Some major changes are afoot for our “Forever Wild” Adirondack Forest Preserve. Last fall, the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) held a series of “listening sessions” regarding possible amendments to the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (SLMP).

The APA sought ideas and comments at these meetings, which staff members dutifully recorded. The APA also solicited comments by mail, fax, or email. All told, the APA received over 1,600 pages of comments, which were distilled to a 15-page report that the APA produced in January.

The listening sessions were beyond the requirements of the State Environmental Review Act (SEQRA), which manages the official public process that NYS government agencies and local government must follow to adopt laws and set rules and regulations. The APA has stated that it will start the official SEQRA process later this spring for two SLMP revision items specified as part of the Essex Chain Lakes classification.

As part of the Essex Chain Lakes classification resolution passed by the APA in December 2013, and shortly thereafter signed by Governor Cuomo, two issues were identified for possible SLMP reform: 1) the requirement that bridges in Wild Forest areas be constructed with natural resources; 2) the prohibition of mountain biking on designated roads in Primitive Areas.

The SLMP was originally approved in 1973 after statewide public hearings (of which good quality cassette tapes exist in Richard Lawrence’s papers at the Adirondack Museum). The SLMP has been amended twice for policy purposes – in 1979 and in 1987. While the SLMP is technically amended regularly with each land classification for new or reclassified Forest Preserve lands, its management policies have been changed only twice in over 40 years.

All that is about to change.

A review of the public comments from the APA listening sessions through a Freedom of Information request found a range of concerns expressed. By and large, the Park’s environmental community urged the APA to proceed cautiously and not diminish the SLMP’s primary focus on the protection of natural resources. But the public comments of motor vehicle advocates and local governments read like a wish list of environmental rollbacks.

The Adirondack Park stands at a pivotal moment for Forest Preserve management. Some have embraced changes, while others shudder at potential losses. Significant changes in Forest Preserve management are already underway. The NYCO Constitutional Amendment marked the first time that Forest Preserve lands were approved for sale for the benefit of a private corporation. The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is steadily building a network of Class Two Community Connector Snowmobile trails throughout Forest Preserve areas classified as Wild Forest. These trails necessitate the cutting down of thousands of trees over 3″ DBH (diameter at breast height) and tens of thousands of trees less than 3″ DBH, as well as miles of grading and excavation of 9-11 foot wide, and often wider, corridors unlike any other trails previously built in the Forest Preserve. The last five years have marked an all-time-low in the ability of the APA to hold the DEC accountable for violations of Forest Preserve management.

This is also a time when organized user groups are clamoring for specialized trail systems to meet their needs. In response, the DEC has organized various efforts to examine new special mountain biking trail systems, rock climbing areas, and high-elevation backcountry skiing zones. These processes are working to identify user needs and desires and recommend management changes.

The priority on recreational management of the Forest Preserve has been evident the past several years, but was especially notable in the December 2013 Essex Chain Lakes classification process, where recreational desires trumped natural resource protection as the top management priority.

In the public comments as part of the APA’s listening sessions, the Adirondack Powder Skiers Association put in the most comments. Often comments were submitted as a form letter that read “Dear APA Planning Director Regan, I want more access for backcountry skiers in the Adirondacks! Please consider the APSA proposal for an Amendment to the State Land Master Plan in order to promote backcountry skiing and healthy low impact recreation.”

Randy Preston, Town of Wilmington Supervisor, endorsed the message of the powder skiers: “The Town of Wilmington fully supports an Amendment to the State Land Master Plan to allow backcountry Ski Trails on NYS Forest Preserve Lands in both Wilderness and Wild Forest. This would have an extremely low impact on the forest and would fit nicely into Governor Cuomo’s push to expand Tourism in the Adirondack Park.”

The powder skiers were followed by mountain bikers and rock climbers in the volume of letters submitted. Mountain bikers are looking for a new trail system specially made for the needs of mountain biking. These are narrow trails where mountain bikers ride single file with specially designed bridges and that differ significantly from hiking trails and snowmobile trails in design and lay out. Public comments called for expanding the successful Wilmington Wild Forest mountain biking trail system to other Wild Forest areas and for connections through Wilderness areas.

The International Mountainbiking Association/New York Mountainbiking Association stated: “While some bicyclists will enjoy riding on a dirt road, they are unappealing to many mountain bikers who are seeking singletrack — the holy grail of good riding (imagine the difference between skiing on a wide snowmobile route versus a narrow meandering trail). Additionally, though it is often suggested that old logging roads should be opened for mountain bike use (roads in the William C. Whitney Wilderness area, for example), these routes are usually not suitable for duty as a singletrack path to support nonmotorized recreational uses like biking.”

The mountain climbing community is looking for a change to update the SLMP’s definition of mountain climbing. Commenters wrote “Mountaineering includes, but is not limited to, the following forms of climbing: rock climbing, ice climbing, slide climbing, bouldering, and ski mountaineering.” The change in definition will drive changes to SLMP policies.

The concerns of powder skiers and mountain bikers were echoed in the official comments from local governments across the Adirondacks.

Adirondack local governments were prolific in written comments. The Local Government Review Board (LGRB) and Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages (AATV) focused on similar themes, which were supported by resolutions of several dozen individual towns submitted resolutions in support. Here’s one key excerpt from the LGRB:

Some would have you believe that nothing can change in the Adirondacks – that any change the state makes in land use will take away from the “forever wild” character of the region. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Sensible, properly managed change will preserve what works and will repair what doesn’t work. Sensible change for Adirondack residents means balancing the needs of our environment – which draws tens of thousands of visitors to our region each year – with the need to have economically strong communities that support our residents and provide services from rooms and retailers to rescue squads and police protection to those visitors. It is sensible change that we are proposing.

