New York is unique among eastern states in the sheer amount of open space its residents have preserved in a natural condition. In the case of the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserves, the language of Article XIV of the state’s constitution requires that these tracts be “forever kept as wild forest lands,” with further stipulations that the timber thereon shall not be “destroyed,” or that the land shall not be sold. At the time this amendment was originally adopted in 1894, this was a visionary statement for the future of the Preserve.
However, Article XIV provides no specific guidelines for what “wild” means, beyond the prohibition on the destruction of timber. While it may be the assumption of many wilderness advocates that “wild” excludes motor vehicles, the constitution provides no express guarantee to that effect. Therefore, the meaning of the term “wild forest,” as used in Article XIV, is open to interpretation, and the concept of “wildness” is subject to changes in cultural attitudes over both time and geographical areas.
In 1894, when the original version of Article XIV was approved by the state’s voters, motorized vehicles were a very new phenomenon; their use to access remote backcountry areas was probably non-existent, and likely not perceived as an issue. Thus the language of the constitutional amendment does not address the status of motor vehicles or provide clear guidance on whether they have a role in a “wild forest.”
In fact, motorized use of (and access to) the Forest Preserve was not much discussed until the 1930s, when the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), in cooperation with the NYS Conservation Department, built a network of “fire truck trails” throughout the Forest Preserve. These were narrow roads built with the express purpose of allowing emergency access into remote areas.
Not everyone at the time was pleased by these developments, including the outspoken wilderness advocate Bob Marshall. However, the state defended its actions. The Conservation Department had been created in 1911 after its predecessor agencies failed to protect the Forest Preserve from multiple devastating forest fires, therefore the Department stated the truck trails were vital to performing its core mission, along with the previously-established fire towers.
After World War II snowmobiles began to appear in the Forest Preserve. Their use was controversial from the beginning, but they quickly became widespread. For many recreational users, snowmobiles represented an erosion of the wildness of the backcountry, and some felt betrayed by the Conservation Department for allowing them.
The arrival of snowmobiling in the 1950s corresponded with the beginning of discussions of whether the Forest Preserve should be zoned. Under one early proposal, a portion of the preserve would be retained as “wilderness” – i.e., remaining under the full protection of Article XIV – while the remainder would be opened up to logging and other uses. This process was formalized as the Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondack Park, which in 1970 suggested (among many other things) the creation of an Adirondack Park Agency and a tiered zoning plan for the preserve.
First issued in 1972, the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (SLMP) created two primary zones, Wilderness and Wild Forest, along with several more specific land use categories. Rather than modifying Article XIV or interpreting it, SLMP guidelines were an overlay of the constitution. For instance, the Wilderness, Primitive, and Canoe Area zones effectively placed additional protections on the land, whereas the Wild Forest and Intensive Use zones sanctioned many of the Conservation Department’s prior activities.
In regards to motorized access, the SLMP permitted this use to continue in Wild Forest, with two important distinctions: for the first time there was guidance on motor vehicle roads and snowmobile trails, and it set the expectation that “Public use of motor vehicles will not be encouraged and there will not be any material increase in the mileage of roads and trails open to motorized use.”
The meaning of the words “material increase” has been debated ever since. The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) once provided estimates of the miles of roads and snowmobiles in the Forest Preserve as of 1972; these became benchmarks for determining whether, for instance, a new facility would result in a “material increase.” Some people argued that the two benchmarks should be adjusted upward to reflect state land acquired since 1972. In practice, “material increase” has proven to be as vaguely defined as “wild forest” in Article XIV.
Wilderness Advocacy and the SLMP
Some thoughtful commentators have suggested that the preserve never should have been zoned in 1972, and that its entire acreage should be accorded equal status — a status that is roughly equivalent to the modern wilderness designation, with mechanized travel mostly prohibited. This means the majority of snowmobile trail mileage, as well as roads owned and maintained by DEC, should be considered an unconstitutional violation of Article XIV and closed entirely.
This is an existential issue for an organization named Adirondack Wilderness Advocates; by acting as proponents for the Wilderness designation specifically, we are effectively a creature of the SLMP. An organization with our mission statement would be unlikely to exist prior to 1972, and indeed our name seems to implicitly endorse the zoning of the Forest Preserve. Had the master plan never been written, our mission to seek enhanced protections for certain areas would make far less sense.
