You haven’t heard the last of Lows Lake controversy—at least not from me.
Unfortunately, I missed the discussion that preceded last week’s vote by the Adirondack Park Agency on the proposed classification of the lake. (The APA changed its schedule at the last minute, so I arrived after the vote).
As you may recall from my earlier post, the agency commissioners voted 7-4 to reverse a decision in September to classify the lake as Wilderness or Primitive. The reason the classification proposal failed last week is that the three designees representing state agencies—namely, the departments of environmental conservation, economic development, and state—changed their votes.
Since the Department of Environmental Conservation had been one of the authors of the proposal—and it’s the agency responsible for protecting the Park’s natural resources—I was most curious about its change of heart.
After Friday’s meeting, I called DEC’s regional office for an explanation and was referred to the department’s public-relations staff in Albany. I was told by a spokeswoman in Albany that the department would not comment beyond what DEC’s representative, Betsy Lowe, said at the meeting.
Today I got a chance to listen to Lowe’s explanation as the APA has posted awebcast of the meeting.
But first a little background. The proposal would have designated the eastern third of the lake Primitive and the rest Wilderness. Both classifications prohibit the use of motors. The proposal also called for classifying or reclassifying much of the land around Lows, again either Wilderness or Primitive.
The Local Government Review Board, which monitors the APA, had opposed attaching any land classification to Lows Lake. Most of the land around Lows is in the public Forest Preserve, but there are private holdings along the shore as well. The board argued that classifying Lows would set a precedent that would give the APA jurisdiction over other lakes with private land. The board did not object to classifying the state lands abutting the lake.
At Friday’s meeting, William Thomas, a former Johnsburg supervisor, introduced an amendment to remove the lake classification from the proposal.
APA Chairman Curt Stiles told me later that he had not known that Thomas planned to introduce this amendment. In contrast, it seems likely that Lowe did know that the amendment was coming, because she supported it without hesitation—notwithstanding that it contradicted DEC’s earlier position.
Her first argument in favor of the amendment was that DEC would have a tougher time managing the lake if it were classified Wilderness or Primitive. “The staff would not be able to use small boats to do the administrative work they need to do to take care of the campsites,” she said.
Think about this. DEC has prohibited the public from using motorboats on Lows Lake and will ban floatplanes from the lake after 2011. But it wants its staff to continue to use motorboats on what is supposed to be a wilderness canoe route.
Stiles seized on this point during the APA meeting. “The notion of classifying the water where the underlying bed is owned by the state is appropriate,” he said, “notwithstanding the hardship it may intrude on DEC personnel in terms of having to row instead of taking a motorboat. But when you classify Wilderness, that’s part of the deal, so I don’t consider that to be a legitimate objection.” Nor was this ob jection raised in the many months leading up to Friday’s vote.
In an interview today, Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), was a bit harsher in his criticism. “To throw the whole concept of a wilderness canoe route in jeopardy because DEC wants to use motorboats is a real shock,” he said.
Lowe, who is DEC’s regional director, gave another reason for changing her vote: The community was not comfortable with classifying the lake. “It sounds like there’s a concern that the classification of the bed is somehow precedent-setting,” she said.
Woodworth said he has little doubt that the state-agency designees discussed their move before the meeting and intentionally left Stiles out of the loop. “I think it was an organized effort by the three state agencies to sandbag Curt Stiles,” he said. He added: “As far as the three state agencies that flipped their vote, I think they did so in concert, and I think they did so with the blessing of the governor’s office.”
Lowe’s office referred all questions to Albany. I left a bunch of questions with DEC’s spokesman in Albany but have yet to hear back. I’ll give an update if I do.
Some people wonder what it matters if the lake is classified or not. After all, DEC has already adopted regulations to ban powerboats and planes. Woodworth, however, said regulations can be changed without much trouble. “If the water were classified as Wilderness [or Primitive] it would be much harder for any subsequent political administration to reverse the decision to phase out motorboats and floatplanes,” he said.
Since Lows Lake is part of the Forest Preserve, Woodworth contends that the APA is obligated to give it some kind of land classification. He said DEC’s vote on Friday was a betrayal of previous commitments to support classifying the lake. Asked if ADK will sue the APA, he replied, “I think it’s likely at this point. I’m not saying we’re definitely going to do it.”
Incidentally, the APA voted 6-4 back in September to classify the lake. However, the vote of the designee from the Department of Economic Development (DED) was later deemed invalid because he had already left the department for another state job. Since the proposal required six votes to pass, the APA took up the matter again this month.
Commissioner Cecil Wray, who was absent in September due to illness, voted for the measure last week and noted that if he had been present at the first meeting, the proposal would have mustered six votes even without the DED designee’s support. “I’m feeling very apologetic, because I’m the cause of all these problems,” he said. “I apologize that I was not here in September.”