were among those first acquisitions.

Land classification

Considering the miles of former logging roads, the history of mechanized uses, and the history of float plane landings on certain of the lakes, DEC initially proposed a Wild Forest classification for the Essex Chain of Lakes. The public immediately engaged in debate and hearings. Adirondack Wild pushed hard for a Wilderness classification, for good reasons we felt. Certain APA members, notably Dick Booth, and certain APA staff, argued effectively that the rare wetland plants, the extent of those wetlands fringing on the lakes, the 19,000-acres, the remote feel, the exquisite ecological and recreational values all pointed to greater resource protection than Wild Forest would permit.  Ultimately, the classification decision was Primitive to allow the float plane uses to continue yet for most the lakes to be managed as near to Wilderness as possible. A Wild Forest snowmobile corridor would run between the Primitive Hudson River and the Chain Lakes.

Then in 2014-15 came the Essex Chain Unit Management Plan. Further exceptions to wilderness management were made at the insistence of the DEC, with APA members Booth and Lussi dissenting. With support from Governor Cuomo, DEC led APA by the nose to accommodate more recreational uses, such as bicycling. Regardless of how ill-suited these former logging roads, now trails, were for family bike touring an  exception was carved out to authorize bicycling in this one Primitive area (bikes are not authorized in Wilderness, or on non-mechanized trails in all other Primitive areas).

Then, DEC wanted motorized vehicles to maintain those trails for bicycling and that, also, was authorized by Master Plan amendment in what Adirondack Wild and others viewed as an especially egregious violation of the State Land Master Plan.

From our viewpoint, yet even more egregious violations of law by DEC (and APA) were to follow, most prominently by allowing “pre-existing uses” to continue on Forest Preserve, including snowmobile corridors and bridges within Scenic River areas. These were authorized by the UMP and then by DEC permit. We took the agencies to court over the UMP and the permit. Some of those core issues went all the way up to the Court of Appeals. Adirondack Wild and Protect eventually lost that one 4-3 in 2019.

Putting in at Deer Pond, Essex Chain of Lakes

Proposed changes

Now in mid-2020, during a pandemic, comes the very first amendment to the Essex Chain of Lakes UMP. What is our DEC now proposing as a change to the UMP and why? In our view, a continuation of the pattern: still more accommodation to recreational uses at the expense of natural resource protection. And what is Adirondack Wild doing? Speaking up for the Essex Chain Lakes UMP that we took to court earlier. Who would have thought it?

The Essex Chain UMP of 2016 may have led to serious violations of the law in our view, but at least the document was thorough and backed by site specific information and data.  This proposed amendment is anything but thorough. It amounts to guesswork. The data and rationale for it are entirely anecdotal, and the DEC admits it.

The proposed 2020 amendment would end the current prohibition of open campfires within 500 feet of the shoreline of the Essex Chain of Lakes, classified Primitive. The DEC’s amendment justifies the proposed action on three grounds: 1. Local community demand for increased visitor use; 2. “it is believed that a portion of the low public use is due to the waterfront campfire prohibition” based upon “anecdotal negative feedback”; 3. “the Adirondack region has relatively little observational data regarding the impacts of campfires on natural resources.”

As to reason # 1, local community demand for increased visitor use is a perfectly legitimate demand so long as it is not the driving force behind this amendment, which it appears to be.

As to reason # 2, the statement that “It is believed that a portion of the low public use is due to the waterfront campfire prohibition” is hardly an actionable basis for campfires which have known negative impacts to the natural resources along these shores, as detailed in the 2016 UMP.

Further, I suspect (and DEC ought to suspect) that a more fundamental reason why visitation has been “below expectations” over the past six years is the long 12-mile, remote drive from State Route 28 N to Deer Pond parking area. Visitor deterrence is largely the result of a long, slow drive on this remote road network.

As to reason # 3, it is contradicted by the UMP itself. The UMP devotes considerable attention on page 3 to the “ecological significance of the Essex Chain shoreline, and the impacts that campfires have on natural resources, especially understory trees and course woody debris removal from firewood gathering.” In fact, the decision to classify the Essex Chain of Lakes as Primitive was due, in part, to the ecological significance of the lakes and their ecologically rare and valuable, fringing wetlands.

‘Simplified management’?