Our activities until now have been largely focused on the areas of the Forest Preserve designated as Wilderness by the SLMP. Our original focus when we formed in 2016 was to arouse public support for a Wilderness classification at Boreas Ponds (a task at which we were partially successful, in terms of the outcome). We have since spoken up for other designated Wilderness areas throughout the Adirondack Park, and we seek to become a regional leader in wilderness advocacy.
Therefore it remains to be articulated what our views are in regards to the non-wilderness lands of the Adirondack Forest Preserve, as well as motorized access in general. If we favor Wilderness for qualifying portions of the preserve, does that mean we implicitly endorse mechanized access to the non-wilderness areas? In which circumstances might we favor a non-wilderness designation such as Wild Forest?
These are questions to which we wish to provide a broad answer – not just to our supporters, but for ourselves as well.
The Purpose of This Resolution
By adopting this resolution, AWA is putting on record a formal policy intended to help guide our decisions regarding future Forest Preserve actions. This policy is intended to offer some flexibility in dealing with a variety of situations, while at the same time providing a unifying vision for formulating our responses. And like any good policy statement, it should also guard against “mission creep” over time without preventing our ability to discuss proposals in good faith with other stakeholders.
As our name suggests, we would prefer to see Wilderness and wilderness-like areas preserved and expanded throughout the Adirondack Park as much as possible. This could mean the designation of newly acquired land as Wilderness, but it could also mean advocating for the long-term protection of certain Wild Forest areas that exhibit (or could exhibit) wilderness qualities.
It is further presumed that AWA regards the presence of mechanized recreation as disruptive to a wilderness experience, as defined by the SLMP. This observation is based on the fact that the absence or presence of motor vehicles is one of the defining elements of the Wilderness and Wild Forest classifications. However – and this is important – a Wild Forest classification does not require the state to accommodate motorized uses; a portion of the Forest Preserve could be classified Wild Forest and still exhibit wilderness characteristics.
If this is the case, then what should AWA’s position be in regards to motorized access to the lands and waters of the Forest Preserve where permitted under the SLMP? At the time we began this process, AWA had gone on the record opposing access roads that would intrude on the remoteness of certain areas, but we have also suggested adjustments to proposed new snowmobile trails to keep them within close proximity to a public highway. However, these positions were developed without a governing vision, and not always with unanimity among our board members.
Therefore the intent of this resolution is to begin the process of establishing a set of guidelines and criteria through which we may develop responses to future state proposals, or make proposals of our own. It states AWA’s preference for increasing opportunities for motorless recreation wherever possible, while not outright denouncing motorized access where it otherwise conforms to SLMP guidelines. It establishes the goal of increasing the perceived “wildness” of the Forest Preserve, particularly in places where wilderness attributes currently exist or may be achieved. This will be accomplished, as much as possible and where opportunities are presented, by either moving motorized facilities from interior areas to the periphery of the preserve, or through the retirement of unneeded/undesirable facilities.
Importantly, these policy statements regard all motorized access routes equally: a snowmobile trail in a remote area should be considered on par with a similarly-remote vehicle road leading to a hiking trail or paddling destination. If motors are disruptive to a wilderness experience, then it hardly matters which recreational user group the motor vehicles are benefiting the most.
At the same time, we recognize that we are one interest group among many operating within the Adirondack Park. Our goals are important to us, and we will do what we can to achieve them. An important tool we need to keep in our “kit” is the ability to work with parties who may not share the same priorities, whether that be other interest groups or government agencies. To that end, we need guidelines to help us determine circumstances where, say, a new snowmobile trail in a non-remote area will not antagonize our goals to preserve and enhance the protected Wilderness areas.
Thus, we are not necessarily “anti-motors.” We do, however, have firm ideas about how motorized recreation in the Forest Preserve can be accommodated without impacting the wilderness qualities we seek to protect.
Outlining our basic position in this manner should make it clear to all interested parties what our interests are, as well as add consistency to our responses.
Before we list the specific policy statements, it is important to clarify what we mean when we refer to certain terms. For instance, by “motor vehicle access” we are referring to specific activities on public land in the Adirondacks, and not the everyday vehicle traffic that occurs on a paved highway.
Relevant terms are defined as follows:
Aircraft – Any manned or unmanned aerial vessel, including planes, helicopters, and drones, which may be used to access or survey the Forest Preserve.
