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Green groups sue over Essex Chain plan

January 12, 2016
By JUSTIN A. LEVINE - Outdoors Writer ( , Lake Placid News

Two environmental groups have joined forces to sue the Adirondack Park Agency and Department of Environmental Conservation over the state agencies' plan to manage the recently acquired Essex Chain Lakes.

The current unit management plan, developed by the DEC and approved by the APA, would allow bicycling in primitive areas, as well as allowing two bridges to be open for snowmobiling.

Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm that specializes in environmental matters, is representing Protect the Adirondacks and Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve. The lawsuit was filed in state court in Albany, and comes at a time when the APA is holding public meetings on proposed changes to the State Land Master Plan.

Article Photos

The Polaris Bridge, built by the Finch, Pruyn timber company, crosses the Hudson River north of Indian Lake, as seen from the air in November. The state now owns the land, and its plan to keep the bridge is controversial because this stretch of the Hudson is classified as a wild river, which can only be crossed by bridges for foot traffic or forest management.
(News photo — Shaun Kittle)

"We encourage and support public recreation in the magnificent Essex Chain of Lakes and elsewhere," Adirondack Wild's David Gibson said in a press release. "But the law states that human use is secondary and must never degrade the wilderness resource. We challenge the state's permitting of intensive mechanized recreation precisely where the law calls for high levels of protection."

During the approval process, two members of the APA board agreed that the plan may not be compliant with state law, but it passed in November with a vote of 8-2 in favor.

"The APA has already declared (the plan) compliant and legal. And we're challenging that. We don't think it is legal," Gibson said on Monday.

"We are forced to be in court because DEC did not candidly discuss the issues with all stakeholders," Gibson added. "This is a last resort."

The lawsuit claims that the so-called Polaris Bridge, which spans the Hudson River, is in violation of the state Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act, which protects rivers that "possess outstanding natural, scenic, historical, ecological and recreational values" from "improvident development and use." That stretch of the Hudson is classified as a wild river, which the law says must be "inaccessible to the general public except by water, foot and horse trail." Only foot bridges or those for forest management may cross wild rivers.

The bridge is already in place thanks to the Finch, Pruyn timber company that used to own the land. If the unit management plan goes forward, it would become an integral part of a series of trails.

The DEC has said that since the bridge has been used by the public, it can therefore stay in place with no further legal wrangling.

The APA, in a response to public comments regarding the UMP said that "The Rivers Act grants the authority to the DEC to make the determination that uses in existence at the time a river is designated under the Rivers Act can continue without expansion or alteration.

"The proposed bridge across the Cedar River and the existing bridge over the Hudson River are in the Scenic River areas and are managed under Wild Forest guidelines. The motorized crossing of a Scenic River conforms to Wild Forest guidelines."

However, the groups behind the lawsuit claim that the Polaris Bridge was rebuilt in the 1990's while the land was in private ownership, so the bridge has never been open to the public and is therefore non-compliant with the rivers act.

The plaintiffs also challenge the proposed construction of a bridge over the Cedar River, which the suit claims is protected from motorized use. Both bridges would largely be used for expanded snowmobile access in the area.

The Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, which defends the DEC-APA decision, said in a press release, "The proposed bridge over the Cedar River would replace a former bridge over the Cedar River, which served the public as part of the Chain Lakes town road. That bridge washed out a few decades ago. The new bridge would improve access to the Essex Chain Lakes Tract from the south, and is located in the approved Wild Forest Corridor."

Opponents of the plan argue that expanding snowmobile access in this area would not only violate state law but is redundant since there are already planned or existing snowmobile trails to connect small Adirondack towns.

But according to the Local Government Review Board, "The proposed snowmobile trail from the towns of Indian Lake, Newcomb and Minerva would be wholly within the approved Wild Forest Corridor in the Essex Chain Lakes Tract."

The suit also maintains that opening primitive areas to bicycling violates the State Land Master Plan.

"The state is breaking state laws to allow motorized use and bikes in parts of the Forest Preserve and in protected river corridors where they are not allowed," Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, said in the release.

"The state acquired this tract of land for the Forest Preserve to be kept 'forever wild' under the state Constitution precisely because of its spectacular natural resources," Hannah Chang, attorney with Earthjustice, said in the release.

The APA and DEC say they do not comment on pending litigation. The DEC also noted in an email that it had not yet been served with the lawsuit.



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