DEC is criticized for avoiding snowmobile-trail issues in draft document.
By Phil Brown
The state Department of Environmental Conservation has withdrawn a draft management plan for new state lands known as the Essex Chain Lakes Complex in the face of criticism that it failed to discuss the route of a controversial snowmobile trail.
The decision to address the snowmobile issue in a new draft plan won praise from both environmental activists and snowmobile enthusiasts.
“It’s important that all the issues of the Essex Chain are dealt with at one time, so the public has an opportunity to debate them all,” said Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club.
Last December, the Adirondack Park Agency voted in favor of establishing a snowmobile trail in the Essex Chain region, but it left the exact route up in the air, owing to legal and environmental questions. Under the preferred option, the route would head south from Newcomb, cross the Cedar River on a new bridge, and continue south to Indian Lake on a logging road. Under an alternative scenario, the trail would turn west at the Cedar and eventually join another snowmobile trail on the western boundary of the complex.
When DEC issued a draft management plan in June, the department said it would make a decision on the snowmobile trail sometime in the future—even though it was proposing to build an equestrian bridge over the Cedar that would have been sturdy enough to accommodate snowmobiles. At the time, critics felt the department was not being upfront about its plans.
“DEC is being devious. This is a classic bait-and switch,” said Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, which opposes allowing snowmobiles into the area.
Fred Monroe, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, also said he thought DEC was disingenuous. “It’s better to be straightforward and see who salutes and who takes potshots,” said Monroe, a snowmobiling proponent.
In early August, DEC announced that it would withdraw the draft plan “to fully assess the options for locating a snowmobile trail.” The department expects to issue a revised draft plan in late fall, perhaps in November.
Environmentalists and state officials agree that routing the trail over the Cedar River would be the less environmentally intrusive option. That’s because the trail would follow existing logging roads. However, this option raises several legal issues relating to the state Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act:
■ It would necessitate building a bridge over the river. The Cedar is classified as a Scenic River, and DEC regulations forbid the construction of a bridge for motorized use over a Scenic River.
■ Part of the snowmobile route would lie within the river corridor, and DEC regulations forbid the operation of motor vehicles within a Scenic River corridor.
■ South of the Cedar, part of the snowmobile route would lie within the corridor of the Hudson River, which is there classified as Wild. The rivers act does not allow motorized use within a Wild River corridor.
Woodworth, who is a lawyer, contends that DEC will have to either amend the rivers act and its regulations or make the claim that the bridge and motor vehicles are permitted by virtue of public use that predated the rivers act. In its original draft management plan, DEC made such a claim for the logging road south of the Cedar to justify its decision to allow visitors to drive up the road as far as the Outer Gooley Club, an abandoned hunting lodge.
Woodworth is skeptical of this claim. When the land was owned by the Finch, Pruyn & Company paper company, he said, “you and I couldn’t drive up to the Cedar River in our cars.” To the contrary, he said, “as far as we know it was locked up tighter than a drum.”
In an interview in July, DEC Commissioner Joe Martens said the department can document pre-existing public use of the road south of the Cedar. “It had been open to the public at different periods of time,” he said.
The alternative snowmobile route raises questions of its own. Though it wouldn’t cross the Cedar, part of the trail would lie within the river corridor. Not all of this route would follow logging roads. Consequently, it would require cutting trees and disturbing wetlands.
Environmentalists had opposed putting in any snowmobile trail, but local officials pushed hard for a route that would connect the hamlets of Indian Lake and Newcomb. The preferred trail would run between the Essex Chain Lakes Primitive Area and the Hudson Gorge Wilderness, two large tracts where motorized use is generally prohibited. Both were designated by the APA board at its December meeting.
“In order to get the motorless areas, we were willing to compromise,” said John Sheehan, spokesman for the Adirondack Council.
The Essex Chain Lakes Complex encompasses the Essex Chain Lakes Primitive Area, the snowmobile corridor, and parts of the Blue Mountain Wild Forest. The Hudson Gorge Wilderness will have its own management plan.
