With the Adirondack Park Agency’s public hearings looming just around the corner, it will be important for everyone concerned with the preservation of wilderness to speak up. You will be able to do this literally by attending one of the hearings and making a three-minute statement, or in writing by directing an email to APA staff. And for those of you who are as passionate on this subject as we are, there is no reason you can’t do both!
Over the course of the last few days, we have been providing you with the backstory of the state land classification process, so that hopefully you will feel like an informed citizen when you take part in the near future. There will be more installments yet to come. Today we discuss the process that is currently being invoked at Boreas Ponds, and what the various land classifications mean.
Although the bulk of the Forest Preserve was classified in 1972, the process continues every time new land is acquired. It begins with APA planning staff assessing the subject property. The State Land Master Plan provides the criteria that should be used when proposing a classification—Wilderness, Primitive, Wild Forest, Intensive Use, among other options—but it does leave substantial room for judgment. It is not as simple as an x equals y equation.
Nevertheless the SLMP does strongly suggest that Wilderness is the top priority. This classification does not prohibit public use of the land, but it does carry the assumption that natural resource preservation is the paramount concern. This protection is achieved by barring mechanized forms of transportation; you can get there by foot, by ski, by paddle, or even by horseback, just have humans have been doing for millennia. But anything involving gears or motors (with the exception of mechanized wheelchairs for the disabled) is out of the question.
The SLMP contains several pages of guidelines for how a Wilderness Area should be managed, but the section with which most people are familiar is this preamble:
A wilderness area, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man—where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. A wilderness area is further defined to mean an area of state land or water having a primeval character, without significant improvement or permanent human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve, enhance and restore, where necessary, its natural conditions, and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least ten thousand acres of contiguous land and water or is of sufficient size and character as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological or other features of scientific, educational, scenic or historical value.
Other classification options come into play whenever a tract of land is not able to live up to these lofty expectations: the parcel is too small, lacks a sense of remoteness, contains few special resource values, lies along a popular snowmobile corridor, et cetera. In most cases the Wild Forest designation is applied, broadly defined by the SLMP as follows:
A wild forest area is an area where the resources permit a somewhat higher degree of human use than in wilderness, primitive or canoe areas, while retaining an essentially wild character. A wild forest area is further defined as an area that frequently lacks the sense of remoteness of wilderness, primitive or canoe areas and that permits a wide variety of outdoor recreation.
Other options in the SLMP include Primitive, Intensive Use, Historic, and State Administrative. The Primitive classification is used for places that warrant Wilderness protection, but because of some flaw—a private inholding with an access road that must be retained, a key snowmobile trail that cannot be rerouted, as examples—a full Wilderness designation is not an option. The other three classifications represent special use areas, such as campgrounds, ski areas, historic sites, and state offices.
There is also one additional classification called Canoe Area, created specifically for a proposed Wilderness in the northern Adirondacks that happened to be adjacent to a state fish hatchery. Closing the roads on this tract would have hindered the hatchery’s operations, so instead APA created the Canoe Area designation, which barred public use of the roads but granted DEC the flexibility to use motor vehicles to stock the interior ponds with fish. These guidelines have never been found to be useful in any other part of the Adirondacks, and so there has always been only the one Canoe Area.
Once APA staff members have assessed a newly acquired section of the Forest Preserve, they issue a proposal for its classification. By law this proposal cannot be a single recommendation, but a range of options accompanied by an analysis of each one. This document is then presented to the public for review and comment. It is possible that public opinion could convince APA to adjust its recommendations after the fact. But once a final recommendation is settled upon, it is submitted to the APA board for adoption, and then to the governor for final approval.
This is the process being invoked now, in regards to the Boreas Ponds Tract and many other new Forest Preserve acquisitions. It is an important action because it could determine the management direction of these lands for decades to come. Is motorized access required to make them accessible to the greatest number of people, or do we owe future generations the same legacy of wilderness that we ourselves inherited?
As we begin the public discussion for the classification of the Boreas Ponds Tract, recent experiences with the SLMP process suggest that wilderness advocates should have much cause for concern. This is because that even though Wilderness is still the highest priority listed in the SLMP, it seems to no longer be the priority of state officials, including the APA. It will therefore be our job to remind them of that priority.