Cathead Mountain and the Silver Lake Wilderness

If you have been following the story of Adirondack Wilderness Advocates, you know it began with an energetic campaign to achieve a strong wilderness classification at a place called Boreas Ponds, located at the southern foot of the High Peaks region.

At Boreas, it seemed very much like our group was pitting itself directly against a wall of local town supervisors, all of them vocally antagonistic to the idea of wilderness, even if that perception wasn’t completely accurate. It certainly wasn’t our intent to pit ourselves against anything other than the idea of motorized public access deep within a remote and wild area, and we made a deliberate effort at the time to remain focused on our goals, not the park politics or the personalities.

Therefore one goal we would now like to achieve is a significant expansion of a protected Adirondack wilderness area with the support of local government, not despite it.

Our first such opportunity may be to expand the Silver Lake Wilderness in the southern Adirondacks. Since 2018, we have been in contact with leaders in Hamilton County in regards to a proposed land exchange at Cathead Mountain in Benson. The purpose of the exchange would be to allow the county access to the summit, where they need to install a microwave emitter that will connect one of their hamlets to a planned county-wide communications network. Although generally supported by park stakeholders, the proposed Article XIV amendment failed to gain legislative traction in 2020.

We would like to use this moment, should it ever advance, to spark a larger discussion about the neighboring wilderness. The Silver Lake area is an outstanding place to explore, with vast acreages of seemingly untouched forest. But it also has a few access issues, a town road with an unresolved status, and a southern boundary that sells the area short.

So if we are talking about some modest development on this one mountain in the name of public safety – a concern that seems urgently important to local government – then why not use this time to also talk about better protecting the Silver Lake Wilderness? We are especially excited about the thousands of undeveloped Forest Preserve acreage immediately south of the wilderness boundary, which seem to be screaming “reclassification.” Local government leaders so have no objection, and in fact they do seem to see the value in a collaborative effort between stakeholders working to achieve their various goals.

If anything, the biggest source of inertia in that effort may actually lie with DEC.

A Multi-Staged Project

If we are to achieve our goal of significantly expanding the Silver Lake Wilderness, it will mean participating in several key steps: first by working with Hamilton County and other stakeholders to achieve a voter-approved land exchange that meets the needs of local government while resulting in a net benefit to the Forest Preserve, and then by initiating a post-exchange conversation about the status of the Silver Lake Wilderness.

Cathead is a complex issue with multiple stakeholders, including a Schenectady-based hunting club, Hamilton County, the NYS State Police, and the Department of Environmental Conservation – as well as various other interest groups which, like AWA, wish to see access to the mountain restored in a way that will also result in a net gain for the Forest Preserve.

Many people may know Cathead as the fire tower summit near Northville that has been closed to public access for over twenty years. The mountain’s summit is owned by a private hunting club, which curtailed hiking access to the DEC tower in 1998 after an access dispute with the state. The problem is that this privately-owned mountain is completely encircled by Forest Preserve lands, and no legal right of way exists into the inholding; the landowners are free to cross state land on foot, but motor vehicles are not permitted.

Nevertheless, Cathead Mountain plays a key role in public service communications. The NY State Police already maintain an array of emitters on the summit, all of them affixed to the closed fire tower. But because of the property’s isolation, this equipment is powered by a combination of wind, solar, and propane generators – all of it accessed by helicopter.

Hamilton County is also seeking to build its own communication network, and therefore it, too, needs access to the summit of Cathead Mountain, with its strategic sight-line connections with other towers. The county’s proposed microwave emitter tower would connect the hamlet of Wells with the rest of its network, as well as link Hamilton County with its neighbor to the south, Fulton County.

The problem? The same lack of a right of way across state land that forces the State Police to access the mountain by helicopter also hinders any other public agencies that would lease access to Cathead. And since the county does not own a helicopter, their only option is land-based access.

The Proposed Amendment

Hamilton County is therefore seeking an amendment to Article XIV of the NYS Constitution, better known as the “forever wild clause.” The proposal as currently being discussed would be a three-way land exchange between the state, the county, and the hunting club that owns the mountain:

  • The county would gain access to a strip of existing state land about 80 acres in size, located at the foot of the mountain, for the purposes of motor vehicle entry. This right of way, by extension, would also be available to use by members of the hunting club, but it would not be open to the public.
  • The county would give at least 80 acres of land to New York State for inclusion in the Forest Preserve.
  • The hunting club would give roughly 480 acres (three lots of about 160 acres each) to New York State for inclusion in the Forest Preserve. These lots would include the outer flanks of Cathead Mountain, though not the summit itself.
  • The hunting club would allow public hiking access to the summit, and allow the county to build a service road to the new communication tower.
  • The hunting club would also grant New York State a conservation easement on their property, as well as a “right of first refusal” should they ever decide to sell their inholding.

