When it comes to the Adirondacks and the “forever wild” provision of our state constitution, a number of us just lost a great, very determined, and very influential teacher in that field of green. Charles C. “Charlie” Morrison died this week in his mid-90s. After a long career as a natural resource planner with the federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation and, starting in 1967 with NYS Conservation Department and then in 1970 the Department of Environmental Conservation, Charlie’s retirement years were devoted to the not-for-profit world. These included (but by no means were limited to) board and committee service, all voluntary, with the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, the Club’s Adirondack group, the Environmental Planning Lobby, now Environmental Advocates of NY, the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, Protect the Adirondacks, and Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.
Paul Schaefer once told me that his mentor, “Forever Wild” advocate and organizer John Apperson, would occasionally dress in fur to be more noticeable when, during lobbying of the state legislature, Apperson opposed threats to Lake George, the Forest Preserve and its constitutional protection. Schaefer learned from Apperson how and when to be most noticed and effective.
For example, as an elder in the wilderness movement Schaefer once stood up (or down) Governor Mario Cuomo. The governor had just signed the Environmental Protection Fund legislation in the summer of 1993. The setting was Split Rock Farm above Lake Champlain. The dignitaries had all spoken and Cuomo was the last to speak. Completing his speech, Cuomo ( like the rest of us in attendance) was completely taken aback when Paul Schaefer rose and moved to the podium. Cuomo was forced to sit in Schaefer’s now unoccupied chair to listen to what Paul had to say. However congratulatory (of the governor) his remarks, Schaefer had the last word.
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.
The old trail was familiar. I walk it monthly. The loop meandering along the state and private land line was only two miles long. It showed some blazes on the trees left by the hunting parties and solo hunters who have hunted this section for generations. Less than a mile in, bordering state land, I walked confidently in an October afternoon because it was a familiar route. I wore a blaze orange vest because it was hunting season. Watching for the faded blazes on the trees was unnecessary. The past footfalls of others were easily followed. Someone had recently walked here. The beech leaves were beautiful this time of the year.
During the APA’s October 12 meeting, I noted with appreciation the Adirondack Park Agency members who asked pertinent questions about the staff’s proposed permit for Carver Sand and Gravel in the town of Ephratah, Fulton County (Project 2022-0037). These questions and concerns included but were not limited to the proposed dramatic rise in the maximum number of daily truck trips out of the mine (from a maximum of 75 per day to a max of 200 per day).
For APA member Zoe Smith the letter from the Ephratah town board in the public comment file stood out to her because it is rare for a town board to raise detailed concerns about an APA project in writing. In this case the town raised issues of public safety and quality of life of neighbors to the mine should the permit be granted. What was the staff response to that detailed town letter in the public comment file, member Smith asked?
Adirondack Explorer’s reporter and writer Gwendolyn Craig has authored a fine article this month titled “The Long Wait for Forest Preserve Plans,” referring to the lack of unit management plans (herein, “UMP”) for some significant Forest Preserve Wilderness areas, like West Canada Lake and William C. Whitney, and for a group of Wild Forest areas, such as Lake George, Ferris Lake, Wilcox Lake in the southern half of the Park, and Debar Mountain and Chazy Highlands in the northern half.
The APA Act of 1973 “directs DEC, in consultation with APA, to develop individual unit management plans for each unit of land…classified in the master plan…All plans will confirm to the guidelines and criteria set forth in the master plan and cannot amend the master plan itself.”
Craig’s article accurately points out many staffing and budgetary shortfalls, policy hurdles and other challenges in completing UMPs in order to comply with the master plan (and updating them). DEC Lands and Forests has suffered from serious personnel and other cuts since the late 1990s. There were a few, but far too few, young DEC professionals appointed around 1999 to respond to then Governor Pataki’s announcement to complete all UMPs within five years. They worked diligently and drafted UMPs but as the new century began discovered that their superiors were unable to provide them with clear, enforceable policy with respect to controversial matters such as the expansion of roads, all-terrain vehicles, and snowmobiles in classified Wild Forest areas.
Although by 1973 Wilderness areas had been officially designated on about one million acres within the Adirondack Forest Preserve, the question of whether waterbodies within those million acres would be similarly free of use by motors was still highly uncertain.
In June 1973 the first Commissioner of the new DEC, Henry Diamond, “announced a complete ban on airplanes and mechanically propelled boats in Adirondack Forest Preserve waters classified as Wilderness, Primitive and Canoe….One of rarest, hence most valuable, recreational assets is solitude – a chance to get away from the sight and sound of others,” the commissioner said. “We want to provide areas in which intrusion by man and his works are minimal” (DEC Press Release, June 1973).
DEC issued a list of 700 Wilderness lakes which were, by regulation, to be free from such mechanization. The list of lakes was far from roadways and within designated Wilderness zones. Diamond pointed out that many larger lakes populated by motorcraft were completely untouched by the new regulation, places like Lake George, the Fulton Chain of Lakes, Indian Lake, Long Lake, Tupper Lake, Lake Placid and the Saranac Lakes.
APA’s staff presentation about the variance recently issued for SL Marina on Lower Saranac Lake may have been “heroic,” just as APA chair John Ernst stated. The marina has a lengthy and complex history of regulatory and legal actions since 2014 to remove wooden, dilapidated shoreline covered slips that predated the APA Act and replace them with modern boat slips out into the water, among other improvements. APA staff covered that history with competence and explained why approval of a variance to the Agency’s shoreline setback regulations would improve the shoreline’s ecological health and, of course, advance the marina’s business and services. With some 290 boat slips, this is the largest private boat marina in the Adirondack Park.
