The fact that the state Department of Environmental Conservation hasn't finished the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest Unit Management Plan, 10 years into the process, is not exactly a surprise.
The department has struggled to complete management plans for all the state land it owns in the Adirondack Park. The unit management plan page on DEC's website lists 50 state land units in the Park, 15 of which don't have completed plans.
Gov. George Pataki recognized the challenge as far back as 1999, when he set a five-year deadline for completing UMPs for all Forest Preserve lands in the Adirondacks and the Catskills, a deadline that still hasn't been met.
"It's three governors later, and that's still a concern for everybody involved," said John Sheehan of the Adirondack Council, an environmental group.
Sheehan said staffing cuts are a big reason why DEC's UMP effort has languished.
"They've lost 20 percent of their staff since 2008," he said. "Given the strain on DEC's personnel right now, they're not in a position to do this any faster."
Rob Davies, DEC's director of lands and forests, says that has been factor, but he also says the UMPs the department is working on now are more involved than earlier ones, and the expectations are higher.
"There's a lot more research, information and data that's just required to be in them," Davies said. "At the same time, the snowmobiling issues and some of the real challenges that were in all the unit management plans kept tripping us up and hanging up the unit management plans. So during those years, the UMP process slowed down."
Now, the process is back on track, Davies said. He said there are plans covering 80 percent of the Forest Preserve lands in the Park and the remaining plans will be completed in the next few years.
But that's not the end of the process. Each UMP is supposed to be reviewed every five years, something that's happened rarely, if at all.
"From experience, we've already seen that plans are not going to be revised every five years; that is not realistic," said Protect the Adirondacks Director Peter Bauer. "If they even manage to implement a plan over five years, that would be an accomplishment, but often times, the plans are not even fully implemented over five years, and a lot of that is due to funding."
Davies says the state shouldn't be "wedded" to reviewing approved UMPs every five years.
"There may be changes to a land base where we need to amend it a year after we've done a UMP," he said. "It could be 10 or 20 years between when we've done a unit management plan and when we should amend it. It's just important to realize they're living documents that periodically have to be reviewed and changed."
Adding to DEC's challenge, however, the state continues to add more land to the Forest Preserve. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced earlier this year that the state will buy 69,000 acres of former Finch, Pruyn and Co. timberlands over the next five years. A management plan will have to be created for each of those units, however many there end up being.
All of this begs a question: Is there another way to plan for management of the Park's state lands? Davies says that's something that's being discussed within DEC and the state Adirondack Park Agency.
"A lot of the Forest Preserve over the last 100 or 120 years has come together as piecemeal; nobody could have foreseen 100 years ago, the mosaic, the puzzle as it's come together," Davies said. "I do think now it's an appropriate time to stand back, look at the information we've put together in the UMPs and start looking at these areas in much larger regional complexes, and that's what we are starting to do. We are starting to look at the Park in four or five different large regional complexes, and already starting the outreach to the communities and different stakeholder groups to start that process."