DEC adds this additional rationale for the amendment, that “removing the campfire prohibition” around these shorelines “will contribute to simplified management and ease in visitor understanding of the area.” That makes no sense. The public grasps the reasons described in the UMP why campfires along a sensitive lake shoreline are prohibited to protect the soil and vegetation and water quality. Visitors generally understand that the very act of searching for and obtaining firewood or carrying it into a campsite and burning things like trash in it can cause serious environmental damage to sensitive shorelines. They wish to be partners with DEC in protecting these beautiful, vulnerable lakeshores by using a camp stove.

Do Essex Chain Lakes visitors really wish to lug in firewood for over a dozen miles, assure themselves that it is free of any invasive species like the emerald ash borer or, if they’ve forgotten the firewood, scrounge for it at their campsite? Perhaps they would rather spend their limited outdoor experiences de-stressing and exploring.

What Forest Ranger will devote themselves to monitor the dozen or so primitive tent sites for abuses? Who will then clamp down again and prohibit campfires once environmental damage is found?  Remediating damage after-the-fact instead of preventing it strikes me as the opposite of “simplified management.”

Given severe DEC staff shortages, future monitoring and tent site remediation along these shores appears to me overly expensive and unrealistic.  The department’s fundamental legal responsibility here, as elsewhere, is to proactively protect natural resources. In the 2016 UMP DEC presents documented evidence of the actual damage caused by firewood gathering at primitive tent sites elsewhere in the Adirondack Forest Preserve.  That evidence led to the campfire prohibition.  That prohibition ought to remain in place.

Another amendment

The second amendment to the Essex Chain UMP involves the former Gooley Farmhouse site north of Indian Lake and is similarly unsupported by factual data. The 2016 UMP called for that structure to be retained for a range of potential uses even though its perpetuation would be a violation of the “forever wild” provision of our state constitution. Time and neglect caused the structure to fall apart. Now, the amendment calls for its complete removal. In its place DEC is encouraging parking for cars and trucks with space for up to six horse trailers. Horse riding along this Wild Forest corridor is an appropriate and compliant use, but six? That number is unsupported by any analysis of actual or projected use or the ability of that area to withstand such uses. Whatever the precise number it should have a substantive basis. What about other actual or potential uses?  UMP amendments are expected by the Master Plan to include the same detail that a full UMP should contain.  That absence of carrying capacity information for the Outer Gooley Farmhouse area alone should be sufficient to reject the proposed amendment’s recommendation and return it to DEC for additional work.

The mid-August comment period for the draft UMP amendment has passed.  Readers can still find the amendment on the APA website. See Adirondack Wild’s comment letter here letter to DEC and APA. The amendment remains in draft form, so further public comment opportunities are expected to be set by DEC and APA.


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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

22 Responses

  1. Peter Newell says:

    No matter what people like David Gibson say publicly, they all have the same goal, basically eliminating all public access that does not conform to their extreme viewpoint. I can see limiting easy drive-in access to the entire area because it keeps the lazy slobs who are likely to trash the place out. But what is really ridiculous is taking an area with lots of infrastructure (roads) that can act as snowmobile trails (a proven economic driver) with virtually zero work needed and zero impact and closing it all down. There is no good reason for this. Same thing with horse riding and mountain bike riding. There are a lot of ROADS (that untll recently supported LOG TRUCKS for bikes and horses to spread out on. The problem with too many ‘environmentalists’ is that they live and make their living somewhere else, so the local people and local economy is really of no concern to them.

    • Steve B. says:

      There is snowmobile infrastructure in the Essex Chain. The DEC map clearly shows this. My take about the roads is without regular DEC maintenance, they will deteriorate to a point where you will not be able to bike them. I think it’s been 8 years since the purchase from Finch-Pruyn and I’m seeing a moderate amount of erosion on the road bed. The state is clearing downed trees, so that’s good. I think the current plan will see additional modifications as they analyze usage, potentially including the Cedar Rover bridge if they get their way and build it.

      • Pete N says:

        There is a ton of potential snowmobile infrastructure but unfortunately 95% of it is off-limits. The same for mountain bike potential. I have hiked several secondary old roads that would be suitable but are closed even to mountain bikes.

