Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Carrying Capacity Study Needed For The Saranac Chain Of Lakes

Assessing the carrying capacity of specific areas of the public Forest Preserve, especially lakes and ponds, has been a requirement of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan for decades. Despite the plain language of the Master Plan, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has failed to complete any such studies for major lakes and ponds in the Adirondack Park. The Adirondack Park Agency (APA) has never pushed the DEC to complete these analyses, nor undertaken any on its own. This Master Plan requirement has been openly flaunted by both agencies.

The Master Plan is clear that carrying capacity analysis is required for Adirondack lakes and ponds, stating this within its opening few paragraphs:

A comprehensive study of Adirondack lakes and ponds should be conducted by the Department of Environmental Conservation to determine each water body’s capacity to withstand various uses, particularly motorized uses and to maintain and enhance its biological, natural and aesthetic qualities. First emphasis should be given to major lakes and ponds totally surrounded by state land and to those on which state intensive use facilities exist or may be proposed. The importance of the quality of these resources cannot be overemphasized. (p.4)

Despite a highlighted importance in the Master Plan that cannot be “overemphasized” the DEC has refused to get serious about these studies. In recent decades, the DEC has made fitful attempts and some false starts but was never able to finish the job. Most recently, in 2011, Adirondack Park Forest Preserve Carrying Capacity of Water Bodies Study, Phase 1, was requested by and delivered to the DEC. For the past dozen years, that report has been available to inform the DEC and the APA about how to proceed with this necessary and legally mandated carrying capacity study and evaluation.

Carrying capacity studies should be a cornerstone of Forest Preserve management. “Carrying capacity” means the ability of natural resources to withstand and sustain human activity and the environmental impacts resulting from those activities. In the case of waterbodies it means the impacts on water quality, fish and wildlife, scenic and aesthetic resources, and the user experience resulting from increasing boat traffic and potentially conflicting visitor use. A carrying capacity study would examine these factors, evaluate whether and to what extent the carrying capacity has been exceeded, and recommend measures to avoid exceeding the carrying capacity and/or to return resources to an acceptable level that does not exceed the carrying capacity.

The Saranac Chain of Lakes has long been one of the most popular and heavily used networks of lakes and ponds in the Adirondacks. These lakes are intermixed with private lands and camps and extensive Forest Preserve holdings, where public access to the lakes and dozens of campsites is facilitated by major public boat launches and private marinas. Most of the Forest Preserve in this area is managed through the Saranac Lake Wild Forest Unit Management Plan (UMP). From the Saranac River to Upper Saranac Lake and linked waterbodies the Saranac Chain of Lakes covers over 9,000 acres. Upper Saranac Lake is the fifth largest lake in the Adirondack Park, Lower Saranac Lake is number 18, Middle Saranac Lake ranks 24th, and Oseetah Lake is 32nd. These lakes link to Lake Flower, Kiwassa Lake, Weller Pond, Little Weller Pond, and the Fish Creek Ponds, among others. State facilities include boat launches and the immensely popular Fish Creek and the Saranac Lake Islands Campgrounds.

The Master Plan calls for carrying capacity for “major” lakes. The Saranac Chain certainly meets that test. The Master Plan calls for carrying capacity analysis on state lands on which state intensive use facilities exist. The busy boat launches and the Fish Creek Campground certainly meet that test too.

The Master Plan goes on to provide guidance for APA and DEC, stating: “The physical, biological and social carrying capacity of the water body or other water bodies accessible from the site will not be exceeded.” (p 40) The Master Plan requires that every UMP “contain . . . an assessment of the physical, biological and social carrying capacity of the area with particular attention to portions of the area threatened by overuse,” (p 10-11) which should be prepared by the DEC. Based on information and finding from an analysis of carrying capacity, the UMP must include “the regulation or limitation of public use such that the carrying capacity of the area is not exceeded . . . .” (p 10-11)

For lands and waters classified as Wild Forest, such as the Saranac Lake Wild Forest Area (SLWF), the Master Plan specifies that access to waterbodies can be provided only if the “physical, biological and social carrying capacity of the water body or other water bodies accessible from the site will not be exceeded.” (p 40) Significantly, the Master Plan does not differentiate between waterbodies wholly surrounded by public land and those that include private lands on the shoreline; nor does it absolve DEC and APA from the obligation to consider carrying capacity for waterbodies, such as the waters in the Saranac Lake complex of lakes, that are the subject of a UMP and include private ownership along the shoreline.

