Thursday, November 30, 2023

Citizen Pressure Leads to Investigation of Motorized Incursions into Wilderness

The dry language of the Adirondack Park Agency – Department of Environmental Conservation Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) concerning implementation of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan belies its contentious origins.

The MOU, first signed in 2003, updated in 2010, is found on the APA website. It has many “whereas” clauses, such as “WHEREAS, the AGENCY and the DEPARTMENT agree that it is in the interest of the State of New York to fully coordinate and integrate their respective program responsibilities as they pertain to the Adirondack Park for the good of the People of the State, State government, the Adirondack local governments, residents of the Park and Park visitors.” Other “whereas” clauses are followed by: NOW, THEREFORE, the parties do hereby agree to exercise their responsibilities and authorities through the cooperative arrangements created by this Memorandum.”

Cooperative agreements to coordinate and integrate program responsibilities between APA and DEC are, in concept, a very good thing – particularly regarding the protection of the Forest Preserve.  I write to thank DEC and APA for a recent, quite successful outcome of that agreement. I’ll get to that later, but first, some history.

This agreement called the MOU came about 20 years ago because of a long pattern of motorized uses and motorized access abuses of guidelines in the State Land Master Plan which restrict and condition use of motor vehicles on the Forest Preserve, including the state’s own uses for “administrative purposes.” These abuses, particularly in Wild Forest areas of the “forever wild” Forest Preserve, coincided during the 1990s with the intense marketing and sales of all-terrain vehicles and wider snowmobiles. These powerful recreational vehicles for summer and winter off road travel didn’t exist at the time of the 1972 adoption of the State Land Master Plan.

In the 1990s, the state was both promoter of recreational motor sales, grantee to local snowmobile organizations (via NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation)  and, at DEC, manager and guardian of the Forest Preserve whereby the lands of the state “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands.” Conflict was a virtual certainty.  During the time of DEC Commissioner Mike Zagata (1995-1998), DEC was perfectly OK authorizing local snowmobile clubs to, as agents of the state, cut trees and, in some cases, bulldoze trails for the sake of widening existing snowmobile routes to accommodate the new, wider, more powerful class of snowmobiles.

During a 1997 meeting of the Forest Preserve Advisory Committee, I recall Commissioner Zagata telling us that, irrespective of Article XIV of the NYS Constitution, guidelines of the State Land Master Plan and DEC policy, he would personally authorize a minimum cleared width of 15-feet on Wild Forest trails to accommodate two-way passage by the new class of snowmobiles. I left that meeting alarmed, but forewarned.

ATV use of those trails, while prohibited by DEC regulation, naturally followed in spring, summer and fall, churning those Wild Forest trails into mudholes. During the late 1990s, APA staff went out and discovered that these trail abuses had damaged Adirondack wetlands, resulting in wetland restoration work by DEC.

At least three Adirondack nonprofits (Adirondack Mountain Club, Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, Residents Committee to Protect the Adirondacks) also went to work photographing and sharing the damage caused to the Forest Preserve. My file is full of letters and photographs sent to DEC, copied to APA, and some lengthy, defensive DEC responses in reply. One particularly effective investigation by the Residents’ Committee led to court action around 2002. One of the outcomes of that lawsuit was a legally binding commitment by the state to craft and adopt a memorandum of understanding about implementation and enforcement of the State Land Master Plan. That adoption came in 2003, [and was] revised and updated in 2010.

The “Snowmobile Plan for the Adirondack Park,” promoted as a more balanced  successor to Mike Zagata’s 1997 vision of a snowmobile highway system, was approved by DEC and APA in 2006, implemented in 2009. Implementation on the ground proved a disaster, finally ended by the 2021 ruling of the NYS Court of Appeals that these wider, flatter, straighter trails, dubbed community connector snowmobile trails, violated Article XIV, Section 1 of the NYS Constitution (the case brought by Protect the Adirondacks v. DEC and APA).

A section of that APA-DEC MOU agreement (2003 and 2010) states that all complaints about alleged violations of the State Land Master Plan or Forest Preserve Unit Management Plans, including complaints from third parties, would be immediately forwarded to DEC and that APA would issue a tracking number to investigate such complaints. Both agencies would cooperate to investigate the basis for the allegation, including written material, maps, and field visits and, as warranted, result in a compliance agreement to resolve the violation signed by APA and DEC.

In the summer of 2023, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve (AWFFP) and Adirondack Wilderness Advocates (AWA) decided to test that provision of the MOU. In a letter addressed to both DEC and APA, we alleged that DEC personnel were routinely driving motor vehicles like ATVS down a Wild Forest trail in the Moose River Plains Wild Forest. In addition, the letter provided photographic documentation from AWA that DEC personnel were driving their ATV off that trail and into the adjacent West Canada Lake Wilderness.

