Tuesday, March 28, 2023

A Material Increase and Burdens on the Forest Preserve

How the Adirondack Park Agency interprets its own State Land Master Plan with respect to public motorized uses of roads on the Forest Preserve (Wild Forest guideline, “No Material Increase”) has been in the news since last spring and deservedly so. In contrast with more intensively developed park facilities elsewhere, the Adirondack and Catskill  Forest Preserve are “forever wild,” written into our state’s constitution.

The public’s general expectations on the Forest Preserve today is much as it always has been, to seek, find and experience peace, tranquility, awesome scenery, quiet, solitude, bird song, bees humming, red squirrels chattering, a sense of the primitive. The overall expectation is not to hear motors idling or accelerating. That is the contrast value of the Forest Preserve. No other state can boast of it. No other state has a Forest Preserve in their state constitution, kept, mostly,  primitive and quiet, most of it within 3 miles of a paved road or highway. 20th and 21st century voters seem to like it that way.

So, why does an APA member like Art Lussi worry that the state might be right up against a limit or constraint on the mileage of Forest Preserve roads open to motors, one imposed by the State Land Master Plan that APA is supposed to oversee? What if, Lussi asked his APA colleagues, the state one day acquires the rest of Whitney Park in Long Lake? What’s going to happen to those dirt roads, he asked? “If we can’t use ( by use, I assume Art meant driving down those roads) those roads, what would be the purpose of acquiring Whitney for the Forest Preserve”?

I gritted my teeth. I imagine some APA staff did as well. This is the Forest Preserve, not a truck or ATV park. There are many reasons to acquire Whitney Park for uses other than one’s truck.

I was immediately heartened when another APA member, Benita Law-Diao, spoke up about the principles undergirding “forever wild.” By loosening legal constraints and expanding the road mileage open to motors, what would be the burden on the public’s Forest Preserve, she asked? I am paraphrasing, not quoting her. I felt that her question about the burden imposed on our public lands nicely turned Art’s question on its head.

Almost from the inception of the internal combustion engine, New York’s State Conservation Department officials wanted to build and maintain dirt roads on the Forest Preserve. So did our National Park and U.S. Forest Service officials elsewhere in the country. Roads allowed foresters access to battle forest fires or cut salvage after hurricanes like that of 1950. These roads then had the additional advantage of making motorized woods access easier for key constituents of the Conservation Department – hunters and fishermen – to reach their favored places.

People like Bob Marshall were appalled by the extent to which the Forest Preserve principle – “forever wild”- was being damaged by the state’s own conservation employees and their truck trails. Marshall sat at Johns Brook Loj one day with Paul Schaefer in July 1932. They had just summited Mt. Marcy at the same time. Hiking back down to the valley, they agreed that mechanized travel and wilderness were incompatible and pledged to work together to block Robert Moses’ plan to open the Forest Preserve to truly big roads for automobile traffic and commercial buildings by constitutional amendment. Energized by Marshall, Schaefer et. al., millions of New Yorkers were outraged by that amendment, too. In November 1932 the voters defeated Moses’ amendment by 600,000 votes. After 1894, having the Forest Preserve in the state constitution put the voters “in the driver’s seat,” sort of speak.

Once the 20th century pattern of mechanized use became established, the difficulty of closing any roads on the Forest Preserve loomed. How would the Conservation Department face what they viewed then (and which some still view)  as their core constituents, the hunters, to tell them they had to walk into their favored destinations rather than drive to that remote place? Very reluctantly.

Paul Schaefer was, perhaps, the first to force the department to face the fact that “forever wild” and post-World War II jeeps should be, at least in some locations, incompatible.  Through the force of Schaefer’s personality and determination, the trail to Second Pond in what is now the Siamese Ponds Wilderness was first closed to hunters’ jeeps around 1957. Many years of debate ensued whether that first example would be followed by more road closures. They were. By 1965, about 100 miles of former truck trails were closed to jeeps and trucks in places that would one day be designated Wilderness.