Though long required under the Master Plan, the DEC has refused to prepare these studies and the APA has never held the department accountable.

The decision in the recent lawsuit that overturned an APA permit for an expanded marina on Lower Saranac Lake, Thomas Jorling vs Adirondack Park Agency, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and LS Marina, LLC, 214 AD3d 98 (3d Dept. 2023), addressed the need for carrying capacity studies. The decision stated that it was truly “inexplicable” that such a study has not been prepared before now for Lower Saranac Lake. A carrying capacity study is critical to analyzing impacts to recreational users, water quality, fish and wildlife, invasive species, and noise levels from the increased motorboat traffic associated with projects subject to APA review. A carrying capacity analysis is clearly merited on Lower Saranac Lake.

Though the DEC failed to undertake a carrying capacity analysis on Lower Saranac Lake, and the APA failed to require one during its recent review of the major marina expansion there, we now face these same issues to an even greater degree on Upper Saranac Lake and the Fish Creek Pond where another major marina expansion is proposed. The number of businesses and private camps on Upper Saranac Lake, many of which are boat access only, along with the array of Forest Preserve lands on the shoreline, and major facilities like the Fish Creek Campground, demand the completion of a long-overdue carrying capacity study for the Saranac Lake Wild Forest and Fish Creek Campground Intensive Use Area.

The site of the proposed marina on Lower Fish Creek Pond is located in the Town of Santa Clara, Franklin County. This pond is connected to Square, Follensby Clear and Little Square ponds, and to Upper Saranac Lake.

As mentioned, the Saranac Lake Wild Forest UMP governs the lakes and ponds throughout the Saranac Chain. These water bodies are heavily used by boats, which have environmental and social impacts. The SLWF UMP recognized the importance of boating, stating:

There are several ways that water quality is impacted: introduction of nutrients, petroleum products, effluent, sediment, and invasive species; damage to riparian vegetation; and disturbances to bird nesting are pressures and impacts on water bodies from use . . . In addition to the environmental impacts, there are also impacts to the recreational experience caused by use on water bodies. Crowding and conflict impact one’s experience on a waterbody. (SWLF UMP p 111).

The SLWF UMP further explains that motorboats “have the potential to cause a greater variety and more significant impacts than non-motorized watercraft.” (p 75) To address these impacts, the SLWF UMP identifies the need for “a comprehensive [carrying capacity] study” of the waterbodies in the Saranac Lakes Complex. (p 112)

The Master Plan clearly calls for a carrying capacity study for the Saranac Chain of Lakes and the SLWF UMP explicitly calls for a carrying capacity study. Surely, as part of the APA’s review of a proposed expansion of the former Hickock’s Marina on Lower Fish Creek Pond, given the narrow channels and undeniable high boat traffic in that area, a carrying capacity study is needed. Yet, we hear only crickets on this matter from the APA and DEC, neither of which it seems can muster the leadership to tackle this issue despite clear legal requirements that they do so.

The SLWF UMP recognizes that the Saranac Lakes Complex in the vicinity of the marina project site is already experiencing substantial increases in boat traffic. For example, between 2014 and 2017 the number of boats using the Fish Creek boat launch increased by more than a factor of ten, from 164 to 1,947 boats. (p. 59 Table 8) Between 2001 and 2017, the number of boats counted at the Upper Saranac Lake boat launch increased by more than 40 percent, from 1,204 to 1,713. The proposal to add even more motorboats to an already overburdened system of lakes and ponds must be evaluated in the context of the carrying capacity of those waterbodies.

The fact that the project is on private lands does not relieve the APA of the obligation to consider the project’s effects on the State-owned waterbodies that are part of the SLWF. As stated in the UMP:

The SLWF cannot be considered without recognizing the uses of adjacent lands. The character of the surrounding lands and what occurs on those lands impacts the SLWF, just as the SLWF has an impact on the lands that surround it. Private lands can affect the environmental condition of the SLWF, the management actions which the State needs to take, public use, and public interest in the area. (p 61)

The SLWF UMP explicitly recognizes that activities on adjacent private lands can affect the quality of public lands and waters:

There are developed private lands directly adjacent to many parcels of the SLWF. The more developed this adjacent private land is, the greater impact on the SLWF. Human impacts extend beyond any development . . . The adjacent developed private land also impacts recreational activities. Those areas of the SLWF in close proximity to developed private property become unusable or undesirable for activities such as hunting and camping . . . . Future developments on private property near the lands of the SLWF can increase the impacts to the unit. (p 62)

In fact, the APA Chairman John Ernst, recently emphasized the interconnectedness of public and private lands in the Adirondacks, saying in a statement from May 2023 that “The greatness of the Adirondack Park is fundamentally rooted in the interdependence of the public and private regional land use plans.” The Chairman’s statement is an important affirmation by the APA about the interconnectedness and mutual dependence between the private lands and the public Forest Preserve in the Adirondack Park. This interconnectedness requires that potential impacts from a major private land development on the Forest Preserve must be evaluated with carrying capacity studies.

For too long the APA and DEC have ignored the plain language of the Master Plan and tuned out commitments made in UMPs to undertake carrying capacity analysis. The DEC is working with OTAK, a consulting group, to develop a Visitor Use Management pilot plan for the central High Peaks Wilderness. A perfect complement to that planning effort would be a carrying capacity analysis on the Saranac Chain of Lakes.

Related Stories

Peter Bauer is the Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks. He has been working in various capacities on Adirondack Park environmental issues since the mid-1980s, including stints as the Executive Director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and FUND for Lake George as well as on the staff of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century. He was the co-founder of the Adirondack Lake Assessment Program (ALAP) in 1998, which has collected long-term water quality data on more than 75 Adirondack lakes and ponds. He has testified before the State Legislature, successfully advocated to pass legislation and budget items, authored numerous articles, op-eds, and reports such as "20% in 2023: An Assessment of the New York State 30 by 30 Act" (2023), "The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970-2010" (2019), "The Myth of Quiet, Motor-free Waters in the Adirondack Park" (2013), and "Rutted and Ruined: ATV Damage on the Adirondack Forest Preserve" (2003) and "Growth in the Adirondack Park: Analysis of Rates and Patterns of Development" (2001). He also worked at Adirondack Life Magazine. He served as Chair of the Town of Lake George Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on numerous advisory boards for management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve. Peter lives in Blue Mountain Lake with his wife, has two grown children out in the world, and enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities throughout the Adirondacks, and is a member of the Blue Mountain Lake volunteer fire department.Follow Protect the Adirondacks on Facebook and Threads.

24 Responses

  1. Reggie says:

    Carrying Capacity Study = entitled locals trying to keep other people out.

  2. Eric says:

    The problem with a carrying capacity study is how do you address changing habits and technology? If it’s done now will it be adjusted in the future when all pleasure boats are running on batteries? If a forest capacity study was done back in the 60s when everyone just threw their trash into open pits behind every lean to would it still be applicable in today’s ethos of carry in – carry out? If you do it once they will constantly need re-evaluated.

  3. Peter says:

    Nonsense. I stayed on Middle SL for a week this June and we saw only a dozen boats the entire time. 3 outboard motor boats, a few canoes, and some kayaks. The boat launch area is primitive at best.

  4. Sally Jones says:

    Pete – you forgot the part in that last lawsuit that said the lack of a carrying capacity study had no bearing on the APA’s variance decision on lands privately owned.

    Also, I hope you have asked your client and financier Tom Jorling as to why he and his staff at DEC “inexplicably” didn’t do this carrying capacity analysis during the time he was responsible for doing so at DEC. He was the Commissioner and the buck stops there. He’s as much to blame as anyone else….

  5. Irving M. Baxter says:

    Excellent coverage Peter! Thank you for your obvious research and concern!
    Without pointing fingers at any one, may I ask the simple question, WHY has nothing been done?
    Is there just not enough human or financial resources, to complete the necessary studies?
    Is it because it is not practically possible, due to lack of valid, agreed upon numbers for what the TRUE limits are for the Maximum/Minimum numbers of too many basic criteria for these vital studies? What can I do to help?… Sincerely.,..

  6. Mike says:

    The solution is simple. Pay OTAK (HanmiGlobal from Korea) another $600,000 or more of taxpayers dollars for an 80 page report that sides with your plan.