We propose that the second paragraph of the State Land Master Plan be changed to reflect the need for sensible balance as follows:

If there is a unifying theme to the master plan, it is that the protection and preservation of the natural resources of the state lands must be undertaken in sensible balance with the needs of the park’s permanent, seasonal and transient populations for growth and service areas, employment, and a strong economic base.

Contrast this with existing SLMP language: “If there is a unifying theme to the master plan, it is that the protection and preservation of the natural resources of the state lands within the Park must be paramount.”

The recommended change in the SLMP’s unifying theme proposed by the LGRB starkly and clearly illustrates the desire by many to manage the Forest Preserve for economic purposes. In short, there is no longer any place in the great state of New York for wildness simply for the sake of wildness.

The LGRB and AATV also supported more constitutional amendments and urged that the SLMP policy section be amended accordingly. These positions were endorsed for the North Country Chamber of Commerce, Warren County Economic Development Council, Adirondack Gateway Council, and CAP-21, among others.

Snowmobilers generated a lot of comments, of which this one is typical: “To whom it may concern. I support allowing manmade materials to be used for the construction of bridges; recommend that the snowmobile trail mileage cap be increased with the acquisition of new lands by NY State; and suggest that mountain bike use be allowed in Primitive land classification areas.”

The NYS Snowmobile Association wrote: “Many of our NYSSA members engage in equestrian activities. NYSSA supports the construction of the Cedar River Bridge in the location the Department has proposed. Several of our members have cautioned us that the width of the bridge is inadequate to accommodate two horses passing or a horse and wagon passing. Complicating this issue is the fact that the bridge will be a popular spot for picture taking, to take in the landscape, and to fish. Rather than attempt to regulate people’s use, it would be preferable to plan now for those uses and construct a bridge of adequate width to accommodate how people will no doubt use it. We propose that a 12 foot wide bridge be considered.”

Significant changes were also advocated by The Adirondack Park-wide Community-Based Trails and Lodging System project, which called for new “community-based trail development on the Forest Preserve.” This trail network would need SLMP changes to: 1) allow for the placement of removable hut-type lodging (yurts and wall tents, for example) on Wild Forest lands; 2) support the concept of connector trails from existing trails to communities (e.g., a Northville-LP Trail spur to the Village of Long Lake); 3) support bridge development for appropriate recreational uses over select rivers and not require that all bridges be made of ‘natural’ materials.”

A couple dozen letters were also submitted by floatplane operators and organizations urging the APA to eliminate the ban on floatplanes in Wilderness areas.

Beyond the organized pitches of the many stakeholders throughout the Adirondack Park, there were some beautiful comments. Here are some:

“Leave the Park alone. Leave it Wild and unchanged permanently. My family enjoys it as a place of serenity and reflection, without the noise and stress of our everyday world. If we lose these places, we will all go mad.”

“The New York State Land Master Plan must continue to uphold the protection and preservation of natural resources as paramount. It currently prioritizes protection of water and wildlife and allows people to recreate on the lands as the resource allows.”

“I’ve been enjoying backcountry hiking, backpacking and canoeing in the Adirondack Preserve since 1960. The area feels much the same today as it did then. I’d like to see this preservation continue for my children, grandchildren, and all future generations to enjoy.”

“I urge you to adopt policies that limit and prohibit motorized vehicles on State Lands and to expand protections of wilderness areas. Wilderness is so rare in our modern world and yet so important from both an ecological and spiritual perspective. As a hunter and sportsman who is not able to hike quite as far as in my younger days, I still do not support expanded use of motorized vehicles for access as there remains plenty of places I can still go without disturbing and fouling wilderness areas. We need to carefully protect and manage our Forever Wild Park and its wilderness areas so this generation and future generations will be able to experience them.”

“I know there is a lot of pressure to open lands up to development and motor vehicles, especially ATV’s, but I believe that would be a big mistake. The solitude and unique wilderness experiences that everyone seeks will be to some extent diminished and the park that much less grand. In particular, the Hudson Gorge Wilderness and Essex Chain of Lakes Primitive Areas should be designated as motor‐free.”

“I am very proud that my state has had the foresight to set aside such a large and wild area for ourselves and all those to follow. I am very thankful to those past politicians who originally set up the Adirondack Park. I hope that in another hundred years people will be saying the same about our present stewardship of the land.”

The APA now stands poised to make serious changes and possibly reverse over 40 years of successful natural resource protection and management to facilitate a variety of recreational activities. The APA has pledged that SLMP revision will be managed through an open and transparent process, unlike the closed-door process for the Essex Chain Lakes classification. The APA is off to a good start, but the stakes are high for the future of the Forest Preserve and the Adirondack Park.

This is a major moment for the Forest Preserve. The people of New York have a critical choice before them: Should we continue to value the Forest Preserve for its wilderness character, its timeless reflection of a world where natural processes prevail and where human impact is limited? Or should we start down a path where we develop our great public forest for mechanized human use, where parochial economic wants dictate the relentless deterioration of a natural resource that has been a publicly treasured asset for over a century?

This article was also published on the Adirondack Almanack.