Why are so many rivers left unprotected?
By Phil Brown
You get a sense of wildness on the Chubb River almost as soon as you push off from the put-in spot outside Lake Placid. As you meander along the tea-colored stream, eavesdropping on the chatter of red-winged blackbirds, black-capped chickadees and white-throated sparrows, you soon forget about the civilized world you left behind.
That’s why the house is so jarring.
I found out about the house when I paddled the river last fall with Charlie Wilson, the founder of Placid Boatworks, while testing one of his lightweight canoes. We came around a bend and there it was, in our face. Two stories, stone foundation, timber beams, large porches overlooking the water. To be honest, it’s a nice-looking house, but still . . .
As Charlie put it: “It shouldn’t be there, but I’d love to own it.”
At the time, I wondered how anyone could be allowed to build a house along such a pristine stretch of river. It’s the only edifice encountered during the four- or five-mile paddle from Averyville Road to the Chubb’s upper reaches. Except for that one piece of private land, the entire canoe route is bordered by the High Peaks Wilderness.
This spring I decided to look into the matter. First, I pulled out the Adirondack Park Agency’s big color map of the Park showing which rivers belong to the Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers System. These rivers receive an extra measure of protection from development and often from motorboat intrusions. I expected that the Chubb, given its setting, would be designated Wild, the most protective category. But it wasn’t designated anything at all.
When I mentioned this to Neil Woodworth, he was shocked. “I would have bet you a year’s salary that the Chubb already was a Wild river,” said Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK).
A few weeks later, Woodworth and several ADK members paddled the Chubb to see if it meets the criteria for a Wild river. To qualify for this designation, a river must in general be undeveloped, free of dams, accessible only by water or trail, at least five miles long and either a half-mile from roads or screened from the sight and sound of traffic. The ADK crew took photos, made observational notes and recorded GPS coordinates on their trip.
“It eminently qualifies as a Wild river,” Woodworth said afterward. “The record is so clear that if any river qualifies, this river does. We’re going to use this as a test case.”
ADK intends to petition the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) to add the Chubb to the rivers system, but it won’t stop there. The club believes numerous other Adirondack rivers also should be accorded Wild, Scenic or Recreational status. Most are rivers that the APA itself once identified as worthy candidates but that were dropped from consideration, apparently for political reasons. Over the next several months, ADKers will be paddling many of these rivers to gather evidence for their protection.
The club may be able to get Gov. George Pataki in its corner. “We support adding rivers to the system and believe that the Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers program is a good tool to manage and preserve our natural resources,” said Gabrielle Done, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, in response to a question about the Pataki administration’s position.
Done added, however, that it’s difficult to get a river classified without the support of local communities and their representatives. Adding a river to the system is a two-step process. First, the state legislature must designate it a “study river.” If state agencies find the river indeed meets the criteria, the legislature needs to pass a second bill classifying it Wild, Scenic or Recreational.
Modeled after a national law, the state’s Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers System Act was adopted in 1972 to prevent the construction of dams on designated rivers and to safeguard the river corridors “for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.” More than 1,200 miles in the Adirondacks—all or parts of 72 rivers—now belong to the state system.
Generally, the APA has the power to review all projects within a quarter-mile of these rivers. Development regulations are tighter than usual within these corridors. For example, no tree cutting is permitted within 100 feet of shore. The law forbids the construction of any new structures along Wild rivers. On Scenic and Recreational rivers, most new buildings must be set back from shore at least 250 feet or 150 feet, respectively. In contrast, the minimum setback along rivers outside the system is 100 feet.
APA regulations also take a tougher line against motorboats on most protected rivers. They are banned entirely on Wild rivers. On Scenic rivers, motorboats “will not normally be permitted but may be allowed.” On Recreational rivers, which are the least protected, motorboats “may be permitted.”
Nearly all the protected rivers in the Adirondacks received their designations in the 1970s, in the early years of the APA. G. Gordon Davis, the agency’s counsel at the time, recalls that the program ran into resistance from local politicians. “The opponents saw the rivers legislation and regulations as a further tightening of development in the Park,” Davis said. “Of course, they were right.”
Because of the political opposition, few rivers have been added to the system in the three decades since. Moreover, eight study rivers, also designated by the legislature in the 1970s, remain in limbo to this day. They are the Osgood River, North Branch of the Saranac, North Branch of the Boquet, Main Branch of the Grass, the Oswegatchie River below Cranberry Lake, Pleasant Lake Stream, East Stony Creek and the Branch River.
APA staff came up with proposed classifications for these eight rivers at least as far back as 1975, according to a map at the agency’s headquarters. The Osgood River, for example, was to be classified Wild as it leaves Osgood Pond and Scenic as it enters Meacham Lake. The fact that the study rivers flow partly through private lands may have stymied efforts to get the classifications approved. In 1987, Thomas Ulasewicz, then the APA’s executive director, wrote to Betty Lou Bailey, a member of ADK’s Conservation Committee:
“As to rivers flowing through private lands, as you know, in 1980, and in every year since, we have submitted legislation to classify the present study rivers. Last year, Adirondack rivers were added to the System for the first time since 1975, but only because local officials agreed to classification of two parts of the Moose. We stand ready to submit legislation adding more study rivers the moment there is some indication it would not be a fruitless act.”
A year earlier, Bailey had provided the APA with a list of 15 rivers that the ADK committee thought should be designated study rivers. Many of them had been suggested by the agency itself years earlier. In 1975, for example, the APA created a map identifying eight rivers, including the Chubb, to be classified as study rivers. The other seven were the Little, Jessup and Miami rivers, Hays Brook, Otter Creek and Fall Stream.
