Years after the state bought access, Sable Highlands lacks planned upgrades
By Phil Brown
After riding my mountain bike a few miles up the D&H Road, I turned off onto an old logging road and pedaled a few more miles to a large clearing with scenic views of the Loon Lake Mountains and Plumadore Range. Beyond the clearing, the road was a mess of logging debris, mud, blowdown and thorns—not bikeable.
It was not what I expected.
In 2009, the state Department of Environmental Conservation released an interim recreation plan for the Sable Highlands that called for connecting this logging road with another to create a 6.5-mile mountain bike trail that would circle a small unnamed peak. The plan also promised a hiking trail to a lookout on the peak. That trail does not yet exist.
At the time, DEC received hosannas for the plan, the most complex and ambitious of its kind for conservation-easement lands in the Adirondack Park. The department proposed creating a variety of hiking and biking trails, parking areas, canoe put-ins, campsites and other amenities.
“It’s a new experiment,” Neil Woodworth, then the executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, had told the Explorer. “We never had a recreation plan for such a large unit of easement lands before. This will be a very good test.”
More than a decade later, most of the work has yet to be done.
Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, is not surprised, noting that DEC also is years behind in writing and implementing management plans for state-owned forest preserve tracts. “Recreation management on conservation easement lands has always been given short shrift,” he said.
In an email to the Explorer, a DEC spokesman said the department “looks forward to continuing to improve upon the recreational opportunities.” In earlier emails, the department offered no timeline for when projects will be undertaken or when a final recreation plan will be released.
The Sable Highlands is the name given timberlands in the northern Adirondacks formerly owned by Domtar Industries, a Canadian paper company. In 2004, the Adirondack Nature Conservancy brokered a deal in which Domtar sold all of its 104,000 acres in the park—about 84,000 acres to Chateaugay Woodlands, a subsidiary of Lyme Timber, and 20,000 acres to the conservancy.
In late 2008, the state bought the conservancy’s 20,000 acres, including 3,820-foot Lyon Mountain, for $9.8 million. Most of these lands were added to the forest preserve. Two months later, the state paid $10.8 million for conservation easements on 84,000 acres. The agreement allowed Lyme to continue logging, in accordance with the standards of sustainable forestry, but it also opened up much of the land to public recreation. Although Lyme has since sold Chateaugay Woodlands to the Forestland Group, the agreement remains in force.
The interim recreation plan pertains only to the easement lands. It designates 14 tracts, totaling 28,100 acres, as public use areas.” On these, the public is allowed to recreate anywhere. Permissible activities include hiking, biking, canoeing, hunting, fishing and cross-country skiing. The bulk of the remaining easement lands are leased to hunting clubs and are generally off limits to the public. The plan also designates “linear recreation corridors” (LRCs) that allow the public to cross leased tracts. In some cases, these corridors are necessary to reach or travel between designated public use areas.
This spring and summer, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I spent 18 days exploring the Sable Highlands in my car, on my bike and on foot. Given the region’s remoteness and relative obscurity, I figured it would be the ideal place to get some exercise while practicing social distancing. Indeed, I saw few or no people on most of my outings.
At first, my objective was merely to recreate, but after a few visits that ended in disappointment, I set out to document what DEC has and has not done in the Sable Highlands. As part of my investigation, I tried to visit every public use area and linear recreation corridor, racking up about 175 miles on a mountain bike, my primary method of exploring the interior. In my travels, I identified three major problems: a shortage of parking areas, inadequate signage and a lack of trails and other amenities.
All of the Sable Highlands lies north of State Route 3. A number of small communities exist on the fringes: Loon Lake, Porcaville, Owls Head, Brainardsville, Lyon Mountain, Standish, Clayburg. If you were to draw a line on a map connecting these settlements, you’d capture the lion’s share of the easement lands—one large contiguous tract, albeit irregularly shaped. Ten of the public use areas are scattered about this main tract. The other four are on isolated parcels outside the main tract.
Given this complexity, DEC proposed establishing 23 parking areas to facilitate public access. So far, the department has built only nine—seven on the margins of the main tract, two on isolated tracts. Since you are not allowed to park just anywhere on the easement lands, one result is that it’s more difficult to access the interior of the main tract.
Take, for example, my ride on the proposed mountain-bike loop, which lies in the Plumadore-Inman Public Use Area. DEC has yet to build a parking area on the D&H Road at the start of the loop. Consequently, I began biking at the nearest official parking area, at Fishhole Pond, which added more than four miles to the round trip.
The Sugarloaf Public Use Area—the largest (at 5,460 acres) of the 14—can be accessed from the south via either of two linear recreation corridors off Piney Ridge Road, one of the main logging roads penetrating the easement lands. Again, parking is not yet available, so visitors face a hike or bike ride of several miles just to reach this region.