  2. Mick Finn says:

    The Governor promised the local towns that this tract would generate revenues through tourism, enough to replace the revenues from logging and sporting clubs. He hasn’t kept his promise.

  3. Steve B. says:

    I just this afternoon biked in the Essex Chain, riding a gravel bike (road bike with big knobby tires, currently one of the most popular bike types sold), from the Goodnow Dam, down to the Polaris Bridge, then to 5th Lake and back. The current road conditions are entirely suitable to this kind of cycling and would be perfect for those wanting to use bikes with knobby tires and carrying camping gear (bike packing). The DEC seemingly has a good balance of infrastructure supporting cycling, though I could see more interior primitive tenting sites be developed on the road system for cyclists. The question remains whether the DEC will do the minimum of maintenance on these roads to allow cycling access.

    My overwhelming impression is this is a very remote area and a gem of a location to explore, which seemingly sees little use, excepting the multiple tents we saw at 5th Lake site 1, including one tent pitched right on the top of the dam in the middle of the road. I assume the DEC Rangers don’t get in here much,

  4. Stephen Rose says:

    I agree with Steve B. that this area with its roads is a tremendous biking and horseback riding destination, especially if you use the parking lots on the east side. The access roads to the Deer Pond parking area, on the other hand, were pathetic, even dangerous the times I’ve been there. Yes, more campsites for bike camping would help. As for fires near the shorelines, they are allowed in the St Regis Canoe Area. Has it ruined that area? The Essex Chain just doesn’t feel like a wilderness. Let it be a managed as an outdoor recreation area that helps the local economy and gets our stressed population into nature. But the state must fund more rangers.

  5. Tim-Brunswick says:

    For once I agree with everyone commenting, however I cannot agree with Dave Gibson on just about anything….sorry!

  6. Ray Mainer says:

    I hate campfires. I do not go camping to breathe smoke.

    • Pete Newell says:

      “Campfires” are generally a pain when you are wilderness camping. Mostly a waste of time gathering wood and making the fire. However SMALL short duration fires for cooking or warmth are sometimes nice or even necessary. The problem is that some idiots don’t think they are ‘camping’ unless they have a big blazing fire going all the time.

  7. JohnL says:

    What’s with the comments section? Showing 7 year old articles/comments.

  8. Greg M says:

    Complaining to just complain. It’s sad really.

    Nearly all the Adirondacks allow camp fires. The high peaks prohibition is a large exception, but a reasonable position even to those who disagree with it. The ban on campfires was always for fear of overuse. This area is far below any reasonable carrying capacity by any measure. Time to admit the whole premise of the area’s visitation was a mistake, and rewrite things it to realized traffic.

    Can’t have your cake and eat it too. Are you alternatively suggesting we ban fires in 70+% of the Adirondacks Forrest Preserve which have more traffic than the Essex Chan Lakes?

    You are fighting the number of parking spaces on a site that has been developed for longer than you have been alive? The carrying capacity of the region can certainly handle 6 trailers, something regularly talked about that parking should be based upon. 6 trailers is the same as about 12 cars. Good grief.

    The worst part of this whole article, and many written recently, is they do not take an actual position, other than contrarian. Give your “expert” suggestion to what level fires can be supported. How many parking spaces should there be? Calling for “study after study” would cost more than the parking spaces themselves and is a waste of resources that are much needed elsewhere.

    I think you need to refocus your efforts on actually helping the Adirondacks in substance, not academic exercises — undeveloped ones to boot.

    I fully support this plan. Not because I feel it’s perfect, but it is both reasonable and better than where we are today from a management perspective (costs, oversight, building liability, etc). If there is any boost to tourism, great, but I doubt it would even register as measurable, much less meaningful.

    We need to stop these academic exercises and make real change on high peak trail maintenance, expanding parking where appropriate, purchasing development rights on large tracks of land to prevent subdivision, etc.

  9. Mike T. says:

    I have paddled and camped on the Chain Lakes a few times.
    The campfire ban is a definite negative for me, in fact, I have avoided the area because of that ban. I should think that anyone that makes the effort to camp on the Chain Lakes would appreciate their beauty and want to preserve it through responsible usage.
    I do continue to be disappointed by the plan to build a bridge over the Cedar River, a clear violation of the Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers regulations.

