Adirondack advocates press managers to act on carrying capacity studies
By Zachary Matson
When state officials in 2013 detailed a plan to upgrade Second Pond Boat Launch, the primary public access to the Saranac Chain of Lakes, they noted the importance of understanding the area’s “carrying capacity.”
What such a study would entail, though, was less clear.
“Carrying capacity can be thought of as a threshold that, if exceeded, would lead to an undesirable set of conditions or problems … [and] can pertain to everything from pollutant loading, to habitat loss, to crowding,” state planners wrote.
The boat launch, they said, is a key entrance to a lake of “many large private parcels and access points with significant development.” But officials sidestepped the complicated capacity study and deferred it to the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest unit management plan.
When state officials finalized that plan in 2019, they again outlined the importance of understanding how much use the interconnected waters could withstand before degrading the natural resource or user experience.
They referred to such understanding as “a wildland manager’s most important and challenging responsibility.”
The 2019 management plan leaned toward protecting the water body: “Our primary goal throughout this UMP is to strike and maintain a proper balance of making sure a natural area’s ‘carrying capacity’ is not exceeded while concurrently providing for visitor use and enjoyment.” The plan called for a capacity study tracking indicators like invasive species, chloride, dissolved oxygen, visitor satisfaction and conflict, overnight use and more to monitor changes to the water.
Still, the state never conducted a capacity study of any ponds or lakes in the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest. The state’s failure to do so has grown into a central criticism levied by advocacy groups and drew a rebuke from the Appellate Division as “wholly unexplained and, indeed, inexplicable.”
Without knowing the carrying capacity, the agency does not know whether upgrades to a marina on Lower Saranac Lake or other potential private projects will harm public waters in the Adirondack Park, advocacy groups and the marina’s chief opponent, former state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Thomas Jorling, have argued.
The opening pages of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan outlines a monumental undertaking. It calls for a “comprehensive study of Adirondack lakes and ponds” aimed at determining “each water body’s capacity to withstand various uses, particularly motorized uses, and to maintain and enhance its biological, natural and aesthetic qualities.”
The job, assigned to the DEC, should first focus on major water bodies surrounded entirely by forest preserve and ones where state facilities exist.
The Adirondack Park Agency has mapped over 1,800 ponds and lakes located within state land and another 1,000 lakes and ponds with partial state ownership. State planners have acknowledged the importance of the capacity studies for both water and land in numerous management plans, citing development of an emerging framework that has yet to emerge to public view.
The state’s language shifted between 2013 and 2019. In the Second Pond Boat Launch plan, officials wrote the state land master plan “requires” an assessment of the area’s carrying capacity and threats of overuse. By the time the wild forest plan was prepared, officials wrote that the same decades-old language in the state land master plan “recommends” the lakes and ponds study by the state.
Two years before the Second Pond Boat Launch plan was adopted, the DEC commissioned SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry researchers to study just what an evaluation of carrying capacity would look like.
They concluded that the state should evaluate potential changes to the ecological and recreational health of an area, including water quality measures, invasive species, gasoline compounds, shoreline disturbance and recreational amenities like campsites, road access and visitor count estimates.
The 2011 study tested the various indicators on a handful of lakes across the park and outlined phases two, three and four to turn the indicators into a fully-fledged approach to studying carrying capacity parkwide. Phases two, three and four were never completed.
Chad Dawson, a former APA board member and co-author of the 2011 ESF report, said he suspects state officials were reluctant to tie themselves to an ongoing monitoring regime that would reveal whether water resources were being protected.
“Carrying capacity is trying to cut through the science and the policy and bring them together,” Dawson said at the Adirondack Research Conference in May. “It’s built into the system, it requires you to look at the results of what you are doing and make it explicit to others.”
Around the time the state published the Second Pond Boat Launch plan, new owners of the Saranac Lake Marina were preparing to overhaul and expand the commercial marina, operated since the 1920s.
Jorling—who in an interview said as DEC commissioner he commenced plans to conduct carrying capacity studies and blamed subsequent administrations for failing to carry through—sued to block the marina.
He challenged the APA’s approval, arguing the agency had improperly valued the wetlands at the marina site and that it could not evaluate the impacts of the project without first studying Lower Saranac Lake’s carrying capacity.
Jorling appealed a lower court ruling to the Appellate Division, which annulled the APA permit over how the agency applied its wetlands regulations. The court chided the state for never studying carrying capacity, but also concluded the agency had properly decided the marina project would not adversely impact the environment because of the marina’s right to rebuild structures that existed before the APA was established.
By considering the marina’s alternatives and ensuring certain environmental protections would be included at the marina, the agency had acted rationally in granting its approval, the Appellate judges concluded in an unanimous decision.
“APA’s determination was not rendered arbitrary and capricious by the absence of the carrying capacity study directed by the [state land master plan],” the court wrote.
Matt Norfolk, a Lake Placid attorney representing the marina, said a private project suit is not the appropriate way to challenge the state’s failure to study lake capacity.
“They are asking for legislation or rulemaking through individual permit applications,” Norfolk said. “That’s not how it works.”
The Saranac Lakes Wild Forest plan emphasized the tricky intertwining of public and private land throughout the Adirondacks. “Access to public resources should not be sacrificed to solely benefit private interests and private rights must be respected,” officials wrote. A lake’s carrying capacity is impacted by private development that should be accounted for, but private projects are also not subject to the state land master plan, the state has argued. During an APA hearing on the marina in June, Jorling signaled that he still views what happens on private lakefront property as inextricably linked to impacts to public land and waters—and promised to keep fighting the marina.
“The court gave the APA a second chance to precede its decision on the marina with a carrying capacity study to prevent overuse and degradation of the resource,” Jorling said. “APA has not done so, so the court is likely to view the failure on a second try as more than ‘inexplicable’ but actually as unlawful.”
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