End piecemeal management

By Tom Woodman

A “Backcountry” land classification would accommodate bicycles.

The Adirondack Park is a vast area, and proper stewardship of its sensitive and interconnected regions—from High Peaks to wild rivers to boreal wetlands—requires us to think and act on a landscape scale.

If regulators approach important Park management questions on a piecemeal, case-by-case basis, they abandon the broad perspective and bedrock principles that should govern their actions. Instead, they favor opportunism and convenience.

Sadly, shortsighted maneuvering by state officials has too often taken the place of big-picture wisdom in recent years. As a result the legal protections created to preserve the Park for future generations have been weakened.

The Adirondack Park Agency and the state Department of Environmental Conservation have answered questions about fundamental principles with ad-hoc work-arounds and localized tinkering. From preserving mountaintop fire towers to routing snowmobile trails to expanding backcountry mountain biking, they have improvised solutions rather than address them through such legal frameworks as the Adirondack State Land Master Plan, the state Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers System Act, and the APA’s snowmobile guidance.

This criticism may sound like quibbling over process, but the trend has dangerous implications. When regulators contrive an ad-hoc rule to get around what they see as inconvenient legal obstructions, there can be damaging consequences.

They may create a precedent that resurfaces to undermine future decisions. When, for instance, the APA approved a new snowmobile trail through the Essex Chain Lakes Complex, it improperly allowed motorized use of a bridge over the Hudson where it is classified as a Scenic River. That decision relied on an incorrect theory that past timber-company and hunting-club use of the bridge made the snowmobile use legal. That could now have the weight of precedent in future management questions.

Such maneuvers also foster a legal environment in which policy-makers look less to their legal responsibilities and more to what’s in political favor at the moment. The biggest danger of this opportunism may not be that it creates bad precedents. It could do away with the idea of precedent altogether. If any question can be considered in isolation on a case-by-case basis, then we lose the consistent principles that should endure from one political moment to the next.

Examples of state work-arounds include:

• Designation of one-acre Historic Areas on the summits of Hurricane and St. Regis Mountains in order to keep abandoned fire towers that would have to be removed if they were within Wilderness.
• Creation of Wild Forest corridors between or through Wilderness and Primitive areas to allow for more snowmobile use or bicycles (as between West Canada Lake Wilderness and Little Moose Wilderness.)
• Approval of a wide community-connector snowmobile trail from Indian Lake to Newcomb that circumvents the Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers System Act and the APA’s snowmobile guidance.

In some cases this political expediency allows uses that are otherwise acceptable ideas. Expanded mountain biking, for instance, is a promising non-motorized activity that could introduce more people to wild areas and benefit the economies of local communities. And the fire towers are, in themselves, no great affront to the wilderness around them. But the way to accomplish these goals is by respecting the State Land Master Plan and other laws. If the legislation blocks a desirable activity, take the time for a deliberate and inclusive effort to amend the law.

For instance, a number of thoughtful commentators have proposed a new land classification under the State Land Master Plan. This classification—writer and publisher Bill Ingersoll calls it “Backcountry”—would be less restrictive than Wilderness but more so than Wild Forest. It could permit the use of bicycles, for example.

Such a classification would be better than allowing bicycles on Wilderness and Primitive Areas park-wide and far better than opening such areas to bicycles on a scattered, case-by-case basis. Creating this classification would give the state the opportunity to draft guidelines on how to route bike trails to avoid environmental damage and conflict with hikers. And it would preserve the integrity of the State Land Master Plan.

The new classification would require a more significant amendment to the master plan than we have seen before. It no doubt would—and should—generate spirited discussion. Creating it would be a more cumbersome and unruly process than a-wink-and-a-nod ad-hoc change. The hard work would entail both drafting a good definition of the Backcountry classification and identifying lands to place within it. But principled, long-lasting policy does take time and effort.

The legal foundation for preservation is deep and strong. It includes the New York State Constitution, the federal Wilderness Act, and the Adirondack State Land Master Plan. These are weighty documents that embody some of the country’s best thinking on the subject and that came to life through vigorous public discussion and political evolution. And they are not dead documents. They can be updated and amended from time to time. But they must not be casually tossed aside in favor of political expedience.

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