We’re moving into an era of one-agency rule in the Adirondack Park and that should be very troubling to everyone. For nearly 45 years, management of the public Forest Preserve has been based on checks and balances between the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) and the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The APA set management policy and the DEC administered the on-the-ground management of trails and other facilities. The APA created and updated the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, while DEC drafted individual Unit Management Plans (UMPs), which the APA reviewed for compliance. By and large this joint administration, which provided oversight, accountability, and public participation, worked well for the natural resource protection and public recreational use of the Forest Preserve.
All that is changing. There is little effective oversight by the APA and little accountability by the DEC. We’re in a new era of one-agency control.
Nothing illustrates this better than the classification and approval of the UMP of the Essex Chain Lakes Complex and the subsequent changes to the State Land Master Plan (SLMP). Simply put, what the DEC wants, the DEC gets.
Let’s go back to the summer of 2013. This is when the DEC made its initial proposals for classification of the Essex Chain Lakes lands. There were several scenarios, but the DEC’s preference was Wilderness for the Hudson Gorge area and Wild Forest for the Essex Chain Lakes area. The Wild Forest lands would be managed as a Special Management Area, which is allowable under the SLMP.
DEC’s special management area called for a ban on motorboats on the Essex Chain Lakes, a major snowmobile corridor through the area, bicycle routes, state management with motor vehicles, easy access for people to drive to the heart of the Essex Chain, and seasonal floatplane use (in the fall) on Third Lake.
The APA added a couple of new scenarios, and a package of options went to public hearing in the summer of 2013. Public comments ran 4-1 for Wilderness for the Essex Chain Lakes. By December, the APA classified the Essex Chain Lakes area as mostly Primitive with a major Wild Forest corridor through the area, separating the Primitive area from the new Hudson Gorge Wilderness area.
By using a classification gerrymander the DEC was able to secure a major snowmobile trail through the new lands to connect Newcomb, Minerva and Indian Lake. The DEC was also able to secure a Wild Forest corridor on the north side of the Essex Chain tract to facilitate its goal of easy drive-in access to the heart of the Essex Chain Lakes.
Just before Christmas in 2013, Governor Andrew Cuomo made a trip to Saranac Lake to celebrate some new state grants. In his remarks that day he talked about the Essex Chain Lakes classification as marking a new era. He said that the process was different than in the past. He said that he had got a bunch of people together and they worked out an agreement and that this was sent to the APA and they had approved it in record time.
So much for the independence of the APA.
To meet DEC’s objectives for bicycle use and management with motor vehicles, the DEC opened the area for public bicycle use on an interim basis in the summer of 2015 and at the same time proposed a new UMP that included preferred options for bicycle use and DEC management with motor vehicles in Primitive areas, something that had not been done before.
A new snowmobile trail connecting Minerva to Indian Lake via the Polaris Bridge over the Hudson River was also proposed in the UMP, despite the fact that a snowmobile trail already connected Indian Lake to Minerva. With a straight face, the DEC said it needed to shortest route to connect these communities. This new trail required cutting over five miles of a new trail 9 to 12-foot wide trail through a trailless section of the Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forest. Public comments ran better than 85% opposed to use retention of the Polaris Bridge and cutting the new trail through the Vanderwhacker area.
This UMP was approved in the summer of 2015, but was unusual because it was a UMP that required changes to the SLMP in order to be compliant. One lone dissenting voice at the APA called the UMP “a legal sleight of hand” and criticized the DEC for not proposing real alternatives for consideration. In essence, the APA’s review of the Essex Chain Lakes Complex UMP was a theater as decisions were made in Albany between the Governor and DEC. The APA dutifully did the paperwork and made its approvals.
The APA then moved expeditiously to formally amend the SLMP. Public hearings were set for January 2016, looking to allow bicycle use and DEC management with motor vehicles in Primitive Areas. Once again, public comments ran heavily against changes to weaken the SLMP. In March 2016, APA voted to amend the SLMP. This was the first time in the history of the APA that it acted to weaken the SLMP.
Through a classification gerrymander and weakening of the SLMP, the DEC got virtually everything it initially proposed. Today, there is not much difference between the Essex Chain Lakes Primitive Area and Wild Forest corridors and the DEC’s original proposal for a Wild Forest Area with a special management area zone.
Both prohibit motorboats and allowed management with motor vehicles, both allow bicycles and snowmobiles trails, and both allow easy drive-in access to the heart of the Essex Chain Lakes. The only thing the DEC failed to get was seasonal floatplane access on the Essex Chain Lakes.
The costs have been high. The APA has lost all independence. Forest Preserve classification has been made into a process of spot zoning to accommodate different recreational uses. The State Land Master Plan has been weakened. The natural resources of the Forest Preserve will be diminished as a major new snowmobile trail will be cut through the Vanderwhacker Mountain area and logging roads will be maintained and not allowed to be reclaimed by the forests in the Essex Chain tract.
Welcome to the era of one-agency rule in the Adirondack Park.