In managing public lands within the Adirondack Park, the state constitution controls: they must remain forever wild. But in applying this principle to decisions about how to classify and manage particular areas within the Park, the state relies on the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan. This forty-two-year-old document divides the Forest Preserve into different classifications by what can be seen as degrees of wildness. The classifications determine what activities can take place where.
The SLMP, as it’s frequently known, is a critically important document. Its rules determine decisions that shape the very character of the Park, saying for instance where people can use motor vehicles and what kind of structures are permitted. It also articulates the central principles that decision-makers must meet. Here you will find the words:
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.
This is the philosophy that protects the Adirondacks as a unique place of natural vigor and beauty, set apart from other park and recreation lands around the state and, indeed, the nation. This fundamental principle cannot be messed with without diminishing this priceless preserve.
At the same time the SLMP is a dynamic document that needs to evolve in less fundamental ways to keep up with changes (mainly acquisitions) to the Forest Preserve and the way that people use it.
The Adirondack Park Agency has begun the delicate task of considering amendments to the SLMP and has solicited public comment. It is carrying through on a promise to look at changes specifically targeted at the recently acquired and classified Essex Chain Lakes Tract: whether to permit mountain biking in a Primitive Area and whether a bridge in the Forest Preserve must be built completely of natural materials.
As with doctors taking the Hippocratic Oath, the first imperative for the APA is to do no harm. That means not weakening bedrock principles like the central mission of preserving natural resources. The Adirondack Local Government Review Board has proposed an amendment that would give equal weight to economic development. That should be rejected.
The APA has said it will listen to suggestions for amendments beyond the subjects it has put on the table. And it has received a slew of them. They include constructive ones, like a ban on all-terrain vehicles in the Forest Preserve, and unwise ones aimed at relaxing restrictions on motorized recreation. This editorial will focus on the APA’s original proposals, which should be the agency’s first order of business.
As the APA considers changes to the Essex Chain Lakes Primitive Area it must avoid weakening Park-wide wilderness protections. That is: the APA should approve of mountain-bike use in the Essex Chain due to the unique circumstances there but not open Wilderness Areas to the bikes or allow them in Primitive Areas that could one day become Wilderness.
Wilderness is the most restrictive—the wildest—land classification in the Park and is defined in the SLMP as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” By mechanically enabling people to reach more remote areas more easily, and with their potential for damaging the terrain, mountain bikes are not a fitting use for Wilderness. And there is no need to open Wilderness to them. Wild Forest, a classification that allows for more-intensive recreational use, offers plenty of opportunity to create mountain-bike routes.
In general, Primitive Areas should be seen as “wilderness in waiting.” The SLMP provides for the Primitive classification for regions that almost qualify to be Wilderness but have some condition that doesn’t meet the standards at the time the area is classified. The thought is that a Primitive Area will become Wilderness once the nonconforming condition is eliminated. Thus the SLMP bars mountain bikes in Primitive Areas since those areas should become Wilderness, where bike use is and should be prohibited.
In the case of the Essex Chain, though, the non-conforming use is floatplane access to two lakes. Since this access is included in the agreement by which the state acquired the land, it is very unlikely the Essex Chain Lakes Primitive Area will ever graduate into a Wilderness. The area has terrain and a network of old logging roads that make it a good bike area, and so the APA would be right to allow them.
The APA should not extend this approval to Primitive Areas elsewhere. But it should draft language defining what conditions are appropriate for mountain-bike trails. This would give the Department of Environmental Conservation guidance as it considers trails in Wild Forests as well as the Essex Chain. At a minimum such guidelines should set goals of cutting as few trees as possible in trail construction, routing bike trails on firm, dry terrain that can withstand such use, and locating trails to avoid conflict between cyclists and hikers.
In addition to the biking provision, the APA’s second possible amendment would allow the use of non-natural materials in bridges in Wilderness and Primitive Areas. In the Essex Chain, this would enable construction of a snowmobile bridge over the Cedar River. The compromise that led to most of the tract being set aside as motorless Primitive Area called for this snowmobile trail. But the proposed bridge is too long to be built of natural materials alone.
Though the snowmobile trail is an unfortunate feature of the compromise, the agreement made it possible to keep much of the area around the Essex Chain motor-free. This amendment follows through on the compromise and deserves support. And in this case, the agency should apply the change Park-wide, provided the language provides guidelines based on environmental and aesthetic concerns. Proponents of this amendment, including the Adirondack Mountain Club, say non-natural materials allow construction that’s less intrusive and more affordable than all-natural construction. Changing the letter of the rules would preserve the spirit of minimizing the impact of human activity.
Tom Woodman, Publisher