By Tom Woodman
When Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the state’s purchase of Boreas Ponds and the surrounding land for the Forest Preserve it was an occasion for lofty rhetoric.
“Once in a rare while,” he said, “. . . you get a chance to do something that makes a difference forever. Forever. That literally leaves our children a place that is a better place than we inherited.”
As stirring as those words were, they will sound empty if the state doesn’t rise to the occasion and commit to using these lands in a way that truly preserves their natural wonder for the next generations.
Cuomo also said, “By acquiring this remarkable tract, we are helping to conserve the region’s natural beauty while also creating new economic opportunities for communities in the Park.” This should be a commitment to seek balance, to not spoil this special place with excessive and inappropriate human use. The promise in those words will be hollow, though, if regulators in the name of economic development abandon the wise balance that state law requires.
The Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan requires that human enjoyment of forever-wild Forest Preserve always be secondary:
The protection and preservation of the natural resources of the state lands within the park must be paramount. Human use and enjoyment of those lands should be permitted and encouraged, so long as the resources in their physical and biological context, as well as their social or psychological aspects, are not degraded.
The first critical test of the state’s commitment to these principles comes with the classification of the land by the Adirondack Park Agency. The APA’s decisions about which parts of the twenty-one-thousand-acre Boreas Ponds Tract should be Wilderness and which less-restrictive Wild Forest will set the limits on the kind of uses permitted there. A big question is where, if at all, motorized vehicles should be permitted.
Given the importance of this decision, it is troubling to see the APA falter right at the outset. Instead of presenting a broad range of classification options—and emphasizing Wilderness protection—the agency offered a small number of alternatives, weighted heavily toward Wild Forest.
In October, the APA staff said it would ask the agency to approve three different classification plans to present at public hearings. All three could allow for motorized traffic all the way to Boreas Ponds. None makes protection of the natural resources paramount, and none is acceptable.
Instead of protecting and showcasing the spectacular yet fragile wild character of these special lands, the proposals would create the possibility of discordant and destructive use. They abandon the concept of balancing preservation and public access, instead opening the door to motorized use and superficial safeguards.
To its credit, the agency responded to criticism of this approach by adding a fourth, and far better, option that would increase the amount of the tract that would be protected as Wilderness, including lands around the ponds. Under this proposal the public could be permitted to drive to within a mile of the ponds, near a waterway called LaBier Flow. A Primitive classification (similar to Wilderness) would create a buffer protecting the ponds from overuse and maintaining their wild character.
This fourth option would also limit the options for creating a large “community connector” snowmobile trail to a band of Wild Forest on the southern portion of the tract.
While this fourth alternative was a welcome addition, it does not change the fact that the agency is not giving careful consideration to enough options or presenting the public with a true range of choices.
There is no alternative, for instance, that would make most of the tract Wilderness and close the access road its entire length from where it turns off Blue Ridge Road. That option, in our opinion, would create too great an obstacle to public access to the ponds by forcing paddlers to carry or wheel their boats nearly seven miles each way. But it’s the option that does the most to protect the natural resources and preserve the wild character of the land. It should be discussed in the same depth as the other alternatives and placed before the public for comment.
During agency discussion of the alternatives, APA Commissioner Chad Dawson called for more information about the ramifications of each option, for deeper consideration of what the land might be like in the next generation under each plan, and for an analysis of a full range of options. He stopped short of asking the board members to delay going forward with public hearings on the four alternatives, but that is what they should have done.
Instead, they will bring the plans to hearings over the next month. Though it’s still possible for the APA to consider new options and ask for a new round of hearings, it’s unlikely. This decision effectively narrows the field.
Board Chair Sherman Craig promised that the board will have the opportunity to study these questions in the depth Dawson called for. Better that had happened before approving the options, but it nonetheless should happen now.
If the APA is to retain credibility as a protector of wild nature, and if we are indeed going to leave our children a place that is better than the place we inherited, there must be a wider and deeper discussion of what is the best classification for these lands.