Records show 782,000 acres are without any management plans
By Gwendolyn Craig
It was an 80-degree Friday in June and Richard Goldmann was trying to enjoy his day off. The anesthesiologist from Poughkeepsie planned to ride the Warren County Bike Trail with his wife Jill. That was before his bike was stolen.
In one last ditch effort to enjoy the outdoors, the Goldmanns drove to a dead-end street in the village of Lake George. A green-and-yellow sign tacked to the back of a stop sign pointed to their destination. They parked at a gravel pull-off, climbed stairs to a bridge over the Adirondack Northway and hiked Prospect Mountain.
“The views from the top are very nice,” Richard Goldmann said, but the trail itself was “very eroded … a goner.” Jill Goldmann said it looked like someone had diverted the worst parts. Her husband thought it was hikers creating herd paths. Rather than returning on the worn woods floor, they walked along the paved Prospect Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway. The Goldmanns weren’t the only ones astounded by the trail the state has called “hazardous to hikers.”
On a July day, a hiker worried about another breaking his ankles on the marked trail up the mountain’s rocky riverbed. He recommended they try the unmarked herd path. Others took the diversion.
The trail these visitors found was lacking the kind of care intended by state leaders for decades, one of numerous cases of poor maintenance hikers might find throughout the Adirondack Park.
A months-long investigation by the Explorer found vast tracts of forests, waterways and mountains have been shortchanged by a state government ill-equipped to complete an enormous responsibility.
To build safeguards in its use, state government was charged a half century ago with creating “unit management plans (UMPs).” Environmental guardians, including at least one governor, considered them essential and demanded their completion in five years.
But almost 25 years since former Gov. George Pataki made that charge, nearly a third of the state-owned lands and waters in the largest park in the continental United States are missing these bylaws to protect its vulnerable ecosystems and dictate recreational opportunities. And some two-thirds of the plans accomplished were intended to be revised every five years. State leaders recognized that even the most remote places see changes in visitation, climate and environment, and management needs to adapt. But the majority of those plans have remained static.
Here at Prospect Mountain, like other places in the park, significant maintenance has never been performed, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) acknowledged. No new trails can be constructed to divert hikers either. The path is in the Lake George Wild Forest, 72,508 acres of state-owned lands in the southeastern part of the park, which has no adopted unit management plan. Without it, trails like Prospect Mountain suffer.
Fifty years ago, the laws of the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) charged DEC with developing UMPs—inventories of natural and physical resources and lists of environmental protection and recreational projects—for more than 50 areas in the Adirondack Park Forest Preserve, about 2.69 million acres.
Yet, some 782,000 acres lack management plans, according to DEC’s records from June. Fourteen units have drafts or amendments in progress. Five units have no plans at all.
Impacts on recreation projects
Without management plans, staff have little authority to address threats to natural resources or expand recreational opportunities. Campsites may not be reconfigured to better protect the William C. Whitney Wilderness, and the eroded trail up Prospect Mountain in Lake George Wild Forest cannot be rerouted. Hikers in the Chazy Highlands await new trails up forest preserve peaks, hoping they will take pressure off the trafficked High Peaks. Many Saranac Lake-area residents are eager for the McKenzie Mountain Wilderness plan for better accessibility and protections to the over 37,000 acres in their backyard. Groups have called for a new visitor center at John Brown Farm in North Elba.
But all of those projects cannot be done without a unit management plan. The law requires adopted plans be revised every five years, but some plans are as old as the internet. The result is a hodgepodge of project lists, some that go undone or become irrelevant. They’re just words on paper, said one retired state worker whose career focused on UMP reviews.
“So often these unit management plans take so long to create … it leads to delaying the actual decisions on managing the public in an area,” said Neil Woodworth, former executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club.
It also leads to delays in enjoying forest preserve lands taxpayers have purchased. Former APA staff lamented over how long it took for the state to adopt the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest plan, and how the McKenzie Mountain Wilderness is still without one. They think about the recreational opportunities those plans allow for, and how their children could have experienced them if the process were faster.
“It is frustrating,” said John Banta, former deputy director of the APA.
