By Brian Mann
AS THE ADIRONDACK PARK AGENCY prepares this winter to decide whether a giant resort development proposed for Tupper Lake can go forward, the commission will have to rule on a central environmental question raised by opponents of the project: would the far-flung network of roads, homes, and amenities cause “undue” damage to the environment by fragmenting the forest and damaging key habitat?
“There is ample scientific evidence that different kinds of design would produce less fragmentation,” said Michale Glennon, a researcher with the Wildlife Conservation Society based in Saranac Lake. At APA hearings this summer, Glennon testified that the proposed Adirondack Club and Resort (ACR) would violate agency regulations prohibiting development from having an “undue adverse impact” on Park ecosystems.
But state officials testifying at the hearings—as well as independent experts contacted by the Adirondack Explorer—played down concerns over fragmentation and habitat loss. They contend that the adverse impacts would be mitigated both by the design of the project and by its setting in a relatively wild landscape.
Hal Salwasser, dean of the College of Forestry at Oregon State, one of the country’s top experts on forest ecology, said that because the project site is bordered by Follensby Park, which is owned by the Nature Conservancy, and close to vast tracts of forever-wild Forest Preserve, including the High Peaks Wilderness, large areas of habitat would remain protected from development.
“The presence of the two-hundred-thousand-acre preserve means that the development is a blip on the landscape in a regional scale,” Salwasser said after being contacted by the Explorer. He said the large size of many of the building lots also would mitigate the impacts of fragmentation. He believes many wildlife species would thrive despite the new homes and the increase in human activity.
The developers hope to build the Park’s largest resort—719 single- and multi-family residences—on 6,235 acres near the Big Tupper Ski Area and the Tupper Lake Golf Club. Much of the land has been heavily logged for decades and includes a network of roads and hunting camps. A major complaint of environmentalists is that a substantial number of new homes—including as many as thirty-nine controversial “Great Camp” mansions—would be built on land classified as Resource Management, the APA’s most restrictive zoning designation for private property.
The plan calls for construction of eighty-two homes on Resource Management lands, including the Great Camps, far fewer than the 111 allowed under APA’s zoning regulations. In a final memo about the project, made public in September, agency staff said the developers have agreed to reduce the environmental impacts. The property’s large lots would give room for wildlife to roam, the staff said, and its smaller lots would be carefully chosen and developed. The plan also would restrict tree cutting and establish buffer areas around wetlands.
In all, roughly 1,200 acres—more than a quarter of the Resource Management land—would remain totally undisturbed. In addition, construction of Great Camp mansions and outbuildings would be restricted to a small portion of each lot. Developer Michael Foxman said only 7 percent of the Resource Management land would be developed, including roads and driveways, though APA staffers put the figure at 18 percent.
Despite those measures, environmental groups contend that the plan falls far short of the best conservation-design practices, because many houses will be built at the end of long driveways. “Each house will affect an area around it roughly twenty-five acres in size, changing the type of fauna you find there,” said WCS researcher Heidi Kretster, who also testified during the hearings. She said deep-woods species such as the rusty blackbird might be particularly affected. “You’re taking the fundamental elements that make the Adirondack Park feel special, and you’re changing it into something that’s more like suburban America.”
In interviews with the Explorer, however, independent researchers agreed with Hal Salwassser that the presence of large tracts of protected lands in the vicinity make fragmentation less of a concern than it would be in areas where pervasive development might continue to whittle away at the forest canopy. Those researchers questioned whether construction of roads, homes, hotels, and other facilities would pose a significant risk to birds or other wildlife, given that far more pristine habitat exists a short distance away.
James Gibbs, a professor of conservation biology and wildlife management at the State College of Environmental Science and Forestry, said some animals would likely be displaced or even killed as their habitat is destroyed. But he noted that “unless it’s a species that is endangered and only occurs on the site [targeted] for development, its loss will not be very much missed in the larger landscape.”
Because no comprehensive wildlife surveys have been done on the property, environmentalists and state officials want additional studies of potentially vulnerable species, including the rusty blackbird and varieties of salamanders. But John Sheehan, a spokesman for the Adirondack Council, acknowledged that he didn’t expect to find “some exotic animal or endangered species on the property. That would be a surprise to everybody.”
That view was echoed in written testimony submitted this summer by APA staffer Daniel Spada, one of the state’s top wetland ecologists, who noted that “almost all of the resource management lands on the project remain undeveloped” and concluded that impacts on wildlife will be “substantially minimized.”
Spada added that the ACR lands, including its extensive wetlands, have already been heavily disturbed by human activity. “They don’t present the pristine-type habitat, or relatively pristine, to be quite honest,” he said.
In a sign of just how contentious these scientific questions have become, parts of Spada’s testimony were disallowed during an APA hearing in June. Green groups argue that he softened his estimate of the resort’s impacts without sufficient scientific data and failed to address concerns about wetlands. In an interview with the Explorer, Sheehan argued that agency staff members, including Spada, were forced to downplay environmental risks. “There is increasing pressure on members of the Park Agency staff to make this project happen,” Sheehan said.