However, in other places in the Forest Preserve not destined for eventual Wilderness classification the same Conservation Department opened 300 miles of old truck trails to be driven on by hunters and fishers. It is those 300 miles, now calculated to be 206 miles on Forest Preserve land classified Wild Forest that are at issue and that take up hours of discussion around the APA’s table.

In 2022 APA and DEC staff calculated there were 211 miles of Wild Forest roads open to motorized uses in 1972, and some 206 miles today. The latter number excludes the roughly three dozen miles open, or potentially open for motorized use exclusively to persons with disabilities, by permit. Those miles should not be excluded, as they are roads open for driving by a segment of the public at DEC’s discretion or from a court consent order. The negative impacts motorized roads have on the Park’s wildlife and ecological systems were factually reported by the APA’s staff resource analysts in February. The wildlife prevented or dead from crossing these roads don’t care what segment of the public are driving them.

If the routes open exclusively to permittees (so-called CP-3 routes) are included in the counting, APA reports 245 miles of roads today – a significant, “material” increase since 1972. That may mean that in the future DEC might have to close some more roads to public motorized uses elsewhere in the Park.  APA and DEC seem terrified by the prospect, even though their own State Land Master Plan states that recreational enjoyment of the Forest Preserve is important but secondary to protecting “forever wild” land. That protection, says the Master Plan, is “paramount.” It comes first.

Remember that DEC has already excluded from today’s count some 13 miles of the Limekiln-Cedar River Road through the Moose River Plains Wild Forest. That mileage was “counted” as existing in 1972 but is discounted now because most of that road was reclassified to Intensive Use a few years ago – and DEC is only counting miles in Wild Forest, not in Intensive Use.

In reality we should add the 13 miles of road in the Moose River Plains. We should be counting and evaluating the dozens of miles that the public can drive on private lands opened to us by conservation easement.  There are over 800,000 acres under conservation easement. Overall, in the Adirondack Park there are well over 1000, perhaps 1200 miles of dirt roads  and snowmobile trails that can be  accessed by motor today. There is no shortage of opportunities.

DEC and APA ought to consider their own history. Their own records show that in 2001-2002, at some 67 locations across the Park DEC closed about 60 miles of Adirondack dirt roads on Wild Forest to public use of motor vehicles. The APA website uniformly lists the reason of each closure as “closed as a management decision.” 23 of those miles closed were in the Independence River Wild Forest alone. 17 miles were closed in Taylor Pond Wild Forest.

The backstory is that on many of those 60 miles, DEC had tolerated or sanctioned the use by All-Terrain Vehicles, or ATVs. Such ATV use on the Forest Preserve was illegal under DEC’s own regulations and under the Vehicle and Traffic Law, and DEC knew it then. The Residents Committee to Protect the Adirondacks, or RCPA, took DEC to court about it.

muddy holes

DEC and APA were forced to face some hard facts back then. Many of these so-called roads used by trucks and ATVs were not designed for use by cars, as the “road” definition in the State Land Master Plan specifies. Because these old truck trails, former logging roads, and wagon routes were so ill designed and located for repeated motor vehicle use, any use at all was causing a lot of damage to natural resources, including wetlands, violating the Master Plan and the APA Act, to say nothing of Article XIV of the state constitution. The result was a complete muddy mess, as photographs of the day revealed. Under scrutiny and pressure, including pressure from the APA, DEC finally bit the bullet and closed these routes to motorized traffic. That was then.

Today, if the DEC and APA seriously examined today’s Wild Forest roads open to vehicles, they would find more resource damage caused by vehicles traveling where natural resources say they should not go. In Wild Forest the DEC “may restrict the use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment and aircraft by the public where in its judgement the character of the natural resources in a particular area or other factors makes such restrictions desirable” (Wild Forest Guidelines, page 35, State Land Master Plan).  These would be called “management decisions” by a management agency with the full-time responsibility for care, custody and control of the Forest Preserve. Not everywhere, but in certain specific locations I wager we all can name a few Forest Preserve “roads” you would not want to drive down without a friend coming along, with a winch. Difficulties lie in the fact that some may want those places to be someplace else, not in our own local patch of Forest Preserve.