Despite the legal requirement for plans, and the warnings of environmental degradation in draft and adopted unit management plans, the DEC said its “partners successfully manage the Forest Preserve using a suite of tools in areas without an approved UMP.” The DEC has multiple trail work agreements with different organizations. Those tools include maintenance, relocation of some poorly sited facilities, managing visitors and enforcing parking.
Former DEC and APA staff, however, say the state needs more manpower to both write and accomplish these plans, which they still think worth doing despite a tedious process. Some say the state needs to change its methods and consider the initiative a failure. Those once involved think the process takes too long.
“We’ve had enough time,” said Jim Townsend, former board member and counsel to the APA, the state agency charged with long-range planning for the park. “It’s a little surprising we haven’t picked off all of these.”
Pataki was tired of the slog and in 1999 announced all unit management plans would be finished in five years. Only about a dozen units had plans. He allocated $12 million to the effort and added DEC staff.
“At the time, I didn’t think it was unrealistic,” said John Cahill, Pataki’s DEC commissioner. “I knew it was very ambitious, but I didn’t know how difficult it would be to achieve the five-year goal.”
Four unit management plans, not including amendments to existing ones, were adopted between 1999 and 2004.
Rob Davies, retired director of the DEC’s Division of Lands and Forests, said Pataki’s push did result in a renewed planning effort. Gavin Donohue, deputy commissioner of the DEC under Pataki, said more got done because of the governor’s personal interest in the Adirondacks. But dozens of plans remained unfinished.
“At the time, we might have underestimated how much interest each unit management plan engendered,” Cahill added. “Each one takes an enormous amount of energy to complete.” Cahill recalled the different groups providing input, including local governments, environmentalists, snowmobilers and hikers.
What is a unit management plan? UMPs explained
Around the same time, Donohue said, the state was sidetracked by implementing the $1.75 billion environmental bond act voters passed in 1996. The department was also focused on a 1997 settlement providing more access to forest preserve for people with disabilities.
In the early 2000s there were staffing gaps, Davies added. Former Gov. David Paterson made deep budget cuts in 2008 and implemented a hiring freeze. There were nearly 900 state employees laid off in 2010.
Another layer to the planning process unique to the Adirondack Park, Davies said, is the need for the APA’s approval and review for compliance with the State Land Master Plan, the park’s leading policy document.
Keith McKeever, spokesman for the APA, said other forest preserve policies “have required significant staff time over the years” including visitor management, trail stewardship and litigation over snowmobile trails.
“New UMPs and UMP amendments continue to be completed as staff from both agencies advance broader park policy initiatives on a parallel track,” McKeever said. Amendments are not the same as the required five-year revisions. Amendments address a specific issue or section and generally do not update an entire UMP. Revisions involve full rewrites and supersede a previous version, the DEC said.
For some, like Walter Linck, the unit management planning has become a “sad joke.” Linck was hired as a temporary APA staff member to review unit management plans during Pataki’s five-year deadline. His position was extended multiple times until finally the agency made him full time. He retired from the agency in June 2021, his work unfinished.
Linck was excited at the beginning. A governor had basically provided a “blank check,” to get the UMPs finished. But Linck said the DEC didn’t ask for enough. Linck was the only new staff provided to the APA for the initiative, he said.
“I feel like all I did was run around at the leaking dam and try to plug the holes in the dike,” Linck said.
The DEC declined to provide an interview with current staff working on unit management plans, but responded with emailed answers.
Approximately 1,881,000 acres of forest preserve have unit management plans, even if they are decades old.
How the state prioritizes projects in the UMPs is puzzling. Some activities, like Olympic Regional Development Authority trail work, get immediate action. Others, like studying how many boats a lake can handle, remain undone.
The State Land Master Plan notes the DEC “will report annually to the Agency (APA) on progress made toward the implementation of each adopted unit management plan.” A records request to the department for those annual reports turned up nothing.
“They don’t dare create that record because it would be so embarrassing,” Linck said. He added that it was a “gross failure” of the APA board for not demanding the updates.