Other tracts lacking official parking areas include the Barnes Brook, Cobble Hill, Bradley Pond, Rocky Brook and Lilypad public use areas. DEC also planned to improve a popular hiking trail up Owls Head Mountain and establish a parking area at the trailhead. Neither has been done. Users continue to park on the shoulder of local roads or in a power-line corridor.
In the DEC plan, the linear recreation corridors are numbered one through 12. Most are logging roads that enable visitors to travel through leased lands, whether by car, bike or foot. (Some are also used by all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles.) In my quest to find all of the corridors, I discovered that many lack identifying signs.
One day I set out for LRC 11, one of the logging roads leading to the Sugarloaf Public Use Area. After pedaling nearly 6 miles from Fishhole Pond, I came to what I took to be the right road, but it was gated and posted by the Lost Pond Hunt Club. There was no sign indicating the public had a right to travel the road. Likewise, the start of LRC 10—part of the proposed bike loop—was gated and posted by the Plumadore Club, again with no indication of a public right of way. In both cases, I determined from GPS data that I was in the right spot. I expect many visitors would be deterred from using the roads.
Another day I biked up LRC 8, also known as Liberty Road. This time I saw a small brown-and-yellow sign—DEC’s signature colors—that read “Liberty Road (LRC #8)” nailed to a birch tree. Right above it was another sign: “No Trespassing/Private Logging Road.” This gave me pause, but I continued. A few miles up the road I encountered a hunting-club lessee who questioned my right to be there. I told him about the DEC plan, but he seemed skeptical. We parted on friendly terms.
Rare are signs that spell out what you can or can’t do on a linear recreation corridor. One is on the east end of the D&H Road (LRC 9), which lists hiking, mountain biking and motor vehicles as permissible uses. Next to it, however, is another of the “No Trespassing/Private Logging Road” signs.
Finally, the boundaries of the public use areas are not marked. When I biked up LRC 11 to the Sugarloaf Public Use Area, for example, I could not be sure when I left the leased land, where access is limited to the road, and when I entered the public area where visitors are free to roam.
Trails and amenities
The recreation plan proposed a number of trails for hikers and anglers, but few have been built. The most ambitious would be a trail to 2,870-foot Norton Peak and continuing to nearby Haystack Mountain and Wolf Pond Mountain. Because Norton lies within the Cold Brook Public Use Area, hikers are allowed to bushwhack to the summit despite the absence of a trail. The other two mountains are outside the public use area. Therefore, hikers cannot continue to those summits until a trail is built (it will be LRC 6).
Bauer said a trail to the three summits could divert some traffic from the crowded High Peaks—which is a goal of DEC. “That would be a great trail outside the High Peaks,” he said. “It’s an opportunity that has not been seized upon by the state.”
Another trail would lead from the Owls Head Public Use Area to Ingraham West, one of the smaller public zones. Without it, visitors have no legal access to Ingraham West. Other routes still on the drawing board include an angler’s footpath along the North Branch of the Saranac River and trails to True Brook, Little Trout River, Figure 8 Pond, Lilypad Pond, Ragged Lake Outlet and the Salmon River.
I came across just two short hiking trails created by DEC, both of which follow old woods roads. One leads to Plumadore Brook, the other to a handicapped-accessible campsite and fishing platform on the North Branch of the Saranac.
The recreation plan called for the development of 56 campsites in the Sable Highlands, but to date only nine have been created. Six of those are along a logging road in the Barnes Pond Public Use Area. These campsites include picnic tables, steel fire pits, and wheelchair-accessible outhouses. DEC also has built fishing platforms on Grass Pond and Fishhole Pond.
If DEC has not done more in the Sable Highlands, that’s largely due to a shortage of staff and money, according to Cathy Pedler, director of advocacy for the Adirondack Mountain Club. “The lack of support for our environmental planning and management agencies results not only in the failure to implement plans for recreational access, but also makes it difficult for the state to protect the resource,” she said in an email.
Given the pandemic’s blow to the economy, the state’s fiscal picture has worsened this year. DEC spokesman David Winchell said the department still plans to build infrastructure and enhance public access in accordance with the plan, but the priority will be to maintain facilities built since the plan’s adoption. Reacting to the Explorer’s inquiries, he said DEC may improve signage and update the information about the Sable Highlands on the department website.
After my aborted ride on the mountain-bike loop, I returned to the area with Mike Lynch, the Explorer’s multimedia reporter. Mike took photos along the bike route, and then we hiked to the lookout mentioned in the DEC plan. We navigated a maze of logging tracks overgrown with nasty thorns before reaching open woods. As bushwhacks go, it wasn’t terrible, and the stunning view of the Sable Highlands and of innumerable peaks beyond certainly was worth the effort. Someday, perhaps, this bike-hike outing will draw more people to this underutilized land. But we’re not there yet. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 11 years.