  10. Adam Wildenstein says:

    David, thank you for enlightening us about the recreational prospects in the Essex Chain of Lakes. I look forward to supporting the DECs plan to responsibly allow a larger range of use of the property.
    It’s so important that we are good stewards of our public lands, but that cannot and will not mean restricting access to the point where no one can utilize the property.

  11. Sherry Sebesta says:

    The low usage is more likely due to the “1 mile” (more like 1 1/2 miles) portage to get from Deer Pond to the lakes. We did the portage this summer and decided never again (too long and hard with kayaks + camping gear). If there were kayaks or canoes left at the campsites (similar to Pharoah Lake), there would be much more usage. Opening up the parking at the former Gooley Club would also make it much easier for kayakers and canoers to enjoy this beautiful wilderness.

  12. Boreas says:

    As someone unfamiliar with the Chain Lakes, where are the current primitive campgrounds located – are they on the shoreline? If not, how far back are they? Could they be set farther back to allow the reasonable use of fires?

    If there are still easements and private land in the area, shouldn’t the nearby landowners’ position(s) be published as well? After all, with campfires comes an increased risk of wildfires.

  13. Richard W Stevens says:

    I agree that a large part of the light use by canoeists and kayakers is the time and difficulty involved in getting to the lakes themselves. It’s not too bad for people with lightweight canoes like Hornbecks, but for many of the rest of us it’s a different story.

    My wife and I went on a day trip a few years back. We have 16′ and 18′ sea kayaks and wheels. It is truly a spectacularly beautiful area and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. We were able to circumnavigate Second though Sixth Lakes going at a moderate pace and stopping for lunch at one of the campsites. Paddling distance was about 12 miles.

    However, it took us more time getting to the put in at Third Lake, driving from Blue Mountain Lake, than we spent on the water. While we were happy to have visited these lakes, it is unlikely we would ever go back. Many of our friends who have been there felt the same way. In our early September trip on a beautiful day we only saw a group of three people in two canoes and two bicyclists.

    Regarding campfires, I’ve never seen the need for them and regard them insane in the warmer months. A camp stove serves to cook and an LED lantern provides light without all of the smoke, blowing embers, and general mess, not to mention environmental degradation..

    • Steve B. says:

      My buddy and I, having biked in from the Goodnow Dam, also pondered how to get a boat into the lakes. I would suspect the closest put-in is at 5th Lake which is on the road and just under 3 miles from the Deer Pond parking lot. That’s not terrible with a wheeled cart and carrying a backpack with all your gear. The Fulton Chain has a similar carry around Buttermilk Falls at Forked Lake.

      I would not bother though, I do like a small fire, but I can see where a few years from now, the woods will be devoid of downed wood as fuel source. It is however, a terrific place to ride bikes !.

  14. Boreas says:

    I can certainly see the appeal of fires. I like them when car camping. But in 50 years of backcountry camping, I can only remember building two. Typically, by the time I quit hiking and set up for the night, I want to eat and go to bed. A lantern works very well or just ambient moonlight for light for sitting around shooting the bull. Fires were usually too much effort – especially at a designated site because of their inherent lack of downed wood.

    Perhaps a compromise can be reached by installing fire pits with a thunder box several hundred feet from shoreline. Tent sites could remain on the shoreline with no fires permitted. But of course, with always, with no patrolling and enforcement by Rangers, wish in one hand and….well…. This is just another obvious contradiction by DEC – Albany wants more and more people everywhere to allegedly help local business, but Mr. Seggos does not see the importance of increasing the Ranger force to ensure minimally adequate backcountry protection of resources.

  15. toofargone says:

    Light it up. A campfire along the shoreline can’t be beat for a real wilderness experience. Fires have been an important part of human culture and existance since the stone age; even spiritual. Simply no good reason why you shouldn’t be able to enjoy that experience if you want to except for cranks who always try to environmentally educate us and control our behavior to conform to their selfish vision of appropriate use of public lands. How absurd to be treated like children and be told, in essence, don’t play with matches or you might get burned, start a forest fire, burn trash, blow smoke in your face, or ruin your God-given wilderness experience. Typical lowest common denominator mentality. Just plain repetitive, mind-numbing, and tiring. This re-examination of public use of public lands is refreshing, and for what it’s worth, the Court of Appeals finally decided the question on pre-existing uses, and that’s the law.