Automobile – A specific class of motor vehicle (see below) intended for general highway travel, but which may also be used for motorized access to the Forest Preserve. This term includes (but is not limited to) cars, trucks, motorcycles, and recreational vehicles.
Forest Preserve interior – The portion of the Forest Preserve not within close proximity to a public highway. An area of Forest Preserve adjacent to private land, a body of water, or another section of Forest Preserve would be considered an “interior” area if it is not immediately accessible by a route commonly used for transportation. One key exception is any public road identified in the SLMP for eventual closure; these roads across state land, which could be closed and added to the surrounding Wilderness, should be regarded as interior facilities.
Forest Preserve periphery – The portion of the Forest Preserve within close proximity to a public highway. For example, the SLMP makes permissions for limited facilities in Wilderness within 500 feet of a highway right of way, but no further. An area of Forest Preserve adjacent to private land, a body of water, or another section of Forest Preserve would not be “peripheral.” One key exception is any public road identified in the SLMP for eventual closure; these roads across state land, which could be closed and added to the surrounding Wilderness, should be regarded as interior facilities.
Forest Preserve road – Any way maintained and intended for the official and/or public use of automobiles, for any reason or for any time of year, with these distinctions: (1) the road is owned by the State of New York as part of the Forest Preserve; (2) the road is not a public highway maintained for general use, such as a town or county road; (3) the road is classified in the SLMP as anything other than a Travel Corridor, excluding campground loops or roads that provide access to state-owned ski centers or historic sites; and (4) the road is not exclusively used by private persons as part of a deeded right of way across state land. Essentially, this term refers to any way intended to provide access to the Forest Preserve by automobile, as an auxiliary to a public road or highway.
Mechanical access and mechanical recreation – In addition to motorized access and recreation as defined elsewhere, this term refers to any human-powered device intended to enhance the speed, endurance, and/or capabilities of an otherwise unaccommodated person. Examples include (but are not limited to) bicycles and hang-gliders, which are modern transportation devices specifically designed to magnify the abilities of the human body. By contrast skis, poles, and paddles are tools traditionally used for millennia for propulsion. Furthermore, “mechanical” excludes prosthetic devices, as well as certain wheeled devices approved for use in Wilderness, such as hand carts, wheelchairs, and wagons.
Motor vehicle – Any transportation device powered by artificial means, including internal combustion engines and electric motors, regardless of whether the transportation occurs by land, water, or air. This includes devices in which the motor or engine only provides a percentage of the locomotive energy. For the sake of this resolution, “motor vehicle” includes (but is not limited to) automobiles, snowmobiles, motorboats, planes, helicopters, motorcycles, electric bicycles, and all-terrain vehicles.
Motorized access and motorized recreation – Any public use of motor vehicles and automobiles, as defined elsewhere, on the Forest Preserve, at any time of year and for any purpose. This excludes access to developed facilities (i.e. campground loops or ski centers), or motorized use of lakes in mixed ownership.
Motorized trail – Any route in the Forest Preserve maintained and intended for public land-based recreational travel, often (but not always) in places where automobiles cannot travel. Examples include snowmobile trails, as well as trails where the use of motorized bicycles is sanctioned. Deeded rights of way for private landowners across state land are not included, to the extent these are authorized under binding legal agreements.
Motorless recreation – Any form of public recreation in the Forest Preserve that is entirely muscle-powered, including foot and ski travel, paddling, and the use of horses. In a wilderness context, this does not include bicycles or other means of “mechanical” access, where the device magnifies the muscular effort to achieve an advantage of speed or range.
Wilderness attributes – The qualities of any portion of state land, regardless of SLMP classification, that make it worthy of consideration for additional protections beyond the baseline provisions of Article XIV of the New York State constitution. These attributes may be quantitative (physical size, potential for remoteness, distance from populated areas), aesthetic (high opportunities for solitude, sense of remoteness, absence of non-conforming features), descriptive (rugged terrain features that limit potential human uses, lack of developed facilities, lack of motorized/mechanized access), or biotic (presence of rare or sensitive habitats, a known population of fragile or reclusive species). An area does not need to possess all of these features to have a “wilderness character,” but its quality may increase if certain non-conforming features can be closed or realigned.
A Resolution of the Board of Directors of Adirondack Wilderness Advocates, Inc.
