Editor’s note: This “It’s Debatable” column is running in the Nov/Dec issue of Adirondack Explorer. Click here to subscribe to the digital magazine for only $10/year.
The Question: Should the state pursue buying the Whitney Park estate?
YES By Peter Bauer
The 36,000-acre Whitney Park is up for sale. With 22 lakes and ponds and over 100 miles of undeveloped shore line, this extraordinary tract has been at the top of New York’s land protection priority list for 50 years. This sale raises serious issues for all who are concerned about the future of the Adirondack Park. First, the state of New York must buy Whitney Park and add it to the public forest preserve. Second, we should not heed the calls of those who want to cap the forest preserve and give up on the 125- year bipartisan and multi-generational success of the forest preserve.
The dramatic increase in public use over the last six months in the High Peaks Wilderness, and most other places in the Adirondacks, shows that the forest preserve is indispensable. In our hour of need, the forest preserve was there to shower us in beauty, safety and emotional relief, at a time when everything else seemed like it was falling apart.
The last six months have shown us all that we need more forest preserve, not less. The forest preserve in the Adirondack Park underwrites our local quality of life and economy. The forest preserve keeps the waters in our many world-class lakes clean. The forest preserve has inspired and made memories for millions. It would be a profound mistake to give up on the dream of the forest preserve because some people who hike there are poorly educated about how to use it, because Gov. Cuomo hasn’t learned how to properly manage and staff it, or because local governments (the Town of Keene being the notable exception) and nonprofits haven’t organized to help meet forest preserve management and staffing shortfalls.
Opponents of purchasing Whitney Park point to the loss of the native fishery in Little Tupper Lake, where bass were introduced after the state bought the lake in 1998. The introduction of bass was sabotage, not an error of state management. This was aggrieved people who opposed the wilderness classification and spiked Little Tupper Lake with bass in retaliation, and did so even though the Whitney family supported wilderness. The bass flourished in the lake, and connected waterways, such as Rock Pond and Round Lake, and a 4,500-acre native fishery was lost.
Don’t give up on the dream of the forest preserve and let those who sabotaged the native fishery on Little Tupper Lake win.
Here’s the reality: The forest preserve is the people’s land. Despite the many current management challenges, most people are generally thrilled with their opportunity to hike and explore these marvelous public lands. They came in droves all summer! Yes, we need to improve public education, and we need more forest rangers, wilderness managers, trail crews, and a visitors center for the High Peaks, but it would be a mistake to give up on the forest preserve. The fact is that we need more forest preserve.
Thankfully, shortsighted thinking was resisted by past governors. Thankfully, the forest preserve has been strengthened generation after generation.
Gov. Charles Evans Hughes bought Mount Marcy, Redfield, Allen and Skylight mountains. Al Smith bought Lake Colden. Nelson Rockefeller bought the Moose River Plains. Hugh Carey (and DEC Commissioner Peter Berle) bought Lake Lila and Armstrong Mountain, Basin, Blake, Colvin, Dial, Gothics, Haystack, Saddleback, Saw Teeth, Upper Wolf Jaw, Lower Wolf Jaw and Noonmark Mountain. Mario Cuomo bought Low’s Lake and the Watson’s East Triangle, and George Pataki bought Little Tupper Lake, Round Lake, Lyon Mountain and Madawaska Flow. Each governor had acute budget and policy challenges, but each strengthened the forest preserve. What would the Adirondacks be like today without these, and other, vital parts of the forest preserve?
Don’t give up on the dream of the forest preserve. Save Whitney Park by purchasing it for the public forest preserve. Sign a petition to buy Whitney Park at savewhitneypark.com and help make these lands forest preserve. ■
Peter Bauer is executive director of Protect the Adirondacks.
NO Scott van Laer
As I sit here typing this, I really can’t believe my answer to this question; it is both sad and surreal. As much as I love public land, particularly our forest preserve, after spending more than a quarter century working in the agency tasked with the mandate of Article XIV, I can’t in good conscience say that transferring the ownership of Whitney Park to the state will provide sufficient environmental protection for those lands. Sadly, it will be best protected if another organization or person purchases the tract, one who is more equipped to undertake care, custody, and control of the magnificent natural resources contained within those lands.
While the Department of Environmental Conservation is filled with tremendous, hard-working, qualified personnel, the staffing ratio to the amount of land the DEC is responsible for managing and patrolling is such that good management becomes all but impossible.
In the last few decades a million acres of land have been added to DEC management responsibility, stretching the DEC’s resources far too much. For example, in the 1970s the average acreage a forest ranger was responsible for patrolling was 28,516 acres. Today that number has ballooned to a whopping 53,752 acres! National parks have significantly better staffing ratios.
While the state has added land, we have also experienced an explosion in outdoor recreation, straining available resources intensely. Many more people are hiking than ever before, further exacerbating the problem and continuing and accelerating the trend of resource degradation. The increased use pulls field staff farther away from stewardship and trail maintenance work. Forest rangers now respond to more than 350 search-and-rescue incidents a year. That is hundreds more than a few decades ago.
A recent peer-reviewed study of Adirondack search-and-rescue incidents in the Adirondack Journal of Environmental Studies mentioned the following, “The increase in SAR incidents and larger ratio of incidents to personnel may add strain to already fatigued personnel, intensify potential for personnel injury, and result in a greater chance of victim morbidity.” In addition to exhausting personnel, the in creased frequency of these incidents results in fewer rangers being available to address in creasing incidents of graffiti, litter, dangerous parking, and illegal camping, fires and motor vehicle use on state lands, to name just a few of the issues that have been highlighted in re cent popular press.
The state has always had an interest in adding new lands, campgrounds and other projects but has lagged tremendously in maintaining or managing what we have. The department is required by law to develop comprehensive unit management plans for each designated tract of land. For the most part, these are excellent documents written by professional land managers and developed from strategic planning and considerable public input. They are, however, rarely implemented in full and a lack of needed data to quantify issues and possible impacts to the environment and surrounding communities are often cited for reasons why UMPs have not been implemented. We need continued assessment and adaptive management for each and every UMP.
The best laid plans lose all utility without the staff or funding to put them in place. We budget hundreds of millions of dollars for new projects for the Olympic Regional Development Authority, tens of millions for a singular campground at Frontier Town, but no funds for a single forest ranger, trail crew or additional staff to collect and analyze the information needed to support management.
The forest preserve may very well be the best legally protected public land in the country but the reality on the ground falls far short of what it looks like in the language of its legal protections and intended management. I cannot in good conscience say that adding the 36,000-acre Whitney Park is a good idea. We must be better stewards of what we already have before we can expand. ■
Scott van Laer is the union director for the forest rangers within the Police Benevolent Association of New York State. His views do not reflect those of the DEC.
Photo courtesy of John Hendrickson.