Managing public land in the Adirondack Park is a highly bureaucratic process. While many citizen-advocates are grateful for the opportunity to participate in momentous decisions like the upcoming classification hearings, people are often foggy on the details of the process in which they are participating. This is very understandable, given the complex situation!
The Adirondack Forest Preserve is managed by two state agencies. The Adirondack Park Agency, or APA, serves as a planning board for all of the state lands in the park. APA will be conducting public hearings throughout the state in November and December 2016 on the future of dozens of state land parcels, many of them recently acquired from Finch Pruyn and the Nature Conservancy. The agency’s job is to classify these parcels according to the guidelines set forth in the State Land Master Plan, or SLMP. The available options range from Wild Forest, which permits snowmobile trails and motor vehicle access, to Wilderness, regarded as the highest level of protection for public land. In this category motor vehicles are prohibited, as are most structures.
The other agency is the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which is in charge of the day-to-day management of the Forest Preserve, including trail and lean-to maintenance, fish stocking, and staffing the forest ranger force.
DEC can trace its roots to 1911, when the Conservation Commission was established in the aftermath of a series of devastating forest fires in the Adirondacks and Catskills. The commission’s first task was to establish a network of fire lookout stations on mountain summits, followed soon after by fire towers. The routes to these towers became the first state-maintained hiking trails in the Adirondacks.
In 1919 the commission began expanding its trail network far beyond fire towers to include many other scenic points of interest. The widespread popularity of automobiles was enabling ordinary people to access the mountains on weekend excursions, and conservation officials thought that facilities should exist to help these visitors become more self-reliant. They employed a system of colored metal disks and wooden signs to distinguish the official trails from an otherwise confusing array of survey lines, trap lines, and abandoned logging roads—with lean-tos (constructed in a new standardized design) placed every so often for convenience and safety.
The program was wildly successful, but problems appeared over the decades. The renamed Conservation Department took its original two mandates—fire protection and the promotion of recreation—very much to heart. In the 1930s, long after the last of the major forest fires, the department employed the Civilian Conservation Corps to build “fire truck trails” throughout the Forest Preserve. The intent was to provide emergency access into the backcountry, but many people—including the renowned wilderness advocate Bob Marshall—decried these intrusions into some of the wildest recesses of the Adirondacks.
State and CCC crews also built dams to improve trout fishing and widened hiking trails for the benefit of backcountry skiing. Lean-tos popped up all over the High Peaks, including sensitive high-elevation areas. A popular tent platform program allowed private individuals to erect small camping structures at attractive shoreline locations, many of which evolved into elaborate cottages. And in the 1950s, a new form of public recreation appeared in the woods: snowmobiling.
Many people feared that these unchecked developments were threatening the wilderness character of the Adirondacks. A rising wave of environmental consciousness in the 1960s prompted the state to consider the long-term future of the Adirondacks. This resulted in the decision to create an Adirondack Park Agency, which could draft a set of management guidelines for the newly-reorganized DEC to implement.
This document, the SLMP, was first approved in 1972. It established a list of land management categories, with guidelines for which facilities/activities were permitted in each. The bulk of the state lands were zoned as either Wild Forest or Wilderness, with other specialized zones for places like campgrounds and ski centers. Most importantly, the SLMP made wilderness preservation the state’s top priority in the Forest Preserve. The Wilderness classification was seen as a tool through which the prior excesses of the old Conservation Department—truck trails, lean-to clusters, floatplane access, telephone lines—could be rolled back, especially in the most sensitive areas.
But the SLMP also found a park-wide balance by ensuring that there was plenty of state land available for other forms of recreation, especially in the Wild Forest areas. These were the places where APA hoped most new recreational development would be focused. Snowmobiles, bicycles, and fire towers were all still welcome here.
Although the bulk of the Forest Preserve was classified in 1972, the process continues every time new land is acquired. And this is the process in which you will soon be invited to participate. And based on recent experiences, there are valid reasons to be very concerned that the state’s priorities have been sliding backwards. On this, we will have more to say soon.
Top Image Source: New York State Archives. New York (State). Conservation Dept. Photographic prints and negatives, ca. 1904-1949. Series 14297-87, No. 57L321FFC.