Access question could be decided Thursday
By Gwendolyn Craig
The Adirondack Park Agency must interpret a cap on road miles in wild forest lands, and whether routes only accessible to people with disabilities should be included in the count.
The board’s decision, which could come as early as Thursday, will have significant consequences across the 6-million-acre patchwork of public and private lands. Some interpretations could lead to road closures on existing and future state lands in some of the state’s most rural communities. Other interpretations could weaken natural resource protections in a park famed for its wildness.
The questions have loomed over board members since the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan was created in 1972. That is the leading policy document for the agency charged with long-range planning and reviewing development on private and public lands.
The current APA board has been debating the issue since last May. The board’s Thursday agenda suggests the agency could make a decision, but it was unclear if a heavy dose of public comments on the matter may lead to further delay.
The principal author of the State Land Master Plan, Peter Paine Jr., and the APA’s first counsel, William Kissel, were among hundreds of commenters to weigh in. In a joint letter the two Adirondack Park law originators said the agency must include roads accessible to people with disabilities in its mileage count. Such roadways represent a material increase as they “clearly meet the definition of the term road as set forth in the State Land Master Plan.”
Additional comments show the deep divide between those who want to protect wilderness and those who want to promote access.
Jerry Delaney, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, had warned APA board members last year that “this is going to be one of those cases where nobody is happy.”
The policy cliffhanger stems from a passage in the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan called Wild Forest Guideline No. 4. It states: “Public use of motor vehicles will not be encouraged and there will not be any material increase in the mileage of roads and snowmobile trails open to motorized use by the public in wild forest areas that conformed to the master plan at the time of its original adoption in 1972.”
Wild forest is a zoning classification in the Adirondacks that discourages public use of motor vehicles. The APA must determine:
- How many miles of wild forest roads existed in 1972 and today?
- Do roads accessible to people with disabilities, but not to the general public, count as roads?
- What constitutes a material increase?
The roads accessible to people with disabilities are called CP3 routes, short for Commissioner’s Policy No. 3. That policy came about after a July 2001 settlement in the matter of Theodore Galusha vs. the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Galusha, of Warrensburg, sued the state under the Americans with Disabilities Act. As a result, the DEC was required to open about 26 miles of forest preserve trails to people with disabilities. Those miles are called Galusha CP3 routes, but the DEC and APA have approved other CP3 routes beyond what was required in the settlement.
APA board members have estimated about 211.6 miles of roads existed in 1972. Today, not including CP3 routes, there are about 206.6 miles of wild forest roads. If CP3 routes are included, there would be 244.7 miles of wild forest roads today. That’s an over 15% increase in wild forest roads since 1972.
APA staff have outlined four potential interpretations of “material increase.”.
- A 15% increase in road mileage would be allowed, consistent with the APA’s policy on snowmobile trails.
- The board would set an increase greater than 15%.
- The board would set an increase less than 15%.
- The board would allow for five additional miles of wild forest roads to reach the historical number of 211.6 in 1972, and not include CP3 routes in the count. Once the five miles is reached, the state would assess the impact of every road on an individual basis should the state acquire more land.
During the March meeting, APA Chairman John Ernst signaled he was leaning toward the 15% increase to align with the agency’s snowmobile trail policy.
Public weighs in
While Paine and Kissel did not say what option they thought the APA should choose, they rejected its fourth option, as it implicitly does not include CP3 routes.
Other past APA leaders and staff submitted opinions, including former counsel Barbara Rottier and former natural resource planner Walter Linck. Rottier said the language in the master plan is clear that CP3 routes meet the definition of roads, and “any other legal interpretation belittles” the APA’s rules and laws.
“The miles of roads are to be minimized, not expanded,” she wrote. “These are serious concerns, and the Agency has special authority and responsibility to protect the Wild Forest as WILD for us and future generations. Please do not forget that responsibility.”
Unlike the writers of the master plan, Delaney believed the APA’s fourth option that does not consider CP3 routes as roads “is the appropriate choice.” Attorney Mark Schachner, who represents the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board and the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages, hinted that the APA’s decision could trigger litigation.
“(W)e respectfully suggest that an Agency decision to include CP3 roads in the mileage calculation would be legally fraught with peril; more so than deciding not to include them,” Schachner wrote. “While the latter certainly might be challenged, we believe that such a challenge would be far less likely to succeed than a challenge brought to (an) Agency decision to include them and, if we can agree that the issue is not crystal clear, which way should the Agency ‘roll the dice’? We respectfully suggest that it should do so in the manner that is most protective of access.”
- COMMENTARY: From Jerry Delaney: Wild Forest Roads Decision Calls For Common Sense, Not Arbitrary Number
Jeannette Barrett, mayor of the village of Speculator and Brian Wells, town supervisor of Indian Lake, showed their disdain for policies that restricted road access. Barrett called the master plan “draconian,” “outdated and discriminatory.” Barrett and Wells said if they must pick, they would choose a material increase of more than 15% and to not include CP3 routes.
“It is shameful for any non-profit to attempt to use an outdated, self-serving political and social feudalism document to discriminate against people who only want access to land that their taxes helped purchase and maintain,” Wells wrote.
The APA and DEC have an accessibility advisory committee that includes people with mobility disabilities. Members wrote that the APA should not include CP3 routes in its count and called for “increasing access for all in public spaces.”
One committee member, Lisa Genier was an outlier. She wrote her own letter containing the opposite sentiment. Genier, who is also a program analyst for the Adirondack Council, said accessibility is important to her, especially as someone with impaired mobility. But, she wrote, the APA should count CP3 routes among the wild forest roads. It’s a straightforward reading of the law, she said, and to not include them would create “a fatal loophole…leaving the efficacy of this standard to the whims of current and future Commissioner Policies.”
“Let there be no illusions – the APA board does not face a false choice between promoting accessibility for people with disabilities and protecting the natural resources of the Adirondack Park,” Genier continued. “The hard truth is that roads have a dramatic environmental impact.”
She said she is unable to access many places in the Adirondacks “but I value that those precious lands and waters are well-preserved for the benefit of all.”
Environmental groups echoed Genier’s comments. The Adirondack Council, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, Protect the Adirondacks and Adirondack Wilderness Advocates all said CP3 routes are roads by definition. They believe a 15% or more increase would be material. Some pointed out that if inflation were to rise 15%, or one were to get a 15% raise, the increase would be considered material.
The APA responded to most of the comments in a 34-paged summary. Most of the agency’s answers said comments were noted. APA said “an interpretation of this guideline will not result in any immediate road closures,” but access could be shut down in the future. Any closures would go through the unit management planning process. Those are specific plans outlining the natural and physical resources in a certain area of the park, and any management or development projects DEC envisions there.