  7. Gregory Wait says:

    With all the serious water problems around the planet from pollution to drought, with a history of conservation dating to the 1800’s, ( that gave us our clean water) the APA being legally responsible to study impacts, and the Adirondacks still having clean water in 2023, as water quality deteriorates around the country, why wouldn’t anyone, especially folks who want increased boat traffic, not WANT, do not demand to know, what the impacts are going to be. That would be taking responsibility for your actions. It just does not make sense. Adirondack water is a precious and valuable resource. It cannot be taken for granted.
    It is a mistake to proceed without all the information you could possibly obtain.
    Thank you.

  8. Paul says:

    How would this even be possible? Sure you could do a carrying capacity for a contained national or state park but for a place that is a tapestry of public and private land it seems impossible to generate ant meaningful data.

  9. Paul says:

    “an already overburdened”.

    Why do we need a study if you have already made the conclusion that it is already over-capacity?

    Don’t be scared away form this area by these articles – the area is beautiful and it’s not overburdened at all.

  10. Boreas says:

    My question is, WHO decides which parts of the SLMP we adhere to and which parts we simply ignore??

  11. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Reggie says: “Carrying Capacity Study = entitled locals trying to keep other people out.”

    Fisherking says: “Truth.”

    So what I get by the above 2 comments is that Peter is for private interest more than he has a concern for the Saranac Chain of Lakes! Or am I missing something?

    • Reggie says:

      You’re not missing anything. You’re absolutely correct.

    • Eric says:

      We all found out who Peter really was when he came out in favor of the AMR permit system; even though everyone with more than three functioning brain cells knew that system has nothing to do with preservation and everything to do with keeping out the riff-raft. His voice is now completely meaningless. I’m not even sure why he still writes these articles or why the almanack publishes them.

  12. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Gregory Wait says: “With all the serious water problems around the planet from pollution to drought, with a history of conservation….why wouldn’t anyone, especially folks who want increased boat traffic, not WANT, do not demand to know, what the impacts are going to be….”

    Tis a simple answer Gregory, and you answer your own query (folks who want increased boat traffic)…. pleasure-seeking by way of boat is more important than water quality!

    • Paul says:

      What is wrong with the water quality on the Saranac Chain? I live on this chain of lakes you guys have no idea what you are talking about. You are just buying into a narrative concocted by people who are no there.

      No one is more concerned about this area than those of us that live right there. There isn’t problem.

  13. Paul says:

    Water quality has improved on this chain over the last decade. We have loons and eagles, a plenty, tons of super healthy fish. 2 stoke polluting engines are mostly gone 4 stoke now – clean even to CA standards. None of this was there decades ago. This narrative has nothing to do with the reality on the lakes, comment if you know what the facts are. Don’t just blindly buy into a narrative proposed by people who make their living as activists. This is very frustrating.. You can try and do a “carrying capacity” study if you can determine a scientific way to do it but I expect Peter won’t like the result, that the area is probably way below capacity. Not that those of use that are living there wants lots more boats. I say leave this alone, till there is a threat of a problem.

    • Paul says:

      The APA are good people who care about the environment that is why they don’t want to open this unnecessary can of worms that would open things up to more development as far as the rules go.

      Be careful what you wish for…

  14. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “The APA are good people who care about the environment…”

    Then why wouldn’t they, or the DEC, wish to assess the carrying capacity which would be beneficial to Adirondacks lakes and ponds?

    • Ryan H says:

      What possible benefit would assessing carrying capacity bring? Other than to give Peter something to fight about and sue over for the next ten years when he doesn’t like the result. So he can keep squeezing more money from his wealthy donors so he doesn’t have to work for a living.

  15. Todd Eastman says:

    Carrying capacity studies are common for land management agencies. The wide range of potential impacts are essential for current management and anticipating future issues. Recreation is only one element of such studies. Water quality, wildlife, noise, light pollution, shading from coverings, seasonal use differences, emergency services, parking, increased law enforcement, and the list continues…

    Good management is based on information. That the APA and the DEC have not performed their mandated tasks regarding carrying capacity in the SLMP is an issue.

  16. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “That the APA and the DEC have not performed their mandated tasks regarding carrying capacity in the SLMP is an issue.”

    There’s something crooked about this seems to me!

  17. no one knows says:

    this is misleading dose not say carrying capacity horribal 0 star review

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Wait! Before you go:

Catch up on all your Adirondack
news, delivered weekly to your inbox