The Department of Environmental Conservation has proposed that the ultimate removal of Debar Lodge from the Debar Mountain Wild Forest in Duane will require a full Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS. The scope of that EIS has been out for public comment on the Adirondack Park Agency’s website.
DEC considers the following proposed mitigation for the Lodge’s removal: reclassification of 41-acres where the Lodge is located from Wild Forest to an Intensive Use Day Use Area to become a “recreation hub” involving expanded parking; pavilions; picnicking; bathrooms; trail development; and exhibits. DEC appears to believe that the more intensive the recreational use allowed at the former Lodge location, the faster folks will forget that the Lodge ever existed. I doubt that is the case.
Regardless, important interpretive exhibits about the Lodge and new recreational opportunities there can be accomplished without large parking lots and picnic pavilions and in fewer than 41 acres. I think most visitors will want the current peaceful, tranquil, and magnificent Wild Forest character above and around Debar Pond to be maintained even as the story of the Lodge is told on site. There is no demand I am aware of to intensively develop Debar Lodge site, and there is another DEC Intensive Use area and campground at Meacham Lake not far away. There will be plenty of time for public comment about this as the DEC’s Unit Management Plans for Debar Mountain Wild Forest and the proposed Debar Lodge Intensive Use Area are drafted.
DEC has equivocated about the need to remove Debar Lodge for a long time. Designed by the noted architect William Distin, it fits beautifully within its environment. Its cedar logs have stood above Debar Pond for 80 years. It has been surrounded by the forever wild public Forest Preserve since 1979. The land was acquired for the public then, but the structure itself was reserved to a private party for the next twenty-five years. That reservation ended in 2004 when the State became the full fee owner of the Lodge and outbuildings.
Up until that moment, the State could have made an arrangement with a willing private party (such as Adirondack Architectural Heritage) to keep the Lodge out of the Forest Preserve and to preserve and maintain it through a conservation easement, or to disassemble the Lodge and reconstruct it off the Forest Preserve. That did not happen.
After 2004, DEC knew that Article XIV of the State Constitution, the Environmental Conservation Law, and the State Land Master Plan required the structure’s removal. Time passed. Maintenance and decisions in the form of a unit management plan were deferred. DEC Forest Rangers lived there for a time. As in our own lives, it is easier to defer and delay than to decide.
I go further back in time. In 1972, Camp Santanoni in Newcomb was acquired for the Adirondack Forest Preserve from The Nature Conservancy. The future of those structures on the Forest Preserve remained in legal abeyance for more than decade. Article XIV and the newly created State Land Master Plan required their removal but as interest in and commitments to historic preservation rose no one in authority wished to tear them down. Tensions flared.
In December 1982, the Adirondack Research Center convened a colloquium on historic-preservation issues in the Adirondacks. A number of distinguished preservationists and environmentalists attended to address how the state was to deal with historic structures on lands acquired for the forever-wild Forest Preserve. The context included a proposal then on the ballot, a constitutional amendment of Art. XIV to preserve the outbuildings at historic Camp Sagamore which the public approved in the following year. Absent a similar amendment to Article 14 authorizing continuance of Santanoni’s historic structures, many believed that the Santanoni’s buildings must be torn down. What to do?
At that moment the respected chairman of the NYS Assembly’s environmental conservation committee, Maurice Hinchey, rose to tell conferees about his bill to address Camp Santanoni and put an end to the state’s acquisition of land containing historic structures. Hinchey’s legislation, later enacted into law as Environmental Conservation Law 9-0109, mandates that pre-existing structures on lands acquired for the Forest Preserve can remain only if all three of the following criteria are met:
- The land and structure were acquired by the state prior to 1983 and the structure was built prior to the date of state acquisition.
- The structure is listed on or deemed eligible (by the state parks commissioner) for the state Register of Historic Places.
- The state environmental conservation commissioner finds that the structure can be maintained for the public’s understanding and enjoyment of the Forest Preserve or for DEC administrative activities necessary for the protection of the Forest Preserve lands.
The Hinchey bill is plainly unconstitutional, as Article XIV says the lands of the state are to be forever kept as wild forest lands. No legislation can override the Constitution by allowing structures to permanently occupy such lands. Nonetheless, Assemblyman Hinchey’s wisdom was to limit the effect of his bill by drawing the line at Camp Santanoni. He felt that his bill, now ECL 9-0109, would prevent long running debates about the future of other buildings deemed “historic” on the preserve.
Debar Lodge met the second test in the law. It is eligible for listing on the Register, but it fails the first and third tests of ECL 9-0109. The land was acquired in 1979, but the structure itself, built in 1939, was reserved to a private party for 25 years. The State never became the full fee owner of the buildings until 2004, long after enactment of the 1983 statute. Also, the DEC commissioner has not issued a finding that the structure can be maintained for the purposes described in the law.
To conclude, DEC must honor the Environmental Conservation Law, the State Land Master Plan and Art. XIV of the State’s Constitution. The Lodge cannot remain where it is. Its historical story and significance should be exhibited without overdeveloping the site or transforming its wild forest character.