The Adirondack Park is a unique mix of public and private lands, with spectacular tracts of true wilderness intermixed with vibrant communities. Not only is this a landscape where many people come from afar to explore, but it is also the place where thousands of New Yorkers live and work.
According to 2018 statistics, the park is a massive 5.8 million acres in size, of which only 44.6% is owned by the state. Most of that acreage—2.6 million acres—is of course made up of Forest Preserve land, protected in perpetuity by the state’s constitution. And much of this land is additionally protected as wilderness.
But 49.4% of the Adirondack Park is privately owned land—everything from residential lots to apartment complexes, vacation homes, forestry tracts, mines, amusement parks, golf courses, shopping centers, ski centers, hospitals, Olympic venues, historic sites, college campuses, RV campgrounds, houses of worship, family farms, museums, public schools, gas stations, banks, bakeries, breweries, senior centers, Star Trek set recreations, dude ranches, and much, much more.
The relationship between these public and private lands has long been a source of tension. Early park planners in the 1890s only addressed private land by encouraging wealthy landowners to create private parks—a means to augment the Forest Preserve at a time when protected public lands only consisted of small and scattered parcels.
But for many decades there was no official policy regarding the use of private land development, other than a general ban on highway billboards. At the same time, much of the acreage was held by a small number of corporate landowners. Fears that these vast tracts might become subdivided and developed into vacation resorts contributed to the creation of the Adirondack Park Agency in 1971, a board delegated with the authority to implement a park-wide management plan to protect open spaces and guide development.
In the half-century since then, much has changed. Of the unprotected open space that existed in the 1960s, the vast majority has been protected through a variety of means, including acquisition in fee and easement by the State of New York.
This is not to say that the work of protecting the Adirondacks is completed and we can all go home. Development plans for various sites throughout the park continue to be advanced for review, from waterfront properties to ski resorts. Often these are sources of public controversies.
When this organization, Adirondack Wilderness Advocates, came together in 2016, we were united by a common passion to protect public land. The background and expertise of our founding members made us uniquely qualified to speak on behalf of Forest Preserve issues—that portion of the Adirondack Park that had first drawn us to this beautiful region, or in some cases where some of us worked.
At the same time, we also made the informal decision not to become active in issues involving private land development. While an important topic, we decided that private land issues were not within our area of expertise, and that other groups were already focused on these issues. AWA would be exactly what its name promised: a wilderness advocacy organization, thus giving ourselves a clear focus as we built our new organization.
However, there will be some cases in which private land issues may have an impact on nearby parcels of public land, such as by impeding recreational access or affecting conditions in the interior, or in the instance of proposed land exchanges. In these events AWA will see a need to become involved to speak on behalf of a healthy Forest Preserve.
Therefore we are defining this policy as part of our ongoing effort to articulate our tenets and provide a rational framework for our decision-making process.
A Resolution of the Board of Directors of Adirondack Wilderness Advocates, Inc.
Adopted October 22, 2022
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 public lands that exhibit wilderness characteristics; and
WHEREAS the Adirondack Park consists of 5.8 million acres of public and private land; and
WHEREAS activities that occur on one parcel could impair the public’s access to and enjoyment of public land, or otherwise affect the natural health of the land, thus creating a public concern;
NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that AWA adopts the following guidelines in regards to addressing matters of private land management and development, and that these guidelines shall henceforth be used to inform all relevant statements and actions:
- AWA is primarily interested in the health of public land, especially (but not limited to) those areas that exhibit wilderness attributes or that adjoin them. Broadly speaking, these areas include the Forest Preserve, state forests, public conservation easements, or any other open space reserve.
- Private land management and development issues are of concern only when a proposed new use, structure, or activity can be reasonably expected to impact nearby public lands.
- These impacts may:
- Impair, restrict, or intimidate an established access point to public land
- Impair the ecological health of the public land
- Degrade the natural soundscape of the public land, or visually intrude on interior areas despite substantial separation
- Result in changes to private rights of way across public land
- AWA will advocate in favor of the public acquisition of land when willing sellers are identified or when desirable tracts are either placed on the market or proposed for subdivision and development.
- Conservation easements are private properties in which the public owns certain vested interests, such as public recreation rights or limits on development. Since the public owns these specific interests, conservation easements are a kind of public land that fall within AWA’s mission parameters, insomuch as they protect open space and are used by the public for recreation or to access adjacent tracts of state land. Otherwise the landowner is free to engage in those activities that are permitted in the easement agreement and do not threaten the public’s interests.
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.