Under the Master Plan, that might be OK, given an actual and ongoing emergency requiring DEC Wilderness search and rescue response, but in this case, there was no emergency. The ATV was driven there purely for DEC staff convenience. In the group letter, we also questioned if the apparently routine use of ATVs and other mechanized equipment on the Wild Forest trail was truly justified under the Master Plan’s Wild Forest guidelines.

To their credit, DEC executive staff notified APA in mid-summer that some of our allegations had merit, and invited APA planning staff to begin a joint, cooperative investigation – as per the MOU. APA planning director Megan Phillips formally opened that investigation and gave it a tracking number. Interagency meetings and exchange of information followed. Finally, that interagency investigation led to a compliance agreement signed on November 14, 2023, by the APA executive director and the DEC regional director in Ray Brook. That agreement stipulated that “corrective action” had been taken by DEC to prevent further encroachments into the Wilderness area, including written notice to field staff reminding them of the restrictions on motor vehicle use, particularly related to Wilderness areas.

While perhaps not all that AWFFP and AWA had hoped for, the signed compliance agreement may signal a fresh commitment by both APA and DEC staff to adhere to the MOU.  The staff followed-up, worked together, investigated the facts, reached and released their conclusions in a signed agreement, and publicized its existence in the DEC’s Environmental Notice Bulletin (see ENB for November 22, 2023). Given abiding public concerns for the Forest Preserve and for efficiency and transparency in government, this interagency response to the allegations is heartening.

Photo at top: State of New York Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan cover. APA photo provided by David 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.




12 Responses

  1. Tom Paine says:

    Those other park user groups also have much documentation of violations that have occurred and are occurring in the park in wilderness classified areas by non-motorized users. The high peaks is a fine example of that double standard. I believe it is time the provision should also be tested on those violations as well. Enough looking the other way in Albany on both sides of the fence.

  2. James Carman says:

    And from the alternate viewpoint is the fact that the state in general and specifically the DEC has abandoned the legal agreement that was accepted when the state bought much of the Moose River Plains from Gould Paper. Said agreement stipulated that roads existing at the time of purchase be kept open and maintained for the access of the public. And yet in spite of that agreement the state has abandoned much of the access roads and steadfastly refused to honor their obligations.