What the presentation and APA member questions did not clearly answer is why a wetland permit was not required during this round of review. A wetland permit was required and issued to SL Marina during the earlier Agency review in 2020. Why not now?
In March of this year the APA’s 2020 permit and variance for SL Marina were annulled by the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court because, stated the court, APA violated its wetland regulations by improperly valuing the wetlands in Ampersand Bay. APA gave these shallow water wetlands an incorrect value rating of two. “APA should have assigned an overall value of one to the Annex wetland,” stated the Court, “ and should have analyzed the wetlands permit application accordingly. Its assignment of an overall value of two, based upon a reading of the regulations that is contrary to their plain meaning, lacked a rational basis.”
Clarence Petty (1905-2009) grew up in the Adirondacks and eventually had a career with the state conservation department. His biography by Chris Angus, The Extraordinary Adirondack Journey of Clarence Petty. (Syracuse University Press, 2002) is still available. After a few years with the new APA, upon retirement in 1974 Clarence became one of the great citizen advocates for conservation. I first met him in 1987 in the board room of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, where his voice stilled the room. He never dominated a meeting, but when he did speak his voice carried to good effect. He declared his point of view firmly, born of his life’s experience, with a chuckle or two to lighten the atmosphere and to illustrate his point.
Clarence’s core message cut through the many emergencies we were addressing at any given time to remind us that the surest way to protect Adirondack land was to acquire it as Forest Preserve or as conservation easements, and to follow up those actions with more DEC real property staff and forest rangers to ensure that the state could compete for the real estate, as part of the statewide open space plan, and also be a good steward of that land over the long term. “We’ve got to get busy protecting more of the Adirondacks” was his frequent take-away message, followed quickly by “and we’ve got to take care of the Forest Rangers,” points well taken and easily remembered between meetings.
Did the APA learn a lesson in May? Apparently so, though only one person around the APA’s table would say so in public. That admission came from the non-voting representative of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, Jerry Delaney. “We’ve had a lesson in how important the people take their opportunities for public comment,” Mr. Delaney said. I am glad he said it because I suspect most were thinking it.
The senior APA staff, hit with hundreds of negative comments from diverse directions since March, including from some of its own members and from groups like mine (Adirondack Wild) and the Review Board, caved in May on their intention in March to ram through restrictions on public comment opportunities and subjecting future Agency policy and guidance documents to rapid decisions during a single meeting.
I was glad the staff caved. Act in haste, regret at leisure. It was certainly audacious of the senior staff to think over the winter that cutting down on public comment opportunities and on the time for consideration for changes to APA policy and guidance documents would not be noticed and needed no notice. The question is, why did they propose such changes to begin with?
Concerning a proposal for about 120 units of townhouses, “estate” homes, a hotel or clubhouse, associated several miles of roadways, parking lots, driveways, and trails on 385 mostly wooded acres in Jay near Ausable Forks, the applicant has just submitted new information to the APA.
The APA issued their second additional information request of Mr. Stackman last September, 2022. This month Mr. Stackman writes that he has been working diligently to respond. You can find it all on the Agency website. For this post, I’ll focus on just one aspect of that response to the APA’s second request for additional information: biological surveys.
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.
Last April, Adirondack organizations wrote to the Adirondack Park Agency asking APA to rediscover their discretionary power to hold adjudicatory public hearings on particularly complex, controversial Adirondack land use projects. No response to our joint letter has been forthcoming from the APA. However, a rather resounding response has just come from a member of our state’s judicial branch.
Only one formal APA adjudicatory public hearing has been held in recent memory, and that was in 2011 and concerned the Adirondack Club and Resort in Tupper Lake. Ever since, APA staff have refused to recommend that the board take any land use and development to public hearing. And no APA board has produced the required six votes to do so.
Nearly 100 people from 20 different Adirondack organizations met with 50 state legislators and their staff during Adirondack Park Lobby Day to advocate for funding and policy advancements for the Adirondack Park. A group of Eagle Scouts from Queens, NY took the bus to Albany to help the group make a collective case for Wilderness, Clean Water and Green Jobs, including:
- $4 million for a Survey of Climate Change and Adirondack Lakes ecosystems;
- At least $500 million for clean water projects, including road salt pollution prevention;
- $2 million for the Timbuctoo Summer Climate and Careers Institute, a partnership exposing high school students from the City of New York to training and possible careers in natural resources in the Adirondack Park;
- Doubling and diversifying the number of DEC Forest Rangers;
- $40 million for open space protection, and $21 million for preserving farmland;
- $12.8 million for Forest Preserve stewardship, and visitor use management;
- $500,000 for Visitor Interpretive Centers at Newcomb and Paul Smith’s;
- $400,000 for the Adirondack Diversity Initiative.
In addition, the group urged passage of non-budgetary legislative action, including:
Photo: Charlotte Demers demonstrating use of E-Bird and Merlin during our bird walk
Newcomb is in the heart of the Adirondack Park, and Newcomb’s Adirondack Interpretive Center (AIC) of the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry is the beating heart of Park ecological science. AIC operates one of the longest, if not the longest, uninterrupted study of the interactions of forest and aquatic ecosystems and wildlife in all North America, if not the globe. That forest is the Huntington Wildlife Forest, and the published research findings there span more than 90 years.
Huntington and the AIC are not only important for the Adirondacks but for the nation. It is one of the few data collection centers for the National Atmospheric Deposition program which monitors acid deposition and other atmospheric inputs into these forests, wetlands, streams, and lakes. Given the value of all of that research, Huntington Wildlife forests, lakes and streams on these 20,000-acres rank very highly in the Adirondack Park’s ecosystem, as do its scientists, students, and all who support them, from Syracuse to Newcomb.
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