As the state continues its phased-in acquisition of former Finch, Pruyn & Company timberland, much attention is on how the state classifies and manages different tracts of land. In choosing what lands will be classified Wilderness, Wild Forest, or Primitive Areas, the Adirondack Park Agency shapes the character of the Park.
Clearly, these are key steps in the state’s management of public lands in the Adirondacks. But the state’s responsibility doesn’t end there. If the acquisition and classification of lands are to fully benefit the Park, the APA and the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) must effectively enforce the terms of the classifications. If they fall short in this responsibility we run the risk of seeing exceptional wild lands deteriorate through misuse.
Park advocates have called attention to several areas where the state could do better. Whether it needs to devote more money and resources to the effort, demonstrate a stronger will to enforce the rules, or update the rules that guide its efforts, New York needs to improve.
Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, writing on the Adirondack Almanack website, laid out two egregious examples of where DEC has not enforced its own policy, resulting in ugly damage to Wilderness Areas.
In one, the Crane Pond Road in the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness has remained illegally open. The two-mile road should have been closed to motorized traffic following its addition to the Wilderness Area in 1987, and in 1989 DEC ordered it closed. That order was followed by protests from those who wanted the road to remain open to vehicles. Court challenges affirmed the state’s right to close the road. Yet DEC has not insisted on closure, and car and truck traffic continues, in some areas causing serious erosion and in others promoting car camping, neither of which belongs in a Wilderness Area.
In a similar example, Bauer documents that the West River Road continues to be used by motor vehicles for a three-quarter-mile stretch within the Silver Lake Wilderness. Though previously used as a legal roadway to a private inholding, that inholding no longer exists. The APA approved a management plan for the Wilderness Area in 2006 that recognizes that stretch of road no longer complies with the State Land Master Plan. Motorized traffic, including all-terrain vehicles, which state policy prohibits within the Forest Preserve, continues to detract from the wilderness character of this area.
Controlling ATV use is another area in which the state needs to improve its management of the Forest Preserve. State policy bars ATVs from the Preserve, but illegal trespassing continues in various regions of the Park. This presents both an enforcement and a regulatory challenge. The machines can cause serious damage to natural environments that they invade. Under current policy DEC has the authority to take legal action against the motorized trespassers. But even in areas where ATV trespass is a known issue, it’s difficult for an understaffed DEC to maintain the presence needed to prosecute and deter riders. Albany needs to commit to DEC staffing levels that are adequate to protect the Park.
There is a further problem with the fact that the ATV ban is in the form of a department policy. It would provide much stronger protection into the future if it wereadded to the State Land Master Plan. The SLMP is a legal document that governs management of public park lands, and it is far less susceptible to political changes than a department policy. The APA has opened discussion of possible revisions to the SLMP, and this should be one of them.
Another way in which the APA could strengthen the SLMP is in its treatment of conservation easements. Easements have become an important tool as the state works to preserve open space and protect wildlife and natural habitats while continuing to allow the lands to remain working forests, usually as timberland or farmland. Under this program, the state buys the development rights of property that remains in private ownership, and it makes payments toward local property taxes. In return, the public is assured that natural resources will be protected in perpetuity.
This excellent program has been so successful that about eight hundred thousand acres of Adirondack lands, roughly 13 percent of the Park, have been placed under easement. Thus, large tracts remain in traditional Adirondack use, providing jobs and investment opportunity while helping to preserve the Park’s natural character and in many cases offering the public rich recreational opportunities. (Information about easement lands in the Adirondacks may be found at www.dec.ny.gov.)
As the principle document guiding state management of public lands, the SLMP should recognize the key role that easement lands now play. It should catalog existing agreements and provide guidance as the state develops management plans or acquires new easements. By addressing both state-owned and easement lands, the SLMP would be the comprehensive roadmap for managing the public’s interest in Park lands that it was designed to be.
The creation and protection of the Adirondack Park have been inspirational examples of the public’s desire to preserve vital natural areas in the face of continuing threats to their existence. If we are to remain true to this vision for coming generations, the state must provide the resources and will to see that year in and year out management performance lives up to the spirit of this creation.
Tom Woodman, Publisher