RAY BROOK - The state Adirondack Park Agency Board of Commissioners is expected to vote today on a recommendation by its staff to establish a 23,000-acre wilderness area around the Hudson River Gorge and a 9,800-acre primitive area that includes the Essex Chain of Lakes.
The decision, a recommendation to Gov. Andrew Cuomo who has the final say, will be one of the most closely watched votes by the agency board in years. It comes after months of intense debate among the Park's environmental groups, local government officials and recreationists about how much public access should be allowed to these lands, some of which have been in private hands since before the Civil War.
"This day has been a long time in coming," APA board Chairwoman Lani Ulrich said at the end of the agency's first day of deliberations on Wednesday.
Robert and Jessica Hunter paddle a canoe on Deer Pond on the Essex Chain of Lakes tract in October, when the state first opened the lakes to the public.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
The lands the agency will consider for classification include roughly 22,000 acres in the towns of Minerva, Newcomb and Indian Lake that the state bought this year from The Nature Conservancy: the Essex Chain, OK Slip Falls and Indian River tracts. The board is also considering reclassifying another 20,000 acres of adjacent Forest Preserve land.
APA staff have recommended a plan that would designate much of this acreage as either wilderness, the state's most restrictive classification, or primitive, which is managed as wilderness but has some nonconforming aspects. The existing Hudson River Gorge Primitive Area would become part of a larger Hudson Gorge Wilderness Area that would also include the OK Slip Falls tract and part of the Indian River tract.
Most of the Essex Chain tract, particularly the portion around the Essex Chain of Lakes, would be designated primitive, although northern sections would become wild forest, the least restrictive Forest Preserve classification.
The staff's plan would also create a snowmobile trail corridor through the heart of the property on lands designated as wild forest, running along the border between the new Hudson Gorge Wilderness and the new Essex Chain Primitive Area.
However, the snowmobile corridor would require a new bridge to be built over the Cedar River, and that couldn't happen without two changes to state regulations: one by the APA, another by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
"The bridge would probably be 100 to 120 feet," APA legal counsel James Townsend said during Wednesday's deliberations. "To get that span in a wild forest area, you need to reinforce it somehow. How that happens would require a change in our wild forest guidelines. In the (draft) resolution, we commit to undertake this.
"The second change that needs to be made is by (DEC) of its scenic river regulations, which currently prohibit snowmobile bridges over a scenic river," Townsend added. "They've committed to undertake that."
"It's going to take changes and a lift, and that's a completely secondary process," Ulrich said.
More than a half-dozen options for classification of these lands had been proposed by the APA and were the subject of a series of public hearings this summer in the Park and around the state. In the end, though, the option agency staff recommended wasn't on that list.
Earlier Wednesday, APA planner Kathy Regan outlined why some of the other choices weren't picked. In her explanation she focused primarily on the Essex Chain tract, as that was where most of the variation was in the classification options.
Regan said the natural resources of the Essex Chain of Lakes were deemed to be sensitive enough to justify making it wilderness, but that certain "intangible considerations" preclude a wilderness classification. Those include a series of easements and reserved rights held by the two hunting clubs that have leased the lands. Until October 2018, the Gooley Club and the Polaris Club have limited motorized access to their camps. The Nature Conservancy also has a right to motorized access to the Essex Chain until October 2019.
While those are temporary easements, there are also more permanent restrictions that Regan said preclude a wilderness classification for the Essex Chain, including rights The Nature Conservancy granted the towns of Minerva and Newcomb to allow for floatplane access to First and Pine lakes.
"These activities would be nonconforming in lands classified as wilderness," Regan said. "The presence of floatplanes in such proximity to the chain lakes would prevent the sense of remoteness expected in a wilderness area."
Creating the Park's second canoe area, another classification option for the Essex Chain, was ruled out for the same reasons. Regan said the motorized access allowed by easements and other rights would not comply with the state's criteria and guidelines for a canoe area.
The agency also weighed two options that would have designated much of the Essex Chain as wild forest. They were crossed off the list, Regan said, because the sensitive natural resources of the lakes, ponds and wetlands in the tract "require wilderness-type management.
"High value wetlands ring the lakes and are found in the channels which connect the lakes," Regan said. "These resources require protection from overuse. Motorized watercraft would degrade the aquatic ecosystem usage patterns would likely disturb the habitat of fish and wildlife and lead to the destruction of aquatic plants."
The proposed classification drafted by agency staff has drawn mixed reactions from the Park's stakeholders.
Hamilton County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Farber said local government leaders don't like everything about the package. They would have preferred some motorboat access to the Essex Chain of Lakes.
But he says local government got most what it needed, including some access to these new lands for floatplanes, and trails for snowmobiles.
"At first blush it looks encouraging that many of the uses that were most important to the towns may be sustained," he said.
Nature Conservancy spokeswoman Connie Prickett says her organization worked hard to make the deal work for local communities.
"We asked the towns what kinds of opportunities would be of interest to them," she said.
Specifically, the Conservancy hard-wired into this deal that there would be opportunities for the kind of motorized recreation that local leaders wanted, including floatplane access to two ponds.
"We made a promise that we would do that," Prickett recalled, "as we did with the snowmobile connector trails."
Peter Bauer, director of Protect the Adirondacks, says he loves a lot of this land classification plan, but he says some of the details make him nervous.
"What's being proposed here, with a motorized wild forest corridor through the heart of a major new forest preserve area, bridges over wild, scenic and recreational rivers, this is really the new normal for Forest Preserve management and classification in the future," he said.
Today's agency meeting is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. It will be webcast live at apa.ny.gov.
Brian Mann, Adirondack Bureau Chief of North Country Public Radio, contributed to this report.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or email@example.com.