  3. David Gibson says:

    Inter-Agency Staff Consultation
    Compliance Agreement
    DATE: November 14, 2023
    RE: SLC2023-0001: Motor Vehicle Encroachment in Wilderness
    Introduction: Adirondack Wilderness Advocates and Adirondack Wild: Friends of the
    Forest Preserve (“complainants”) submitted a letter to the Department of Environmental
    Conservation (DEC or Department) and the Adirondack Park Agency (APA or Agency),
    dated June 28, 2023, alleging that motor vehicle encroachment into West Canada Lake
    Wilderness occurred from the Otter Brook/Wilson Ridge Wild Forest Corridor during the
    spring of 2023.
    This compliance agreement is proposed pursuant to Part VI section (f) of the
    Memorandum of Understanding Between the Adirondack Park Agency and the
    Department of Environmental Conservation Concerning Implementation of the State
    Land Master Plan for the Adirondack Park (“MOU”).
    Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (APSLMP) Context: The Moose River
    Plains Wild Forest (MRPWF) unit management plan (UMP) was completed in January
    2011 along with a concurrent APSLMP amendment to create a 20-foot-wide corridor of
    land classified as Wild Forest between the newly created Little Moose Wilderness Area
    and the West Canada Lake Wilderness Area. The APSLMP area description for
    MRPWF reads: “This reclassification excluded a twenty-foot-wide corridor along the
    routes of the former DEC administrative road (Otter Brook Truck Trail) and former
    Wilson Ridge Road, retained as Wild Forest expressly to allow for non-motorized,
    recreational uses such as mountain biking, hiking and cross-country skiing. The
    exclusion of motor vehicle use and emphasis on development of this long route for
    mountain biking creates potential for a premier mountain biking opportunity in the
    Adirondack Park. No motor vehicle use should be reestablished along this remote route
    due to impacts to the significant, surrounding Wilderness” (APSLMP p. 112).
    The resolution adopted by the Agency board in January 2011 asserted that the Wild
    Forest corridor would be subject to special management treatment as follows:
    “WHEREAS, a Wild Forest corridor, on which motorized use will be specifically
    prohibited as part of this revision to the State Land Master Plan, will be retained along
    the Otter Brook Trail and former Wilson Ridge Road to improve mountain biking
    opportunities in the area…”
    P.O. Box 99 • 1133 NYS Route 86 • Ray Brook, NY 12977 • Tel: (518) 891-4050 • http://www.apa.ny.gov
    2
    The APSLMP allows for motor vehicle use in the Wild Forest corridor “by administrative
    personnel where necessary to reach, maintain or construct permitted structures and
    improvements, for appropriate law enforcement and general supervision of public use,
    or for appropriate purposes, including research, to preserve and enhance the fish and
    wildlife or other natural resources of the area…” (APSLMP p. 37).
    In Wilderness areas, “[a]dministrative personnel will not use motor vehicles, motorized
    equipment or aircraft for day-to-day administration, maintenance or research” (APSLMP
    p. 25).
    Summary of Relevant Events and Actions Taken: On February 7, 2022, Department
    staff submitted to the Agency a state land project consultation (SL2022-0022) for the
    construction of two bridges along the wild forest corridor where culverts had failed at the
    outlet of Little Moose Lake and at Silver Run Creek. Agency staff determined that the
    project was consistent with the APSLMP because: “[t]he bridges proposed within this
    consultation are being constructed on a trail that is included within the Moose River
    Plains Wild Forest Complex plan. The design of the bridges is consistent with the
    proposed use of the trail outlined in the plan. Given the topography of the area and the
    classification context, a trail re-alignment to avoid the placement of these bridge
    structures is not feasible” (SL2022-0022 consultation determination).
    The consultation with the Agency was complete on November 10, 2022, and formally
    submitted to the Department on November 16, 2022.
    In the spring of 2023, Department staff began routine maintenance in preparation for the
    proposed project, with the assistance of Student Conservation Association (SCA)
    crews. Before any bridge construction would begin in accordance with an approved
    work plan, the corridor would be cleared of encroaching vegetation. Administrative use
    of motor vehicles to transport tools and materials occurred during the process of
    clearing the trail corridor.
    On June 28, 2023, the complainants submitted a letter to the Agency and the
    Department requesting that their concerns be addressed through the process set forth
    in part VI of the MOU.
    Department staff determined that the allegation of motor vehicle encroachment may
    have merit and communicated this concern with the Director of Planning at the Agency.
    The Agency opened Compliance file SLC2023-0001 and over the course of several
    weeks in July and August 2023, Department staff provided more detail to Agency staff
    regarding the nature of the motor vehicle encroachment and the status of the work
    along the Wild Forest Corridor. Items received by the Agency included:
    • Administrative motor vehicle use records from 2023 and prior years for the area
    pursuant to Commissioner Policy 17 (CP-17).
    3
    • Current photos of the beaver dam showing extensive flooding of the trail in the
    vicinity of the bridge site at Little Moose Lake Outlet.
    • Confirmation that the Department has taken corrective action regarding the
    Department staff involved in motor vehicle encroachment.
    • Confirmation that the Department provided a written notice to appropriate field
    staff reminding them of the restrictions on motor vehicle use, particularly related
    to Wilderness areas.
    • Confirmation that the Region 5 Supervising Forester will further discuss the topic
    during the next in-person meeting of applicable Region 5 staff.
    Agency Staff Findings: Motor vehicle encroachment 800 feet into the West Canada
    Lake Wilderness Area occurred when Department staff used their motor vehicle to drive
    into a location where they were conducting an inspection of a non-conforming structure.
    This activity was not undertaken as part of a response to a sudden or ongoing
    emergency, and thus does not conform with the APSLMP. The biophysical impacts from
    this encroachment do not require rehabilitation; the incursion occurred on a route that is
    a former roadbed to a camp. Intangible impacts from the presence of the motor vehicle
    occurred when Department staff arrived to check on a non-conforming structure within a
    Wilderness area. The arrival of a motor vehicle was contrary to the expectations of the
    camper visiting the Wilderness area. The Department has taken several steps to
    assure that future patrols will not create this kind of intrusion. Agency staff are
    satisfied that corrective action reinforced with a written notice outlining the
    restrictions and followed up with an in-person opportunity to discuss the issue
    will sufficiently address this incident and assure that similar incidents do not
    occur in the future. Agency staff recommend no further action on this item.
    The terms of this compliance agreement have been accepted by both parties on
    November 14, 2023.
    _______________________________________
    Barbara Rice, Executive Director, Adirondack Park Agency
    ________________________________________
    Joseph Zalewski, Region 5 Director, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation

  4. “ These powerful recreational vehicles for summer and winter off road travel didn’t exist at the time of the 1972 adoption of the State Land Master Plan.”

    The people of the state and residents of the Adirondacks also did not realize the con game that would be played on the residents of the park in 1972 by the environmentalists

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