Adopted January 16, 2021
WHEREAS Adirondack Wilderness Advocates (AWA) was established in 2016 to promote “the knowledge, enjoyment, expansion, and protection of the Adirondack Park’s wildest places,” and specifically to advocate for the health of lands that are currently protected as Wilderness as well as those lands that could be eligible for a Wilderness classification; and
WHEREAS the Board of Directors intends AWA to be an advocate for all areas of the Forest Preserve that exhibit, or which may exhibit, strong wilderness attributes, regardless of status under the SLMP;
NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that AWA adopts the following guidelines in regards to addressing matters of motorized access to the Forest Preserve, and that these guidelines shall henceforth be used to inform all relevant statements and actions:
- We generally support the provisions of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (SLMP) as it is currently published at the time this resolution is adopted. However, like any management document the SLMP should be adapted over time to evolving circumstances, and AWA wishes to participate in that process if and when such opportunities occur. No changes to the SLMP should occur without substantial public involvement, nor should they result in a net relaxation/reduction/degradation of state land protections. Instead, the cumulative effect of any modifications should favor resource protection instead of recreational access.
- Two of AWA’s primary objectives are to preserve wilderness attributes wherever they may currently be found, and to promote actions that would extend them to additional areas where possible. We regard these as desirable landscape characteristics that are difficult (if not impossible) to replicate in non-wilderness areas. These objectives may be applied to existing Forest Preserve parcels, newly acquired lands, and/or tracts of private land for which public acquisition is either imminent or desirable.
- Remoteness is a rare but important wilderness attribute, and one that may be easily measured. We define “remoteness” in this context as the maximum distance from motorized vehicles that one may reach within any area of the Forest Preserve. In addition to acreage, remoteness should be regarded as a key metric when determining the quality of a wilderness area, and extending remoteness should be as desirable as expanding acreage. Remoteness can often be increased without land acquisition by modifying or retiring motorized trails and roads that penetrate into interior areas.
- Opportunities for motorized and mechanized access to the Forest Preserve would be more wisely located in peripheral areas or smaller parcels, while the larger, more secluded parcels generally should be managed to preserve their wilderness attributes. Motorized/mechanized access facilities should be placed where they will be easily enjoyed by a broad number of people, and where they will be in close proximity to population centers, travel corridors, businesses, and public services, with minimal intrusion on interior and/or remote areas.
- We see no distinction in the purposes for motorized access to interior areas. Specifically, a road that generally serves to provide canoe access to an otherwise remote waterway is just as contrary to the goals of wilderness preservation as a snowmobile trail. While we recognize the need to provide an array of recreational activities, a person who requires or desires motorized access is by definition not seeking remoteness.
- The operation of aircraft (manned or unmanned) at low altitudes over the Forest Preserve with wilderness attributes should be discouraged, unless the aircraft is preparing to land (in places where such access is authorized) or is performing an official function (such as an emergency operation, fish stocking, or the delivery of materials).
- Care should be exercised to ensure that opportunities for motorless recreation are extended to accessible areas where feasible, for the benefit of people who wish to enjoy these settings but cannot hike great distances.
- We view Article XIV of the New York State Constitution as being neutral in regards to the relationship of motorized access to the concept of a “wild forest.” In all likelihood, this was not a concern of the authors of this clause, who were primarily motivated to prevent the destruction of timber. In this context, “wild” seems to refer to a forest in which the lifecycles of its trees are not directly interrupted by human activities. Research should be conducted to determine the conditions in which human recreation may be disruptive to the biological processes of a forest and its community of life.
- Management of the Forest Preserve should shift to a complex management model, in which related management units are regarded on a regional basis as part of a comprehensive plan. Ideally, this would replace the current unit management model as specified in the SLMP, in which each Wilderness and Wild Forest is managed as a separate entity. Often, adjacent Forest Preserve areas share certain features, such as trails that cross from one unit to the next, or an access road through a Wild Forest that leads to a Wilderness entry point. Opportunities for motorized and mechanized access to the Forest Preserve should be regarded on a regional level, and considered holistically for their effects on ecology, remoteness and solitude.
NOW THEREFORE BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that these guidelines may be enumerated as necessary for easier reference and identification, without the need for further Board action; but that any changes to the guidelines themselves, including the text and meaning of any item, can only be approved by the Board of Directors; and only the Board of Directors may authorize any representative of AWA to take or endorse an action that would be an exception to these guidelines.