State officials deny that allegation. The Adirondack Daily Enterprise reported that when Spada’s testimony was disallowed, on a procedural technicality, APA attorney Paul Van Cott remarked at the hearing: “We’ve heard from Adirondack Wild, Protect [the Adirondacks], and the Adirondack Council calling into question the lack of information regarding impacts to wildlife, and here we have the agency’s wildlife biologist offering testimony that will supplement the record with regard to wildlife habitat, and they’re in opposition to it.”
Behind this scientific debate, there is an enormous amount at stake. Foxman is counting on the early sale of large lots for Great Camp-style mansions to generate cash for the rest of the project, which many local residents see as a vital new economic engine for the community. Green groups, meanwhile, say the design will set a precedent for future projects that could lead to sprawl on other Resource Management lands.
“You’re not making a very big difference by building on one parcel,” said the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Heidi Kretser. “It’s the cumulative impacts that can cause harm. So why not do whatever you can, by whatever means, to encourage the proper kind of development?”
Experts agree that forest fragmentation and residential sprawl are contributing to the decline of ecosystems across the United States. Construction of new homes opens the forest to invasion by domesticated animals, by non-native species, and by wildlife such as raccoons and skunks that thrive in the vicinity of human development.
The end result, say experts, is a more generic landscape, with far less biological diversity. To demonstrate that ACR could be built in a more ecologically sensitive way, the Adirondack Council created an alternative design, one that would group more of the mansions and condos near the ski hill. “Development should be clustered and based on conservation-design principles, especially on lands designated Resource Management,” argued Brian Houseal, the council’s executive director. He also said the ACR property should be developed in a way that creates a buffer protecting adjacent Follensby Park, which is expected to be sold to the state and added to the Forest Preserve.
Independent scientists interviewed for this story all agreed that grouping more of the Adirondack Club and Resort’s homes closer together on smaller plots would reduce the human footprint even more by leaving larger areas relatively undisturbed, a basic principle of modern conservation design. “If you were to give each landowner five acres and they were all clustered and take the remaining acres and leave it wild, that would be the least impact of putting fifty houses in,” Salwasser said.
But another complication is that existing Park regulations, drafted in the 1970s, don’t include the kind of modern “best practices” guidelines that environmental groups hope will be considered as part of the permit decision. The regulations support the broad concept of clustering, but they don’t specify what design principles meet the standard.
“There hasn’t been a real update of how the agency views things, but this is what the current science is,” said Kretser, who also wants concerns about energy efficiency and carbon emissions to shape the final plan.
“There is an argument to be made that the Park Agency’s Resource Management restrictions are inadequate,” agreed John Sheehan. “In general, the Park’s rules and regulations for development badly need an update.”
Speaking privately, however, environmental activists questioned whether the APA and the administration of Governor Andrew Cuomo were likely to craft new standards and guidelines in the midst of a highly controversial and politically charged permit review. It’s also unclear whether such an effort would survive legal challenges.
Meanwhile, local government and business leaders in the Park, who generally support the Big Tupper project, rebut the claim that the ACR project will lead to fragmentation of Resource Management lands elsewhere through the development of mega-resorts.
“That’s hogwash,” said Tupper Lake real-estate broker Jim LaValley, who noted that the APA’s review of the Big Tupper project has taken seven years, a fact that he said would dissuade most resort developers.
He also noted that roughly a million acres of timberland in the Adirondacks has been closed to development over the last decade, through additions to the Forest Preserve, purchase of conservation easements, and expansion of the holdings of environmental groups. “There is a public perception that there’s been an effort to buy up all the Resource Management
development rights,” he said.
It’s also a fact, acknowledged by environmentalists, that the vast majority of “sprawl” development in the Park isn’t caused by large-scale resorts, but rather by far smaller subdivisions, usually involving only a few homes. If the ACR project goes forward and is successful (for an analysis of the project’s economic prospects, see “Big Plans, Big Doubts in the April issue of the Adirondack Explorer), developers hope to build forty to fifty new homes a year. That would be a small fraction of the roughly three hundred new home permits issued annually by the APA, typically with far less environmental review and fewer demands for clustering.
The APA board will have to sort out these complicated issues, balancing the latest science and existing regulations when assessing the resort’s impacts. A draft permit already drawn up by APA staff would require the developers to conduct a far more comprehensive wildlife survey and would establish deed restrictions prohibiting future development on the resort’s Resource
Management lands. But APA scientists have signaled that they think the current design is acceptable. “I would not recommend denial of the project, based on the wildlife and habitat impacts that I believe will occur,” Spada concluded.
Whatever the outcome, green groups say it’s time for the state to update the Park’s private-land regulations to clearly define clustering and other conservation-design principles. “We really haven’t advanced the ball much since the 1970s,” Sheehan said. “That is something that ought to happen with the cooperation and participation of local residents and local officials and be done in a reasonable and calm way.”