RAY BROOK - State Adirondack Park Agency commissioners classified 42,000 acres of state land in the central Adirondacks Friday, Dec. 13, heralding their decision as a compromise that protects the environment and creates new opportunities for public recreation.
"There are many voices in this discussion, and lots of people have made compromises to get to this point," APA Commissioner Richard Booth said at the agency board's meeting Friday. "I'm convinced that without those compromises, we not only wouldn't have got to this point - we wouldn't have gotten close to this point."
The board voted unanimously to pass their staff's recommendation on to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. It's a classification package that involves 22,000 acres of former Finch, Pruyn and Co. timberlands the state bought from The Nature Conservancy: the Essex Chain Lakes tract, home to series of inter-connected lakes and ponds; the Indian River tract, site of a key takeout point that will open up a 12-mile stretch of the Hudson River to recreational paddling; and the OK Slip Falls tract, which boasts one of the state's highest waterfalls. The package also includes another 20,000 acres of adjacent Forest Preserve lands.
The agency's plan would create a new 23,494-acre Hudson Gorge Wilderness Area, a 6,955-acre Essex Chain Lakes Primitive Area, a 2,798-acre Pine Lake Primitive Area and two smaller primitive areas. It would also add 7,000 acres to the existing Blue Mountain Wild Forest and 1,000 acres to the Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forest.
One of the plan's key recommendations calls for a snowmobile trail on a wild forest corridor through the heart of the property, primarily on old logging roads, linking Indian Lake to Newcomb and Minerva. Making the trail happen will take changes in both APA and state Department of Environmental Conservation regulations, as well as construction of a new bridge over the Cedar River.
Unanswered legal questions surrounding the creation of this snowmobile trail are the reason why the APA recommended two separate primitive areas west of the Hudson River: the Essex Chain and Pine Lake primitive areas. If the legal issues can be resolved and the snowmobile bridge built over the Cedar River, the two areas would later be combined into a single 9,900-acre Essex Chain Primitive Area. If not, the two areas would remain separate and an alternate snowmobile trail route would be developed that would avoid crossing the Cedar.
The agency also found that the existing roads on the Essex Chain tract could be used for mountain biking. As part of the resolution it approved Friday, the board agreed to consider revising its guidelines for primitive areas to allow for the use of mountain bikes on the tract's logging roads.
The lakes of the Essex Chain will be off limits to motorboats if the governor approves the agency's recommendation. However, floatplanes can continue to use First Lake and Pine Lake, and the towns of Minerva, Newcomb and Indian Lake will have access to several gravel pits on the tract that they can use to maintain its roads.
While the overall plan for these lands won't make everyone happy, Commissioner Bill Thomas called it a "compromise that I believe protects the lands and also provides recreational opportunities for the communities surrounding this area."
Commisioner Sherman Craig said, "I think the final solution is not exactly what I would have wanted, but we have a very good balance of protection and access, which allows a diverse mix of recreation."
Commissioner Karen Feldman, who joined the APA board earlier this year, said the plan "keeps a promise made to the towns when they were asked to consent to the sale of these tracts, that they would see economic benefit." However, Feldman said she's concerned about the loss of fishing and hunting camps on the newly acquired lands.
"Their removal truly marks the end of an era, a way of life, and the long-standing traditions of hunting, camping and hiking," Feldman said. "These sportsmen and women have been extraordinary stewards of this land. They are the reason this land is so pristine."
Friday's decision was the culmination of months of debate about access to these lands. The agency held a half-dozen public hearings this summer that were attended by more than 600 people. It received five petitions and 3,700 letters and emails about the classification package.
Environmentalists pressed for a wilderness classification while local government officials and sportsmen called for a less-restrictive wild forest designation. In the end, no one got everything they wanted.
"This classification doesn't achieve all of local government's goals for the property," said Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board Executive Director Fred Monroe, "but I think it does achieve the most important goal, and that's to connect the communities with a recreational trail, which this plan does if that bridge over the Cedar is built."
"We're excited about the new (Hudson Gorge) wilderness, and the wilderness management protection of the Essex lakes," said Adirondack Council Executive Director Willie Janeway. "We're disappointed at there being a wild forest corridor, but that's part of the package. We need to make that happen to hold this all together."
Dede Scozzafava, the Department of State designee to the APA board, said the common ground embodied by the agency's decision is part of a broader change in mindset in the North Country.
"In the past, we always looked for other people and other areas of the state to find our answers and chart our course," she said. "Whether it's in the public process of this decision making, the public process of the Regional Economic Development Councils, we're charting a course now for our own future, and that's exciting."
Basil Seggos, the governor's deputy secretary for the environment, sat in the back of the agency's meeting room during Friday's deliberations. After the vote, he said administration officials will review the recommendation in the next 10 days, after which the governor will make a final decision.
"I'm happy with the outcome and the way the agency has handled the decision," Seggos said. "I think the input of the public across the state, the stakeholders here in the Adirondacks, the environmental groups, the towns, the way they've come together on this has really been outstanding."
Cuomo has played an active role in this process at least since August 2012, when he signed a contract to buy 69,000 acres of former Finch lands from The Nature Conservancy over five years for $49.8 million. The 22,000 acres the agency recommended for classification Friday is the first phase of that deal.
"The governor's been up here, he knows the parcel, he's flown over it, he's walked it, he's been out on boats - I think he gets that this is as much an important purchase as anything that's ever happened in the Adirondacks," Seggos said. "This isn't just purchasing land and setting it aside. This is purchasing land and assuring that it's available for the public's use."
"The result of those discussions and input to the agency resulted in the snowmobile trails," Seggos said.
This is just the first in a string of classification packages the agency will consider in the next few years. The Nature Conservancy is still holding 41,000 acres of former Finch lands that it plans to sell to the state, including the 11,950-acre McIntyre Works tract near Newcomb and the 22,000-acre Boreas Ponds parcel, which borders the High Peaks and Dix Mountain wilderness areas.
Seggos said the state will make an announcement "in the new year" on what tracts it will close on next. Money to buy the lands will come from the state Environmental Protection Fund.