As we begin the public discussion for the classification of the Boreas Ponds Tract, recent experiences with the State Land Master Plan process suggest that wilderness advocates should have much cause for concern. 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 Adirondack Park Agency. It will therefore be our job to remind them of that priority.
Previously, the APA was regarded and respected as an independent agency, making its decisions largely based on established laws and policies. But over time this culture has been replaced with one that sees the agency as a broker for economic opportunity—less of a regulator, and more of a partner. The APA seems to be sympathizing with the argument that Wilderness—those places where motor vehicles cannot go—represents a stranglehold on the regional economy, because (correctly or not) motorized recreation is more commonly associated with dollar signs than are hiking boots and granola bars.
This was very evident in the classification process for the Essex Chain Lakes, the first of the Finch Pruyn properties to be acquired. This large tract filled a gap between several blocks of Forest Preserve, creating an uninterrupted expanse of public land. Its chief features were long stretches of the Hudson and Cedar rivers, as well as the namesake Essex Chain Lakes.
The public did not yet even have access to the land when APA and the Department of Environmental Conservation began discussing classification options in 2013. Wilderness was never strongly considered, except for the rugged Hudson River Gorge where access was difficult anyway. The bulk of the purchase was not seen for its natural attributes, but rather its recreation potential. The land was crisscrossed by an elaborate logging road network, and this was regarded as a defining feature—equally important as the rivers and lakes. Simply allowing these roads to revert to nature was more than many people were willing to consider.
The towns that surrounded the Essex Chain—Newcomb, Minerva, and Indian Lake—became the most influential voices in the classification debate. This was a new development, because local government has traditionally played only a minor role in state land issues. But under an administration in Albany that has been far more attentive to economic issues than environmental ones, the towns had the ear of APA and DEC like they never had before.
And what did the towns want? Dedicated campsites for floatplane access, for the one or two local outfitters who specialized in flying clients to remote backcountry destinations. Additional snowmobile trails, because the ones already built around the periphery of the property were somehow insufficient. Access roads, because without motor vehicles the land would be “locked up,” available only to the most physically fit.
State officials did their best to accommodate this vision. In this case the SLMP was less of a guiding document and more of a legal obstacle that needed to be creatively interpreted. DEC issued a proposal that included snowmobile corridors, several access roads, campsites for the exclusive use of floatplane clients, and mountain bike trails. The options that APA adopted for consideration were mostly variations on DEC’s proposal—and some required amendments to the SLMP, meaning that they weren’t even valid ideas at the time they were presented for public comment.
Therefore the effort to classify the Essex Chain Lakes, completed in February 2014, was far from being an objective application of science and policy. It placed recreation as the top priority, and it attempted to shoehorn a preconceived access plan within the guidelines of the SLMP, all in the belief that doing so would attract more visitors to the Adirondacks and grow the region’s tourism economy.
Some people hailed this decision as a balanced approach that protected the lands while providing diverse opportunities for public access. Wilderness advocates, however, were not impressed. One APA board member, frustrated with the inflexibility of his colleagues, openly accused Albany officials of influencing the process and preventing an open discussion. The proposed snowmobile trail has been the subject of ongoing litigation, and a camping permit system was abandoned in 2016 due to lower-than-expected numbers.
In all likelihood, the classification of the Essex Chain will remain a work in progress for years to come. One of its shortcomings was the limited scope of the discussion, which failed to see this large property as part of a larger puzzle. The Essex Chain was analyzed in isolation, and so it was only natural that so many people and groups expected a slice of that pie—it was the only item that had been placed on the table.
It is important to remember these events because the political climate has not changed much since 2014. Like the Essex Chain, the value of the Boreas Ponds Tract for some stakeholders is limited to the recreational potential of its road network. APA’s proposed alternatives do not include a strong Wilderness option, and one board member has already voiced his discouragement with this.
However, the Boreas Ponds Tract is already open to the public. Even though the access road has been gated, people have been visiting the place in healthy numbers. Is it possible that if enough people experience Boreas Ponds by foot, they will be more likely to value its wilderness attributes? And if so, will they speak up when the time comes?
This is where you come in. Hopefully by now you have already fired off a written comment letter to APA expressing your support for Wilderness at Boreas Ponds, as well as your dismay at the limited array of options that have been presented for review. Maybe you have already made plans to attend one of the public hearings being conducted across the state.
But if you haven’t, then the effort to preserve Boreas Ponds really needs your voice! State officials need to be reminded of the public’s need and desire for more Wilderness, not less. And APA specifically needs to be reminded that its mandate is to protect the wilderness values of the Boreas Ponds Tract.
So take a moment and look at our Take Action page. Use our convenient form letter to send a letter to state officials within seconds, and/or find the public hearing venue that’s closest to you. Either way, your voice does matter! APA needs to hear that Wilderness is an Adirondack asset that is valued by many.
And thank you for your support!