Still, DEC should have the gumption to do what is right for the Forest Preserve and under the law. Hard facts were faced more than twenty years ago. They need to be again today. Road miles and uses have far exceeded a “material increase” since 1972.  That is an additional “burden” on the Forest Preserve that our natural resource agencies and APA members should be concerned with.

Photos: Wild Forest “road” damaged by ATV use. Photos by D. Gibson

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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.

26 Responses

  1. The problem is that not all of the land is the same and not all residents have the same vision as the elite people from tProtect and other environmental groups These groups do not speak for the common resident of NY. If MrGibson doesn’t want to hear a car all he has to do park and walk in any direction and soon he won’t hear a car. Most residents don’t have a clue what the Adirondacks really are and what the original plan was for the people that live here. Gibson and Bauer play on that fact to try make the park what they want. It’s time for people of the state to rake back the narrative from the groups

    • Todd Eastman says:

      Please describe why these people seeking clarity on roads in the Park are “elitist”…🙄

    • Dana says:

      So if environmental groups are to be painted with the ever-widening “elitist” brush, does that mean you consider yourself an anti-environment populist? How would you label yourself, since labels seem to be important to you?

      If people who care about preserving the environment – in spite of those “clueless residents” you mention – wish to advocate for protection for the Park, they certainly should have that opportunity without being shouted down for doing so. Let’s hear your reasoning for reducing environmental protections.

      • I would like to apologize for the elitists comment. I use that term because I feel that the environmental groups have deep dark money behind them and the sole purpose of the these groups is sue the state over everything they disagree with. As far as labeling myself I guess it would be a 5th generation land owner who would like to pass on the gift that I was given to the next generation. I am not against protecting the environment. I am against groups forgetting what the park vision was originally was. The state can’t continue to buy land and keep the majority of the public off it. Communities need to have a economic engine

  2. Keith says:

    Your advocacy for protecting the Forest Preserve and NYS taxpayers is hard to take seriously when you avoid pursuing the incredible story of The Livingston Lake Club in Day on the northern border with Stony Creek.

    An 810 acre private in-holding with 7 vacation homes.
    A mile long “travel-way”, installed after the land was already Forest Preserve.
    Town of Day does not even recognize road access to this in-holding.

    These private, several of whom are out of state, landownwers fraudulently obtained a Fisher Act tax exemption on the 800 acres of forest land surrounding their waterfront homes. Fisher Act requires “legal access” to qualify for exemption.

    They stole 1 mile of Forest Preserve land for their private driveway and for close to 100 years they have depended on NYS taxpayers to pay the property taxes on their exclusive enclave.

    Are all Adirondack advocates nothing more than advocates for the wealthy landowners?

  3. COL (R) Mark Warnecke says:

    It seems like the current political climate has evolved to the point where we can’t even have a discussion, or respect that others have opinions that may or may not agree with our own. Then of course we descend into name calling. To the extent that the focus shifts from listening and trying to understand another person’s opinion, to entrenching and believing that only we can be right. I certainly have been guilty of this. Most of our politicians are (BTW politicians are not leaders, they are representatives of the people, within the framework of the constitution, federal or state) fostering this divisiveness. Right or left it’s the same.

    But I digress. In my opinion, the bureaucrats that came up with the “no material increase” did no one a favor. It should have been defined, from the start, whether it by a stated mileage, or a percentage. Regardless of if that be a zero gain, net loss, or net gain.

    So here we are, I hope having a discussion, listening to everyone.

    So, my opinion, for what it’s worth. 1. CP-3 routes should not be counted as they are not open to everyone. They should however be limited by statuary requirements. 2. We should stand at the the milage that existed when the Master Plan was adopted, on the wild forest lands that existed then. 3. When new lands (Wild Forest) are acquired, there should be an allowance for approval of roads commensurate with the percentage of increase to Wild Forest lands. All of course subject to public review and comment. 4. All of course subject to environmental review under SEQR.

