Forgotten Cabins of the Forest Preserve

One of the tenets behind the management of the Adirondack Forest Preserve is that it be maintained in a completely wild state, free of permanent human habitation – no buildings, no permanent residences.

In the early days, there were extant lumber camps on the lands the state had been buying up throughout the new Adirondack Park, and sometimes those camps even served as homes for squatters.

The state commissions put in place to manage the preserve in those days were ambivalent on these points; one official wrote in 1909 that so long as these squatters weren’t erecting any new buildings, “the forests and streams of the state are open to [all] law abiding citizens to roam around in if it suits their fancy and so long as they do not commit any depredations there never has been any objection to their occupying such shelters as may be convenient to cover them and make them comfortable.”

But this leniency was short-lived; by 1920, when the Conservation Commission first began managing the Forest Preserve for recreation, cabins had been deemed incompatible with the constitutional mandate that these lands be kept “forever wild.” Lean-tos for transient campers were fine, but several attempts to reinterpret or amend “forever wild” to include cabins in the 1920s and 1930s were roundly defeated. The only exceptions have been ranger stations, of which only a handful remain.

To this day it remains the practice to remove any cabins that may still exist when land is acquired for the Forest Preserve. Typically this is done within three years of the purchase, if not immediately. However, Adirondack Wilderness Advocates (AWA) has been tracking the status of three cabins that still remain on Forest Preserve parcels acquired in the 1970s and 1980s.

With state agencies now considering the future of a cabin at Debar Pond in the northern Adirondacks, we are asking these same officials to begin removal plans for the following three cabins, each of which stand in remote backcountry locations.

Click through the tabs below to read about each cabin and see pictures of their current conditions.

Documents

The northernmost cabin stands in the general vicinity of the popular Cranberry Lake 50 hiking trail. Abandoned since at least 2005, this was a former hunting camp leased from the prior landowner, the Otterbrook Timber Company, which sold a 7500-acre tract southeast of Cranberry Lake to the Forest Preserve in 1989. The state honored this exclusive lease for a period of about 15 years, and so the cabin was legally occupied through the end of 2005.

In 2009, the land on which it stands was added to the Five Ponds Wilderness. Per State Land Master Plan guidance, the three-year grace period to remove non-conforming structures expired in 2012.

However, the structure still remains in a state of abandonment and severe neglect. Although only a short distance from the CL50 loop, that trail has been rerouted slightly so that most hikers never see the cabin. Even so, there is some on-site evidence that the former bunkroom is still used occasionally by campers, although the conditions are squalid. The other half of the structure suffers from a collapsed roof and floor and is therefore uninhabitable.

Prior to its use as a hunting camp, the structure may have been a bunkhouse for Proulx’s logging camp, a name which refers to a lumber contractor for the Emporium Forestry Company in the 1910s. If so, the structure is more than a century old. But given its poor condition and the surrounding wilderness classification, the cabin should be removed immediately.

Motor vehicle access by ground is no longer possible due to the wilderness classification. However, the cabin stands on the edge of a large clearing that may permit access by air.

Otterbrook Tract Cabin Summary

Acquired: 1989

Last Permitted Use: 2005

Management Area: Five Ponds Wilderness

Gaps in Management Planning

The one common element all of these sites share is that none have been included in management planning, a required process for every part of the Forest Preserve. As intended, unit management plans (UMPs) should be written by DEC for each wilderness and wild forest in the Adirondack Park, and then revised on a regular five-year schedule. Certainly, a good UMP would’ve identified these structures and established a plan and a timetable for their removal.

In practice, several key Forest Preserve tracts have never been the subject of a completed plan, including the Ferris Lake Wild Forest (setting for the Hillabrandt Club cabin) and the West Canada Lake Wilderness (the home of Little Moose Lake). As for the Otterbrook site, this location was added to the Five Ponds Wilderness fifteen years after its last UMP update in 1994, and so it too has been overlooked by the management planning process.

On the other hand, are formal UMPs really necessary? If indeed that is the reason why DEC has not taken action after so many years, we do not think it is a valid justification. There is no imaginable scenario in which these non-conforming structures would be retained, even on historic preservation grounds. Therefore in our opinion their removal should’ve been automatic upon the acquisition of the land and the expiration of all private uses – the same as all other new state land purchases.

Our Expectations

In each case, the cabin represents an illegal structure in the Forest Preserve, regardless of land classification. They also pose safety hazards, especially Little Moose and Otterbrook. But in addition to these concerns, so much time has elapsed at the two wilderness sites that the land classifications have now eliminated certain access options. Specifically, demolition crews are now barred from accessing the two wilderness sites by land-based means, because the three-year window for doing so expired long ago. The state’s past inaction may therefore add to the cost and difficulty of any effort to bring the sites into full compliance now.

Nevertheless, AWA is calling upon DEC to begin the prompt removal of all three cabins. Their existence is not in compliance with Article XIV of the New York State constitution and the State Land Master Plan, and their poor state of repair makes them public nuisances. Evidence of continued recreational use – and the possibility of increased use in the future – makes it imperative that these sites be addressed in 2021.

We further expect that all efforts by demolition crews to access these sites will abide by the requirements of the State Land Master Plan, which prohibit ground access by motor vehicles on lands classified as wilderness. Although these cabins were all once serviced by narrow forestry roads, so much time has passed since the state’s acquisition that the roads have reverted to trail status – an observation that applies specifically to Little Moose and Otterbrook. Fortunately these two sites can be accessed by air, whereas Hillabrandt stands along an established snowmobile trail.

These three cabins have been allowed to deteriorate long enough, and they need to be removed before they attract ill-advised public use and possibly even vandalism. We will continue to follow their status and provide updates as they become available.

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