By Gwendolyn Craig
The U.S. Army is considering six Adirondack-region sites for training exercises by the Fort Drum-based soldiers and helicopter pilots in the 10th Aviation Brigade and 10th Sustainment Brigade, according to members of an ad hoc committee reviewing the proposals.
The sites under review include an airport near Saranac Lake, cleared timberlands and state lands outside of the Adirondack Park, documents show.
News of an environmental assessment with few specifics on locations had led some to imagine Army drills in the middle of pristine parts of the Adirondack Park. Several of the locations are inside the park or close to the outskirts, but none are directly on state forest preserve or wilderness lands. That news relieved a few environmental groups, though the discussions are ongoing and concerns remain on some of the proposed locations.
Word of the Army’s plans to hold additional training outside of Fort Drum’s more than 100,000-acre campus came through a June 2020 programmatic environmental assessment. The document generally identified a region where the Army planned for more “flight proficiency and support services training … needed to meet mission requirement and maintain combat readiness.” The region suggested trainings in Essex, Hamilton, Herkimer, Jefferson, Lewis, Oneida, Onondaga, Oswego and St. Lawrence counties.
The assessment suggests the Army could hold up to six high-intensity training events per year, lasting up to 14 days. Documents show that the operations could involve hundreds of soldiers sleeping in tents. Some scenarios suggest 60 military vehicles and nearly 20 helicopters. There will be no use of live ammunition or explosives, but documents show soldiers may use blanks and flares to mimic battle.
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“There is an old Army adage that we sweat in training so we don’t bleed in combat,” said Julie Halpin, director of Fort Drum Public Affairs.
Flight training in the Adirondacks can help soldiers prepare for flying in mountainous regions like Afghanistan or northern parts of Iraq, Halpin said. Soldiers at Fort Drum also assist with emergency events, like natural disasters, in the United States and that may require flying in mountainous regions.
What gave environmental groups and the state Department of Environmental Conservation pause when looking through the environmental assessment, however, was that it did not reference state constitution protections of certain lands in the Adirondacks. It did not mention the Adirondack Park Agency, an independent board and state office that oversees public and private land use in the park.
“That was kind of a scary moment,” said David Gibson, of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.
The APA did submit a public comment to the Army on its proposal. In an Aug. 5 letter, APA Director of Planning Richard Weber said the agency supports more effective training for soldiers, but the environmental assessment did not appear sufficient.
The programmatic environmental assessment mostly listed impacts to wildlife, natural resources and other environmental categories as minor and short-term. Weber said that with up to six trainings and cleanups per year, a site could see activity up to 126 days per year.
“A program of repeated training of this nature, year after year with coordinated air and motor vehicle support and with the temporary development of encampments ranging in size between 5 and 10 acres has the potential to create longer term impacts to overall management of State lands in the Park,” Weber wrote.
Weber also provided an overview of the APA and DEC’s jurisdiction over lands in the Adirondacks.
A spokesperson said DEC responded to the Army’s proposal, asking for the assessment to clarify “the different classifications of forest preserve and other state lands within the affected area,” and also to consider “past proposals for military flights over forest preserve lands.”
On Sept. 25, Fort Drum asked DEC to be part of a committee to review the environmental assessment and help with “selection of locations that meet the Army’s requirements while allowing it to complete a Finding of No Significant Impact for proposed operations,” a DEC spokesperson said. The Army asked others to be on the committee, too, including representatives from the APA, the New York Air National Guard, the state’s Tug Hill Commission, the Adirondack Council, the Adirondack Mountain Club and Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.
The committee had its first meeting on Tuesday.
Halpin said the committee “has been established to discuss and develop screening criteria for site selection and procedures for coordination and consultation.”
The meetings are closed to the public and the media, but the committee is not covered under the state’s Open Meetings Law.
“That’s a very positive thing they’ve done, the willingness to slow down and make sure that stakeholders’ inputs are more thoroughly considered before taking their next steps,” Gibson said.
John Sheehan, communications director of the Adirondack Council, said the committee has met in one form or another for a couple of decades to discuss military training in the Adirondacks. Halpin said in an email that “(s)ince 1985 when the 10th Mountain Division was reactivated at Fort Drum there have been several named training events off-post/throughout the region.” The Army also regularly flies over the Adirondacks.
On Tuesday, the Army provided stakeholders with a list of specific places it was considering for additional training. Those include:
- The North Lake Tract Easement, privately owned in Herkimer County;
- Sevey’s Easement, privately owned timberland in St. Lawrence County;
- Cobb Creek State Forest, state-owned land in Lewis County;
- Land in the town of Pierrepont, owned by St. Lawrence County;
- Sand Flats State Forest, state-owned land in Lewis County; and
- The Adirondack Regional Airport, owned by the town of Harrietstown in Franklin County.
Halpin said these places “are starting points for discussion,” and that the Army has also asked for location suggestions from the committee members. Gibson and Sheehan said they’re reviewing the information and have about a month to respond before another meeting.
Sheehan was glad to see that the selections show Fort Drum is trying to avoid conflicts with forest preserve, wildlife and people. He did have some concerns about the list, which he is sharing with the Army.
For example, the Adirondack Regional Airport in Lake Clear is also near the waterbody of the same name. The area, Sheehan said, is important for migrating loons. On another note, the airport was identified as a state superfund site for groundwater contamination, and thus would not be able to provide potable water for troops.
Sheehan also flagged Sevey’s Easement because it is considered an important habitat for the state-endangered spruce grouse. The state passed a constitutional amendment in 2009 to put power lines through forest preserve in order to avoid the spruce grouse habitat.
“Using timber company land makes sense,” Sheehan said. “Using other industrial sites makes sense. … Overall, it looks like they did their best to find places where the conflicts were minimized, at least any conflicts that they could predict from the information they had at hand.”
Gibson said forest preserve is involved, still, because some of the sites are close by and the impacts are felt beyond the site footprint. He, too, highlighted Sevey’s Easement as a concern. Overall, Gibson said, he thinks the proposal needs an environmental impact statement, a more rigorous assessment.
“We’re going to do what they asked us to do, which is to thoroughly review those six locations and match them to the criteria the military wants to have,” Gibson said.