    My 2 cents.

  4. Steve B. says:

    Whitney Park, would it become state property, would always have a portion of its road structure maintained for vehicle travel (maintained by whom though ?) as there are private in holdings that would continue to have legal access. In believe theres a road along the north shore of Lake Lila that allows access to Partlow Lake for private use. Thats a wilderness area, accept for the road corridor. If Whitney were to be made into wilderness, some of those roads would continue to exist and the state master plan would need to be updated to account for the added mileage.

  5. Gregory Wait says:

    I appreciate Mr. Gibson’s historical writings. Some folks dedicated their lives to giving us wild forests like no other in the eastern U.S. I personally feel grateful for all their effort. The beauty of the Adirondacks is like no other because of its wild character.
    Thank you.

  6. David Gibson says:

    Thank you commenters for valuable input and perspective.
    Mark Warnecke’s comment is interesting. It may be, as he writes, that those responsible for the Master Plan may have done us “no favors” with the ambiguities built into “No Material Increase” Wild Forest guideline, and that, as he suggests, those responsible could have unambiguously listed, even codified in law, the Wild Forest roads to remain open for motorized use. Plenty of room for debate there, too. An appendix placeholder was included in the Master Plan 50 years ago : “The agency and department are hereby authorized to develop rules and regulations necessary , convenient or desirable to effectuate the purposes of this section.”

  7. Paul says:

    “The public’s general expectations on the Forest Preserve today is much as it always has been, to seek, find and experience peace, tranquility, awesome scenery, quiet, solitude, bird song, bees humming, red squirrels chattering, a sense of the primitive.”

    This simply is not accurate. Yes, this is their expectation for Wilderness and Primitive land within the Forest Preserve. It is not their expectation for land designated as Wild Forest. It’s quite the opposite, look at the Saranac Lakes WF for example. One major (and super popular) use of that area is motor boating. Dave, I assume you have probably been to the lower locks on a busy summer weekend. Or the beach at Middle Saranac on a warm summer day. How about the snowmobile trails around the Moose River Plains WF (there are also 4 motor boat launches in that area). Why do you characterize all of the FP as if it is only for the use of hikers and the like? I know these are your members but you can’t speak for the whole state like this. It simply isn’t true.

  8. Paul says:

    Again, I mention the fact that folks have yet to address the issue of what roads were closed illegally by the state like we saw with the final court decision with the Old Mt. Road in the town of Keene. This should be sorted out first before these other decisions are made. It could be a consid

  9. Ricardo says:

    I know this is all very serious business but can’t help laughing at the pictures used in this article to illustrate “resource damage”. Have you seen the hiking trails in the High Peaks? Some have eroded so badly that they have been relocated numerous times, totaling up to about the same amount (or more) of awful damage as an ATV or jeep trail would cause. It may be helpful to look within ourselves before looking outward, in order to determine how best to reach a common ground.

    I would advocate for closing all motor vehicle routes and all sanctioned hiking trails. If anyone wants to actually -protect- the forever wild lands, find a way to sue the state to close down trails that see hundreds and thousands of users per day.

    “The public’s general expectations on the Forest Preserve today is much as it always has been, to seek, find and experience […] a sense of the primitive. ” — Nothing says “I am experiencing a sense of the primitive” like walking single file up Cascade or Marcy nut to butt with hundreds of other humans wearing and carrying thousands of dollars of modern plastic gear.

  10. Tony Goodwin says:

    My question is whether the milage of the truck trails to the “ranger” stations at Shattuck Clearing, Duck Hole, Pharaoh Lake, and Marcy Dam were counted in the original milage, but now closed? These totaled over 15 miles of road, but the reduction from 211 miles to 206 miles is only five miles. I am guessing that the truck trails built for the post-1950 salvage logging operations were never counted because they were closed to all but occasional administrative use after the salvage logging ended.

