By Gwendolyn Craig
Campfires are now allowed at 11 primitive camp sites in the Essex Chain Lakes, and a new equestrian staging area and expanded parking will be installed at the old Outer Gooley Club.
The measures were passed as part of an amendment to the Essex Chain Lakes Unit Management Plan during the Adirondack Park Agency’s December meeting on Thursday. The plan, which is intended to outline natural resource preservation and recreational opportunities, originally included a campfire ban within 500 feet of the lakes.
One board member, Chad Dawson, was against the amendment and brought into question whether state Department of Environmental Conservation and APA leadership were putting recreation over natural resource protection. Later in the meeting, Dawson resigned from the board.
APA and DEC decided to remove the prohibition, citing a lack of use of the campsites. A couple of public comments submitted to the agencies suggested people would be more apt to visit the Essex Chain Lakes if they could have campfires. Other commenters said campfires hurt the environment, and the agencies should not weaken natural resource protections there.
The DEC has said it will build durable rock fire rings at the primitive tent sites and provide Leave No Trace messaging in the area. DEC will also monitor the use of the sites and in 2024 report back to the APA on its preliminary findings, said Walter Linck, of the APA. If there are issues with the campfires, the state could reinstate the ban.
Linck said there is evidence that campfires have a negative impact to the environment, and he has seen the impact personally. Based on the fact that DEC has said it will monitor the area and head off any negative occurrences, Linck said APA staff can recommend the rescinding of the campfire prohibition.
APA board member John Ernst said DEC’s review and report back to the board about how campfires were doing in the area was “hugely important.”
Dawson questioned why the DEC and APA would want to reduce regulations when research shows campfires have negative impacts.
“I don’t see any data that substantiates why this protection should be removed,” Dawson said. “I see a smokescreen for releasing the regulations, not wanting to uphold the regulations that are there. Monitoring isn’t designed to try and go out and prove something that’s already been proved.”
Dawson compared allowing campfires to scientists conducting more research on whether smoking causes lung cancer.
APA board member Art Lussi said DEC and APA have provided evidence that the Essex Chain Lakes area is getting minimal recreational use.
Dawson said that increasing recreation is not the board’s first priority, but rather to protect natural resources.
Lussi said, “I would argue by creating more opportunities for use could take away use from other parts of the park, therefore we’re doing a service to the park by offering alternatives.”
Joe Zalewski, DEC acting Region 5 director, said the state doesn’t have a campfire prohibition in the Adirondacks except for in the eastern High Peaks. For consistency’s sake, Zalewski said, it was worth removing the campfire ban in the Essex Chain Lakes.
“At any time, if there are observed impacts, the restriction can be reinstituted,” Zalewski added.
APA board member Zoe Smith asked what the threshold looks like to reinstitute the campfire prohibition. She also asked how DEC proposed to monitor and manage invasive species, considering some invasive species travel through firewood.
Linck said guidance was being developed.
The equestrian staging area will also help connect horseback riding from the northern end of the Essex Chain Lakes to the southern end. DEC will build an accessible outhouse, accessible horse mounting platform and hitching posts and rails for people to tether their horses. There will also be some informational kiosks.
That measure was not discussed in great detail at Thursday’s meeting.
The Adirondack Park Agency passed both changes, with Dawson opposed.