Three years later, the APA drew up another list of possible study rivers that included, in addition to most of those already mentioned, the Robinson River, Sand Lake Outlet, Twitchell Creek, Windfall Brook, Bog Stream and Hatch Brook.
Bailey’s 1986 list included nine rivers that failed to make the APA’s lists: the upper Bog River, Beaver River, Shingle Shanty Brook, Harrington Brook, Brandreth Lake Outlet, Woodhull Creek, Trout Brook, Black Creek and LaChute River. In his reply to Bailey, Ulasewicz identified two other candidates, Mill Creek and a portion of the East Branch of the St. Regis.
Between them, the APA staff and Bailey’s committee identified 25 candidates for study rivers. Since Woodworth started researching the issue, ADKers have come up with several other candidates: Quebec Brook, Big Brook, Sprite Creek, Little Black Creek and Round Pond Brook.
All told, including the eight existing study rivers, that makes 38 candidates for the Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers System. Woodworth wants to look at all of them, but he intends to focus initially on stretches of rivers that flow largely through the public Forest Preserve, reasoning that these efforts will run into fewer objections from private landowners. “We’ll start with easier ones and see what happens,” he said.
Woodworth argues that classifying rivers is a good marketing tool for tourism, but as in the past, attempts to restrict development and motorboat use along waterways will no doubt be opposed by Adirondack politicians.
“Generally speaking, there are enough environmental controls in the Adirondacks without adding any more,” said Newcomb Supervisor George Canon, who chairs the Essex County Board of Supervisors.
“I kind of resent the attitude of these elitists who say they don’t want to see your house when they go paddling down the river,” he added.
Canon conceded, however, that the Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers System Act has led to few conflicts between the state and landowners. “It’s not a law that people have bumped up against as much as some others,” he said.
Although Canon sees that as a good thing, Peter Bauer, executive director of the Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks, regards it as evidence of the law’s weakness.
Take the house on the Chubb. It is 115 feet from the river—less than the distance from home plate to second on a baseball diamond. So, given the APA rules, you’d think that the house wouldn’t have been allowed at all if the Chubb were a Wild river or would have been built much farther back if it were a Scenic river. But that’s not the case.
The APA regulations allow a new structure to replace an existing one. And the new structure can be taller, bigger and more obtrusive than the old one—as long as it doesn’t sit closer to the water. The Chubb house was built on the site of a one-story hunting cabin that looked like it hadn’t been used in ages and seemed inconspicuous in comparison. Even if the Chubb had been classified as a Wild river, APA spokesman Keith McKeever said, “the house still would have been able to be built, because it was the replacement of an existing structure.” Because the APA lacked jurisdiction in this case, the project was reviewed only by the town of North Elba.
Bauer argues that the loophole poses a major threat to Adirondack rivers. Since most of the Park’s lakefront that can be developed has been developed, he said, riverfront is becoming more valuable. Like the Chubb, many rivers have small hunting camps that could be replaced by large homes. Such redevelopment, he added, already is taking place on the Schroon and Hudson, among other rivers.
“It’s the same story that we have seen on lakeshores for a number of years,” Bauer said. “The modest camp is replaced by the ‘McGreat Camp.’”
He wants the loophole closed, so that if a pre-existing building is closer to the water than regulations allow, the landowner will not permitted to replace it with a larger structure.
But as it stands, Bauer said, the rivers law sometimes works. For example, the Adirondack Park Agency last year cited the law in discouraging a landowner’s plans to operate a tourist train along the Marion River. Noting that the Marion is classified Scenic, the agency said the railroad could not be approved without a change in the law.
“If the Marion had not been a Scenic river, then we may have had a proposal to build a Disney-style tourist attraction along its banks,” Bauer said.
Of the 38 candidate rivers, nearly all flow, at least in part, through private property, and some are bordered almost entirely by private lands. Because the lands can be developed, Bauer said all of these rivers are at risk. In some cases, however, the private land has been protected by state easements that prohibit development. The Jessup and Miami rivers, for example, flow through property owned by International Paper, which agreed to sell easements on all its Adirondack lands last year.
With rivers that flow through the state-owned Forest Preserve, the major concern is motorized access. For instance, Woodworth noted that jet skis can enter the Osgood River from Meacham Lake, where there is a state boat launch. The regulations also forbid the construction of lean-tos along Wild rivers in the Preserve.
ADK hopes to submit the Chubb petition the Adirondack Park Agency by September and follow it up soon after with petitions for the Jordan, Osgood and Little rivers. All four rivers, he said, or at least portions of them, deserve to be classified as Wild, which would close them to motorboats and jet skis and forbid the construction of lean-tos and snowmobile bridges. (The Jordan is now classified as Scenic. Reclassifying it as Wild would thwart local politicians’ efforts to create a network of snowmobile trails on state land east of Carry Falls Reservoir.)
The APA seems less than enthusiastic about pushing the initiative. Keith McKeever said the agency has its hands full with a package of bills addressing various shortcomings in APA law. “The rivers act is not on our radar,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it’s not important. It’s just that we have a heavy workload right now.”
McKeever did not rule out designating new study rivers in the future. Asked when the existing study rivers—in limbo for three decades–will be added to the system, he replied, “The intent is to make recommendations for all to be designated as something, but at this time we’re not working on them.”
But Woodworth is not discouraged. “Government can change priorities if the public demonstrates that there is good reason for it to do so, “and the Adirondack Mountain Club intends to do that. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose.
To reach the Chubb put-in, drive south on Averyville Road from Lake Placid. You reach the river 1.2 miles south of Old Military Road. Keep going a short distance up a small hill and look for a carry trail on the left. It’s not marked, so you have to look hard. Park on shoulder next to the trail.