Chad Dawson, a former APA board member and international expert in wilderness management, said the DEC has never reported to the APA on its progress in his experience.
“DEC and APA communicate regularly on these issues and provide information requested on an individual project basis, thus the reports have not been necessary,” a DEC spokesperson said.
McKeever said DEC and APA meet monthly to discuss the status of plans and upcoming priorities.
Carrying capacity of lakes: Will the state take action?
The state’s failure to study Adirondack lakes has become a central criticism for environmental advocates
The DEC also advertises forest preserve work plans online in its weekly environmental notice bulletin. These are usually projects approved in unit management plans and vary from widening a ski racing trail on Whiteface Mountain, to installing a bog bridge on the Northville-Placid Trail.
Linck believes the planning process became a “carrot and stick,” between the APA and DEC. The DEC would write a plan to accomplish a development project, but would leave resource protection projects undone.
For example, the DEC and APA have both received criticism for disregarding their charge to study the carrying capacity of water bodies. As a result, there is no examination of how many boats a lake or pond can accommodate without harm.
Carrying capacity research can also be applied to trail use. The DEC has made some progress here, recently hiring a firm to collect hiker data in portions of the High Peaks Wilderness.
Cathy Pedler, director of advocacy for the Adirondack Mountain Club, applauded the hiring, but said this step ideally would have been done before a unit management plan was adopted. Data produced, Pedler said, will be helpful for reassessing projects in the 1999 adopted unit management plan and suggesting new projects.
Pedler and others hope the DEC will expand such studies parkwide to assist in management.
Banta started working at the APA in 1979 as deputy director of planning and would serve in that post for 21 years. The High Peaks Wilderness unit management plan was a “huge accomplishment … monumental,” he said.
Cahill, Donohue and Davies—once top DEC officers—all say the department needs more resources.
Davies said those working on unit management plans are responsible for many other jobs under the Division of Lands and Forests. They work on land acquisitions, classifications and easements, for example. Aside from more staff, Davies said, the department needs “the resolve to make the hard decisions” that can hang up plans for more than a decade.
Other former DEC staff, including Chris Amato, former deputy commissioner for natural resources, think a new approach is needed. While at DEC, Amato proposed creating one unit management plan for all wilderness areas in the park, considering few development projects can be done in that land classification.
Amato, now the counsel for Protect the Adirondacks, also suggested more units be combined, such as the Giant and High Peaks wildernesses, which are separated only by state Route 73.
The artificially divided units,
he said, created “an enormous, unwieldy workload for DEC staff.”
The DEC said it is not considering combining all wilderness areas into one unit management plan. McKeever, however, said the agency is considering “‘complex planning,’ or planning for multiple adjacent units, when
that is warranted.” The department and agency have also combined their public comment periods at times “to make the process more efficient.”
Even if it wasn’t a “brilliant” plan, it allowed input from various interests, he said. The plan identifies the challenge of protecting wilderness and promoting recreation.
A 1919 Forest Preserve Recreation Plan adopted by the state Legislature encouraged land managers “to seek ways to make the High Peaks more accessible and more convenient for users and for themselves.” Thus began a building boom of trails, lean-tos, bridges, roads and dams. “Past management programs emphasized visitor numbers, conveniences, and enhancement of scenic views rather than the wilderness experience,” the plan reads. “Managers may have inadvertently aggravated undesirable conditions by responding to every increase in use with more facilities to accommodate it.”
The plan for the High Peaks attempted to reverse some of those “undesirable conditions.”
The 1999 document set limits on group numbers, an important, yet controversial, item that took into account the toll on natural resources from Scout and school groups, Cahill and Davies said. As a result, the maximum group size is 15 people for day visits and eight for overnights.
Other proposals in the High Peaks plan remain undone, like a parking lot at South Meadows Road. Several people the Explorer interviewed weren’t sure the lot was needed anymore as parking along the road hasn’t been the crowded problem it once was.
There are four units covering about 450,000 acres that have draft management plans complete to the point where DEC released them for public comment. The DEC has yet to release new drafts incorporating the public’s feedback. These units are: Lake George Wild Forest, Debar Mountain Wild Forest, Ferris Lake Wild Forest and Wilcox Lake Wild Forest.