    The 1972 SLMP also did not seemingly envision how the “no material increase” requirement would be applied to new acquisitions that in many cases had roads on them. In the Essex Chain, some of those roads continued to be used for canoe access, while the rest are now for snowmobile and mountain bike use. So, if the size of the Forest Preserve increased by, say, 10%, would 10% more miles of road still fall within the “no material increase” restriction?

    There was never any doubt that the roads on the newly-acquired McIntyre East and West Tracts would be closed to motor vehicles. I just don’t think the DEC needed to spend a whole lot of money to ‘re-naturalize’ those roads when natural processes succeeded in turning other wide roads into trails in about 10 years time.

    • Craig says:

      Tony, many of the areas you reference are in Wilderness or Primitive classified areas so they would not have been counted as mileage in Wild Forest areas.

      • Tony Goodwin says:

        All of these roads are in areas that are now designated as Wilderness, but it was just Forest Preserve before the SLMP classification. Dave’s piece said that many of the early closures were of roads in areas later designated Wilderness. Seems to me that these closures should have been counted.

    • Craig says:

      Also see the link below on our website for more information.

    • Craig McGowan says:

      Tony, also, much of the mileage reduction is from taking the road from Inlet to Indian Lake out of the Wild Forest completely and embedding an Intensive Use corridor. By APA’s count, this got them 22.5 miles, even though at the big-picture level, there is still 22.5 miles of road running through the Moose River Plains Wild Forest.

  11. JT says:

    Is there a list of roads and their mileage? I would be interested to see how they get their total of 206 miles.

  12. COL (R) Mark Warnecke says:

    It’s good to see the conversation here. Seems to me that a lot of it is coming down to land classification. As someone who has traveled far in wide in this world, I would say that we have nothing in the Adirondacks that resembles a wilderness. But that’s just a label so I can live with that.

    It seems to me whoever that its becoming a discussion about land use based on the land classification. Thats good. So a “wilderness” area should involve minimal human impact. Sounds good. Hiking trails, skiing ok. I’m all for that. So if we take that for gospel wouldn’t it logically follow that less restrictive land use classifications should allow for uses that are considered incompatible with the wilderness or primitive land classifications? Otherwise, why bother to have the various land classifications.

    Dave, I’m an old military guy, so I like regulations to be clear, no ambiguous. I find when they are not clear, there may be an alterative motive involved. Thanks for the positive comments. Keep up the good work!

  13. Keith says:

    Thank you for your link to the road listing.This only serves to confirm the uselessness of APA’s attempt at road inventory.
    The illegal, 1 mile long extension of Lens Lake Road in the Wilcox Lake Wild Forest that extends beyond my home is not even addressed. I provided Megan Phillips with the complete history of this illegal road yet her (APA’s) inventory does not even consider it.

    • Craig McGowan says:

      You’re welcome, I’m always happy when our research on these topics contributes to these discussions. I’m told anecdotally that there are many cases like the one you are aware of.

  14. Paul says:

    “We should be counting and evaluating the dozens of miles that the public can drive on private lands opened to us by conservation easement. ”

    Why? This is not on Forest Preserve land. It has absolutely nothing to do with this question at hand.

  15. Dave Gibson says:

    Paul, it’s one Park. The legislation, the Adirondack Park Agency Act, links the two plans, one for state lands, one for private lands, and relates them because of the public-private mingling all across the Park. The Act recognizes that complex ownership pattern…and mandates the Agency “to reflect in the master plan for state lands the actual and projected uses of private lands.”

  16. Charlie Stehlin says:

    COL (R) Mark Warnecke says: “I would say that we have nothing in the Adirondacks that resembles a wilderness.”

    The last time I stepped into the Adirondack woods I was as close to wilderness as I had ever been. It has always been that way it hasn’t changed……yet. Even if a road is within earshot no matter where I have placed myself in the Adirondacks, the perception is ever present that an undisturbed region is close at hand. I have my doubts it will always be this way, at least in what my present perception of a wilderness means, but to this day this still stands!

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