Environmentalists raised concerns about several other proposals in the draft management plan.
When it classified the newly acquired lands, the APA supported DEC’s proposal to allow floatplanes on Pine Lake and First Lake (the latter is part of the Essex Chain). In the draft management plan, DEC later proposed to reserve two campsites on First Lake and one on Pine Lake for floatplane clients.
“You’re basically giving a small group of private commercial businesses exclusive use of Forest Preserve campsites. These are choice spots,” Woodworth said. “I think that’s a bad precedent.”
Martens defended the proposal. “A few campsites out of twenty-two does not seem like an unreasonable accommodation for an important part of the Adirondack economy,” he said.
Bauer said the Pine Lake campsite is in the Cedar River corridor. “Why would DEC place a motorized-access campsite within the Scenic River corridor where motors are prohibited?” he asked.
To reach the Essex Chain Lakes, most paddlers will have to portage about a quarter-mile to Deer Pond, paddle across the pond, and then portage a half-mile to Third Lake. Disabled visitors will be allowed to access the chain by driving all the way to Fifth Lake. No one is objecting to that, but DEC’s plan to allow a small number of non-disabled users to drive most of the way to Fifth Lake has met with criticism.
Under this proposal, DEC would create a parking area for four vehicles a quarter-mile from the lake. Permits for parking there would be issued on a first-come, first served basis.
Anyone can obtain a permit, but Martens said the aim is to make it easier for the elderly and frail to reach the chain. Though such people may not be disabled per se, they may have a hard time carrying their canoes the full distance. “There is a fine line between the disabled and the elderly,” Martens remarked.
Bauer and Woodworth worry that the “enhanced access” will detract from the wildness of the lakes. “It violates the spirit of a motorless Essex Chain,” Bauer remarked.
Bauer and David Gibson of Adirondack Wild criticized DEC for creating campsites on the Essex Chain before soliciting public input and adopting a management plan. One fear is that the sites will turn out to be less than ideal. Bauer said it would have been smarter to manage the Essex Chain as a day-use area for the time being. “They’re rushing the process, and we don’t see why,” he said.
The department created the campsites under an interim recreation plan, which it says was designed to preserve natural resources while allowing public access. “We wanted to establish the ground rules so we can protect a very special place,” Martens said.
Motorized access for hunters
During big-game season, DEC would allow hunters to drive deeper into the tract on two roads than would be permitted in other times of the year. The idea is to make it easier for them to reach hunting grounds and remove carcasses.
Woodworth feels this detracts from the wild character of the area. “We bargained hard for a Primitive Area that is to be managed as Wilderness,” he said. (Motor vehicles are not allowed in Wilderness Areas and are generally prohibited in Primitive Areas.)
Walt Paul, a land-use specialist for the New York State Conservation Council, takes the opposite point of view. “Overall the people who hunt and fish just don’t think there are enough roads open,” he said. “We were hoping for more to be open seasonally.”
Paul also complained about DEC’s ban on campfires in the Essex Chain Primitive Area. Not only are campfires a cherished part of the outdoors experience, he said, “those fires help to keep the bugs away.”
Some work is done
Although the state Department of Environmental Conservation has yet to adopt a management plan for the Essex Chain Lakes Complex, it has completed a number of projects in the region.
Camping: The department has designated thirteen tent sites on the Essex Chain and two nearby ponds. Free permits for these waterfront sites must be obtained from the Adirondack Interpretive Center in Newcomb. DEC has designated a number of other tent sites in the region; these do not require a permit. Camping in the Essex Chain Lakes Primitive Area and the Pine Lake Primitive Area is allowed only on designated sites.
Canoe carries: The department has marked canoe carries from Deer Pond to Third Lake, from Second Lake to First Lake, and from First Lake to Grassy Pond.
Parking: Parking areas have been established near Deer Pond, near the Outer Gooley Club, and near the Blackwell Stillwater on the Hudson River. The department also as created a parking area for horse trailers on North Chain Lakes Road.