Lake George’s lack of an adopted plan stunned former APA and DEC officials advised by the Explorer. The region is in close proximity to the Northway and to population hubs like Saratoga Springs and Albany. Davies declined to discuss hang-ups on individual unit management plans.
Wild forest units are more complex than wilderness units, Davies and others said. Wilderness areas are a zoning classification “without significant improvement or permanent human habitation,” according to the State Land Master Plan. Wild forest areas are another zoning designation that “permit a somewhat higher degree of human use than in wilderness,” and “permits a wide variety of outdoor recreation.” Motorized uses are not allowed in wilderness areas, but some are in wild forest areas. Any form of biking is not allowed in wilderness areas.
A 50-year-old policy question hanging over the APA involved wild forest units—interpreting a cap on miles of roads and whether to include in that count roads open to people with disabilities. The APA issued an interpretation this year, which DEC said was “necessary to resolve prior to DEC advancing any wild forest UMPs.” McKeever said the state is actively working on the Debar Mountain Wild Forest.
A draft Lake George Wild Forest unit management plan was released in 2006. The authors warn of this “accessible portion of the Adirondack Park,” and how “without the UMP the sensitive environmental resources of the unit could be negatively impacted and it is highly likely that the public enjoyment of such resources would decrease.”
The draft highlights the Prospect Mountain Trail as “excessively steep and poorly maintained. As a result, the trail presents conditions hazardous to hikers during all seasons of the year.” It recommends rerouting segments.
There is no formal trail up Rogers Rock, a popular hike on the west side of the lake. A municipal trails master plan drafted a decade ago said Rogers Rock needed a sustainable path. The Lake George Land Conservancy sold Cat and Thomas Mountains to the state in 2013, also on the western side of the lake, but little work has been done there.
The APA considers the Lake George Wild Forest as “one of the most complicated” units, McKeever said, due to new acquisitions, historic uses and visitation.
The DEC said it “is comprehensively evaluating visitor use challenges within multiple locations in this unit, which will help inform the update and reflect policy and legal changes.”
Yet, Lake George does not appear on the list of next units to address, according to the APA, which includes Rollins Pond Campground and Day Use Area, Golden Beach Campground and Day Use Area, John Brown Farm Historic Site, Crown Point Historic Site and Campground, Lake George Battlefield (separate from Lake George Wild Forest) and Debar Mountain Wild Forest.
Generating the most surprise among Pataki-era officials interviewed was how the William C. Whitney Wilderness has no unit management plan. Purchased under his direction for $17.1 million, Pataki had dubbed the 14,700-acre holding the “crown jewel of the Adirondacks.” It included the 2,300-acre Little Tupper Lake.
Whitney is one of 10 units, about 332,000 acres total, that have no draft yet released for public comment. It is one of five units on a DEC list of “inactive” management plans, meaning no drafts are currently underway. Also “inactive” are the Round Lake Wilderness, Sargent Ponds Wild Forest, Little Moose Wilderness and West Canada Lake Wilderness.
The DEC said it has at least started drafts or performed “preliminary inventory work” for all the forest preserve units.
For the Whitney Wilderness, the DEC was so concerned with its protection that prior to acquiring it in 1998, it created a stewardship management plan for “appropriate public use” with a unit management plan to follow, the document said.
Because of the adopted stewardship plan, DEC said it has no intention to do a Whitney UMP “at this time” and instead has “prioritized its planning resources in other locations that have no plan of any kind.”
Woodworth, former director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, said the area sees many paddlers, particularly Little Tupper Lake. “They need to worry about it,” he said.
Townsend said the department must be comfortable the wilderness has some protection under the stewardship plan. Others, including Banta, disagreed. Linck said camping in the Whitney acreage is a concern and needs to be reassessed.
“Assuming the property is being properly managed under the interim plan, it is more important to get it right than to get it done quickly,” Cahill said. “It’s hard to say why something is taking 20 or 30 years to get a UMP done.”