Procedurally, this exchange needs to be approved by two consecutive sessions of the state legislature, and then by a public referendum, before it becomes an official amendment to the state’s constitution. “First passage” had been hoped for the 2020 legislative session, but Albany failed to take up this measure.

AWA’s Involvement

We have played a leading role from the beginning, by meeting with stakeholders, exploring the mountain, and traveling to Albany to meet with potential sponsors from the NYS Assembly.

On two occasions, we have joined county leaders and representatives from other watchdog groups to explore the mountain, including the traditional access routes, the proposed right of way across the Forest Preserve, and the anticipated route of the county’s service road. In 2019 we attended two meetings in Albany, at which time we met interested members of the Assembly and their staff.

Our Cathead Concerns

Currently, Cathead Mountain is part of a private inholding surrounded on all sides by the Silver Lake Wilderness, a vast area of protected backcountry extending from Benson to Speculator. The mountain is near the edge of that wilderness, but the 80 acres being sought by the county and the hunting club are nevertheless wilderness acreage.

All other concerns aside, the proposed land exchange is similar to many other past Article XIV amendments approved by the voters: it is being initiated by a public need (in this case, Hamilton County’s desire to improve its emergency communications), and ultimately it will result in more acreage being added to the Forest Preserve than is being withdrawn.

Nevertheless, this will be a lot of development occurring within the Silver Lake Wilderness. The hunting club will have road access to their inholding for the first time ever, there will be a new microwave tower on the mountain’s north summit, and there will be a new service road and power line leading to that tower.

The hunting club insists they do not intend to develop their property; they tell us they like it the way it is, and that the new motor vehicle access will likely be a convenience for their older members, and nothing more. AWA is committed to Forest Preserve issues, and as a matter of policy we do not take stances on what private landowners lawfully do with their own property. To us, the key developments in regards to the hunting club are the conservation easement and the right of first refusal being granted to the state.

Likewise, the county insists the service road will be a nominal development, the minimum needed to run a ground-based power line to the summit and to access their equipment – not a highway that will be open to the public. For AWA, these are key expectations: that we are not creating a new use on the mountain, but replacing the helicopter access with a less-noticeable form of ground access. The proposed service road would not be constructed adjacent to wilderness lands, other than the short section at the foot of the mountain.

The sum of these changes, though, is a Cathead Mountain that will be a poorer candidate for wilderness status than it already is.

Therefore we are concerned not just by the amendment itself, but by the implications it will have on the future growth of the Silver Lake Wilderness.

Fortunately, there are two potential remedies.

A Bigger, More Remote Wilderness

One is the potential closure of the westernmost end of West River Road near Wells, which penetrates deep into the heart of the Silver Lake Wilderness. The final 2 miles of this road are almost completely within the wilderness, and the State Land Master Plan recommends its closure. If the county is seeking to build a new road within the historic boundaries of the wilderness, then it seems a fair trade that a portion of existing road be closed elsewhere.

But even more intriguing is the potential for a sweeping addition to the Silver Lake Wilderness along its southern boundary. A portion of the Shaker Mountain Wild Forest abuts the wilderness in neighboring Fulton County, and a region known as the “County Line Lakes” seems almost indistinguishable from the wilderness lands to the north in Hamilton County. It would be very easy to push the wilderness boundary southward to include thousands of acres of existing Forest Preserve, much of it undeveloped and little-known.

This significant expansion of the Silver Lake Wilderness is our ultimate goal, and the reason why we are making this a priority project. But we know very well we can’t do this on our own. We would like this to be a mutual project between ourselves, the people like you who support our mission, local government, state agencies, and other watchdog groups.

For instance, if we are willing to listen to the county’s needs to enhance its public services, we expect local government to also understand our desire to protect and enhance wilderness values. There is no reason these should be mutually exclusive goals. Right?

Current Status – What Can the Public Do?

We had been hoping 2020 would be the year this project sprouted legs. Obviously, other things happened.

The key delay right now lies with the state legislature, which failed to take up the proposed Cathead Mountain Amendment this year. Without this first domino, the rest cannot fall in line; until the legislature approves the land exchange through the required first and second passages, it will not advance to the public referendum. And without the land exchange, the wilderness expansion is not likely to occur on its own.

But should the logjam be cleared, boy will there be a need for public support and action! As previously mentioned, this will be a multi-staged effort, with at least two separate-but-related opportunities for public input:

  1. For NYS voters, the constitutional amendment process requires a yes-or-no item be placed on Election Day ballots. This will give you a chance to either approve or reject the Cathead Mountain land exchange.
  2. Should the above action succeed, AWA will work with its allies to seek the wilderness boundary expansion. Much like our ground-breaking Boreas Ponds campaign, this will involve public hearings, letter-writing campaigns, and applying pressure to certain state agencies which might otherwise be reluctant to tinker with the status quo.

To be sure, when we reach these phases we will have much to say about it – and your support will be critical to our success! In the meantime, you can ensure that you have added your name to our contact lists by signing up with the link below.

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