APA finds right balance

OK Slip Falls is one of the natural treasures receiving wilderness protection. Photo by Carl Heilman ll
OK Slip Falls is one of the natural treasures
receiving wilderness protection.
Photo by Carl Heilman ll

AN ADIRONDACK PARK Agency decision on how to classify new state lands in the central Adirondacks in many ways represents stewardship at its best. It protects priceless natural features and ensures that the public can experience wild areas where the natural world dominates and people are the visitors. And it has created this legacy for generations to come.

The agreement, being a compromise, has elements that we can’t applaud, though. In response to those who feel snowmobiles are essential to the Adirondack economy, the agency authorizes some regulatory contortions with the goal of creating a broad snowmobile trail through the heart of the region. This creates real concern, but it does not overshadow the agency’s historic achievement. As commissioner after commissioner said before voting, agreement could not have happened without compromise.

At question was the classification of about twenty-two thousand acres of land that the state bought for the Adirondack Forest Preserve around the Essex Chain Lakes and Hudson River in the towns of Newcomb, Minerva and Indian Lake. The acquisition is part of a larger purchase from the Adirondack chapter of the Nature Conservancy of sixty-five thousand acres over five years, the largest addition to the Park since 1895.

In all the discussion of the best ways to treat areas within these acquired lands, we shouldn’t lose sight of how historically special this opportunity is. Tens of thousands of acres that have been closed to the public now belong to the people of New York. Natural and scenic wonders like the Essex Chain Lakes, the upper Hudson River, and OK Slip Falls are protected and are accessible. This is worth celebrating.

So too is the APA’s decision to provide strong wilderness protection to key areas. The Explorer and others had called on the agency to adopt what it called Option 1A for classifying the lands. This option balanced wilderness protection with reasonable access for hikers and paddlers. Although the final classification differs from 1A, it maintains that balance.

Around the Essex Chain, the agency classified lands as Primitive rather than the Wilderness described in Option 1A. The Primitive classification, though, calls for the area to be managed as Wilderness. Motorboats will not be allowed on the waters of the Essex Chain. Though floatplanes will be able to continue landing on First Lake and Pine Lake they will not have access to the rest of the Essex Chain. Visitors will not be able to drive all the way to the lakes, protecting their natural, secluded character, and environmentally sensitive ecosystems. The APA chose Primitive largely because the floatplane traffic diminishes the sense of remoteness. But the reality is that Primitive is just as protective as Wilderness here.

Reasonable access is ensured by the designation of lands north of the Essex Chain as Wild Forest. That classification does permit motor vehicles to come close enough to give visitors a reasonable approach to the lakes. Hikers and paddlers bound for the Essex Chain can use a parking area three quarters of a mile to the north.

The APA approved a Wilderness classification along the Hudson River corridor, and here, too, the juxtaposition of Wilderness and Wild Forest balances protection and access. Paddlers exploring the reach of the Hudson south from Newcomb will have their choice of two takeouts. One requires a carry of 0.8 miles and the other 1.0 mile to parking areas. Again, the parking is far enough away to preserve the wild character of this beautiful waterway but close enough to be within many people’s range. The carries are not unreasonable obstacles.

Under this proposal the OK Slip Falls Tract, which includes the tallest waterfall in the Park and the visually striking and ecologically important Blue Ledge, will become a Wilderness Area that also encompasses the existing Hudson Gorge Primitive Area. This classification was never really in doubt, but it is nonetheless significant. Giving this tract the highest level of protection will ensure that it remains one of the Park’s truly special places.

Unfortunately, the APA decision gerrymanders the map to allow for a community-connector snowmobile trail through the heart of the region. It will create a Wild Forest corridor a tenth of a mile wide to allow for a snowmobile trail over one of two routes. The preferred route runs north-south between the Essex Chain Lakes Primitive Area on the west and the Hudson Gorge Wilderness Area on the east.

This would require building a hundred-foot-long bridge over the Cedar River, which is protected as a state Scenic River. It would also pass within a half-mile of the Hudson, which is protected as a Wild River in this section. Accommodating this trail will require amending the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan and possibly regulations under the Wild, Scenic, and Recreational Rivers Act.

This would be the second snowmobile trail between Indian Lake on the south and Newcomb on the north. An existing trail already links those communities through easement lands to the west of the newly acquired tracts. Proponents also hope to link this new trail with an additional snowmobile route to be cut to Minerva on the east.

So what is envisioned is an expanding network of snowmobile thoroughfares. Such snowmobile routes seem to have taken on such importance that the agency is willing to tinker with existing protections of important waterways to make them possible. This is an unfortunate departure from the earlier state policy to route snowmobiles on the periphery of wild areas, along highways, and to keep them small, similar to hiking trails. It’s a trend that will have ramifications around the Park.

That said, the north-south route that the APA prefers does have features that mitigate its impact. It will largely use existing backwoods roads, minimizing the need to clear trees or undertake damaging leveling and smoothing of the surface. And much of the route passes through a narrow valley so the snowmobile traffic, fast and loud and smelly as it may be, will likely be undetectable to visitors to the Essex Chain or banks of the Hudson.

In managing Forest Preserve, “natural resource protection should be paramount” according to the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan. Then it goes on to say: “Human use and enjoyment of those lands should be permitted and encouraged.” It’s not easy to balance those two themes. The APA deserves congratulations for how well it has done that here.

—Tom Woodman, Publisher

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