By Gwendolyn Craig
The public will have more time to comment on the state’s proposal to tear down an historic Adirondack camp and put a day-use pavilion area up in its stead.
The Adirondack Park Agency and the state Department of Environmental Conservation provided more details on their visions for the Debar Mountain Complex at the APA’s meeting Thursday. Both are pushing a recreational hub at the complex, though documents also show other alternatives.
DEC and APA are seeking feedback on the complex’s draft unit management plan, which includes these different visions for the area. Those visions also have a draft generic environmental impact statement. And in order for the DEC to do any of that, the APA must weaken land protections on about 41 acres of the complex.
It’s all up for public comment.
The public already had a chance to comment on some of the proposal. DEC and APA have suggested removing Debar Lodge, a 1940s-era Adirondack camp on the shore of Debar Pond. The lodge is on the National Register of Historic Places, and preservationists were full-force against its removal.
Adirondack Architectural Heritage submitted a petition to DEC and APA that in six days garnered over 300 signatures against moving or tearing down the building.
Environmentalists, however, say it has to be removed. The state acquired the lodge and its adjacent structures in 2004, and had already acquired the surrounding forestland. Once the building left private hands, it became a non-compliant structure on forest preserve.
Steve Guglielmi, a forester with the DEC, said the DEC has held off on removing the structure for about 17 years, trying to find a solution. Staff are now recommending removing the building, however, citing vandalism, disrepair and not enough money or viable options for fixing it up and putting it back into private hands.
DEC and APA have suggested keeping up a fireplace and a few other reminders of the historic camp. They would put up signs about the history of the lodge. DEC and APA also want to put up some pavilions, picnic tables and a comfort station. But to do that, it has to have APA reclassify the land from wild forest to intensive use, a weaker zoning classification.
The APA and DEC are collecting comments through Feb. 12, 2021. Prior to that, the agencies will hold two virtual public hearings, one at 1:30 p.m. and one at 6 p.m., both on Tuesday, Jan. 19. To learn more about the virtual hearings go to apa.ny.gov. Comments may be submitted to [email protected] or mailed to NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, Steve Guglielmi, Division of Lands and Forests, PO Box 296, 115 NY-86, Ray Brook, NY 12977.
The state agencies are also promoting the construction of about 53 miles of new trails, of which the Debar Lodge area will be the hub. About 40 miles of those trails could accommodate mountain biking. Guglielmi said a few of the trails would lead to mountain summits, including Baldface and Debar mountains. Many would be on railroad beds. One trail would loop around Debar Pond.
DEC and APA also proposed to close 9 miles of snowmobile trails and add about 3 miles to an existing network.
DEC would construct a new parking area, create better access for persons with disabilities, improve water access and upgrade primitive tent sites. The state would utilize an old airfield the lodge’s previous owner built. Guglielmi said the full buildout of the parking lot could accommodate 40 cars with the potential for bus parking, but the plan is to track visitor use and expand in phases.
There would be an access road to Debar Pond, installed for persons with disabilities, Guglielmi added.
The unit management plan also addresses climate change and invasive species controls, though it does not detail a waterbody carrying capacity, Gugllielmi said.
Rick Weber, APA’s deputy director of planning, said due to the time of year and the complicated nature of the proposals and documents, APA and DEC would hold a 60-day public comment period.
Weber also addressed the large number of comments already submitted to APA against tearing down Debar Lodge.
“It has a lot to do with over 17 years of work on the part of the department to look for an option to retain the building, but up to this point, what has really come out, it’s very difficult to find a workable solution for that,” Weber said.
Land classification issue
Though this vision with the parking, trails and picnic tables was highlighted in a press release, what was not highlighted are alternatives, like removing the lodge and reverting the area back to the wild forest, of which it is already classified.
That became a sore point for some members of the APA board on Thursday, when the plan was first presented. Reverting the area back to wild forest was the preferred alternative to APA Board Member Chad Dawson, who later submitted his resignation.
Dawson said he would like to see compelling data as to why the APA should move to a lower level of land protection.
“What’s the justification?” Dawson asked. “Please don’t tell me because people would enjoy it, because that is not the point.”
Rob Daley, a forester with DEC, pointed to how it had been about 17 years since the department acquired the lodge. In that time, the DEC has received a number of comments about the area. Many people, Daley said, want to use the complex.
“I understand people want things and the department may want things, but I don’t think that’s a compelling argument,” Dawson said. “It’s not an adequate justification for an agency and department whose first job is to protect the resources for present and future generations.”
The back-and-forth between Dawson and DEC staff continued. Then Matt McNamara, a planner with APA, told Dawson he appreciated him bringing the classification question up.
“There are not a lot of places in the Adirondacks that combine both the extremely good access, very easy accessibility with the absolutely remarkable scenic resource and setting. This place has both,” McNamara said. “There’s a real risk for damage to the structures that we don’t want to see. Vandalism and that kind of thing. It’s a very accessible site.”
It’s not clear what buildings McNamara was referring to, since the proposal involves removing all the buildings and putting up new pavilions.
McNamara apologized for not having specific numbers on visitation, though the unit management plan includes an estimate of 1,000 people visiting per year.
Dawson said he was disturbed by the “summary dismissal” of removing the lodge and reverting the area back to wild forest. Dawson pointed to how Debar Pond is home to a native species of brook trout. Inviting more people in could threaten them, something that the DEC has already seen happen in other waterbodies in the Adirondacks.
John Ernst, an APA board member, asked about boat wash stations in the area. Guglielmi said trailered launching will be prohibited in the complex, and trailered boats are usually the ones most apt to carry invasive species.
There could still be interpretive trails, Dawson said. He was not against allowing the public on the property, but against turning it into a recreational hub.
“The idea that the wild forest alternative is not fully developed biases the public,” Dawson said. “I don’t feel that’s a fair presentation.”
Zoe Smith, an APA board member, said she agreed. Smith said some of the alternatives raised in the draft unit management plan aren’t fully explored enough for the public to be able to comment.
“I didn’t see the rationale for these major improvements either,” Smith said, “especially with Buck Pond and Meacham so close by.”
Smith also felt DEC and APA did not include enough information about retaining Debar Lodge on the property.
“Relocating the lodge wasn’t fully described,” Smith said. “It doesn’t seem like this alternative (the day-use proposal) satisfies anyone, so again, I would just urge before this goes out, to explore some of the alternatives.”
Ernst said that in terms of the lodge, he felt the DEC had taken a fair amount of time to explore alternatives.
Weber added that the day-use proposal was drafted in phases on purpose in order to “see how the site does respond to it, not overdevelop the site and monitor how people use it.”
“With great respect to what member Dawson is saying here about the bias and the level of development and rationale, I would suggest that I believe there is enough to understand a range of proposals to go out for comment with the spirit of coming back and responding meaningfully,” Weber said.
Art Lussi, an APA board member, said he though DEC’s plan was “very thoughtful and well managed.” He called the circular trails up the mountains a “brilliant idea.” Making the Debar Mountain Complex a recreational hub could also help alleviate crowds in the High Peaks and elsewhere, Lussi said.
Gerald Delaney Sr., executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, said Debar Lodge is an important piece of the community’s history. Delaney said the town of Duane particularly feels left out of the conversation.
Joe Zalewski, acting DEC Region 5 director, said “if there are existing alternatives that haven’t been fully explored or new alternatives that haven’t been considered, that’s the kind of feedback we’re looking for.”
The APA board passed the resolution moving the environmental impact statement, draft unit management plan and land reclassification proposal to public comment. Smith and Dawson were opposed.