When New York State last year began its historic purchase of sixty-five thousand acres of former Finch, Pruyn lands for the Adirondack Forest Preserve it posed a challenge to itself. How should it classify and manage the land, balancing protection of the natural environment with providing people access to this incomparable resource?
The Adirondack Park Agency has begun the process of classifying the new Preserve lands and may reach a decision by early fall on the 21,200 acres purchased so far. The classifications will determine how the public may use the land, most notably, how much motorized use will be allowed.
The agency’s staff has presented seven alternatives, one of which is essentially the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s preferred plan. One of these, which the APA is calling by the less-than-poetic name 1A, does the best job of preserving the wild character and environmental riches of the lands while providing reasonable public access. The agency should adopt this plan.
The APA options range from two versions that emphasize protective Wilderness designations to those that rely on the least restrictive Wild Forest classification, including one similar to DEC’s own proposal. That option is called 4B. (One option creating a Canoe Area is essentially the same as 1A, though it gives the state more authority to use motor vehicles to manage fisheries.)
The options cover all the former Finch, Pruyn lands the state purchased in the first phase of a multi-year acquisition plan. They include the region around the Essex Chain Lakes; a corridor on either side of the Hudson River as it flows south from Newcomb to the Hudson Gorge; an area surrounding the confluence of the Hudson and Indian rivers; and a tract near the Hudson Gorge that encompasses OK Slip Falls and Blue Ledge.
The key differences among the plans involve treatment of the Essex Chain Lakes and the Hudson corridor. In all options, the OK Slip tract will be combined with the existing Hudson Gorge Primitive Area to form a new Wilderness Area. This will be an exceptional wild tract, protecting rare vegetation and offering visitors spectacular scenery, including one of the highest waterfalls in the Park.
The strongest environmental protections in the Essex Chain and Hudson tracts are found in the two wilderness proposals. The better option, 1A, creates a Wilderness Area of more than thirty-five thousand acres. No motorboats or floatplanes would be permitted within the Wilderness Area, including on the Essex Chain, and former roads would be closed to motor vehicles and bicycles.
This option creates a smaller Wilderness Area than the other Wilderness choice because it would establish a Wild Forest area just to the north of the Essex Chain. This is an important advantage since it would allow motor vehicles to drive on roads through the Wild Forest close enough to the Wilderness to allow reasonable public access. Hikers and paddlers going to the Essex Chain would walk three quarters of a mile from a parking area in Wild Forest. Paddlers could finish trips on the Hudson at two takeouts and face carries of 0.8 miles and 1.0 mile to parking areas.
These distances are substantial enough to ensure that the waters will be protected from more intensive motorized visits, and the chances of invasive species entering them would be smaller. But at one mile or less, these hikes and carries are within many people’s capabilities and so they don’t present an unreasonable barrier.
The other Wilderness proposal would include virtually all the new state lands in the Wilderness classification. This would push motor-vehicle access farther from the Essex Chain and the Hudson. Hikers, including paddlers carrying canoes, would have to cover significantly longer distances, up to three miles from one takeout. Though this option provides admirable protection of wild lands, it lacks the balance of giving the public reasonable access to the key features within the region.
The DEC plan would classify most of the new purchase (excluding the OK Slip Falls Tract) as Wild Forest. This would keep roads to the interior open to motor vehicles. The plan would allow seasonal floatplane use of Third Lake, something that the Wilderness designations would not allow. The Wild Forest classification would keep open the possibility of motorboat use on the Essex Chain and snowmobile trails in Forest Preserve, though DEC could prohibit both even in Wild Forest. DEC proposes to create a Special Management Area around the Essex Chain Lakes, which could signal an intention to ban motorboats on those waters.
The Wild Forest option sacrifices protection of a special wild area in the name of increased access. By allowing the possibility of motorized traffic through the areas surrounding the Essex Chain and the Hudson River, the option could degrade the natural beauty and endanger the ecological health of sensitive areas, and at the same time ultimately diminish the experience for human visitors.
The 1A Wilderness option protects the natural environment but recognizes the importance of public recreation. Park protection depends on people’s understanding the value of the natural wild, and they can best learn this by experiencing the wonders firsthand. Public use also brings benefits to neighboring communities as tourism centered on outdoor recreation grows.
For these reasons, the APA should adopt the Wilderness option labeled 1A.
—Tom Woodman, Publisher