State close to buying two more former Finch tracts
RAY BROOK – The state is close to completing the purchase of two more parcels of former Finch, Pruyn and Co. timberlands that will be added to the Forest Preserve.
State Adirondack Park Agency Planning Director Jim Connolly told the agency board Friday that it will likely have three parcels to consider during the upcoming state land classification process for the former Finch lands: the 18,000-acre Essex Chain of Lakes tract, the 1,000-acre Indian River parcel and the 3,000-acre OK Slip Falls tract.
“Our intent is to bring all of these and potentially one other parcel to the agency once we have our (State Environmental Quality Review) documents developed,” Connolly said. “Currently, the state is in ownership of the Essex Chain. The other two (the Indian River and OK Slip Falls tracts) are under contract through The Nature Conservancy, but the final exchange of property and deeds has not occurred. It’s expected to occur shortly.”
The “other parcel” Connolly referred to is the Hudson River Gorge Primitive Area.
“The State Land Master Plan says (the primitive area) should be reclassified once the two major inholdings (the Indian River and OK Slip Falls tracts) are either acquired or protected by the state,” Connolly said. “They’re both under contract for purchase.”
“The Master Plan uses language that makes it sound mandatory; once the OK Slip tract is acquired, (the primitive area) should become wilderness,” said APA counsel James Townsend.
This is the first of what’s expected to be several years worth of classification work for the agency following last year’s purchase of 69,000 acres of former Finch lands from The Nature Conservancy. The state has signed a contract to buy the lands in phases over five years for $50 million, using money drawn from each year’s state Environmental Protection Fund.
The tracts involved in the first phase of the deal are located in the towns of Indian Lake, Newcomb and Minerva. The Essex Chain parcel includes thousands of acres of forest, 11 lakes and ponds, 14 miles of Hudson River shoreline and 8.5 miles of Cedar River shoreline. The Indian River tract provides a key takeout point for paddlers at the confluence of the Indian and Hudson rivers. The OK Slip parcel features one of the state’s highest waterfalls, several ponds and the Blue Ledges, a series of high, rocky cliffs along the Hudson.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation has proposed classifying 13,000 acres of the Essex Chain parcel as wild forest, making it part of a new Essex Chain Canoe Recreation Area. Another portion of the Essex Chain tract – a section that runs along the Hudson River – would become part of a new Hudson River Gorge Wilderness that would also include the Indian River and OK Slip parcels, and what is now the Hudson River Gorge Primitive Area.
APA Natural Resources Planner Kathy Regan outlined the agency’s role in the classification process.
“We’ll probably be doing this on an annual basis for the next five years because of all these acquisitions that are slated to occur over the next five years,” Regan said.
The APA’s job, she said, is to classify the lands according to their character and their capacity to withstand use based on four criteria: physical characteristics (like soils, slopes and water), biological characteristics (sensitive habitat, wildlife), intangible qualities (views, remoteness) and existing uses (like roads and buildings).
The agency has nine different classification categories to choose from. They include the two that have been discussed most often with the Essex Chain: wilderness, which is the most restrictive land use category, and wild forest, where some human use, including motor vehicles, is allowed but where the land still retains a wild character. Regan said another category, historic, could come into play in classifying the former Finch lands.
“There is a possibility that in this classification package we may have an issue with a historic building,” Regan said, though she didn’t elaborate.
The agency will take the lead, in consultation with DEC, in developing a draft SEQR assessment and alternatives list, and present it to the board with a request to go to public hearing. Regan said that could happen next month or at the board’s May meeting.
After that, at least five to six formal public hearings on the classification package will be held around the state.
Following the hearings, agency staff will develop a final Environmental Impact Statement and make a recommendation to the board. If the board adopts the recommendation, it would be sent to the governor for final approval.
A portion of the Essex Chain parcel will be open to the public this spring; however, a combined 11,600 acres of the tract is under exclusive lease agreements with a pair of hunting clubs. Those areas will remain off limits until the clubs’ leases, except for one-acre envelopes around their camps, run out on Oct. 1 of this year.
“We’d ideally like to have the classification in place by that date,” Regan said. “We don’t know if that will happen. A lot of that will depend on the public comment period, what we hear and what changes happen.”
A former agency lawyer and commissioner spoke about the classification process during the board’s public comment period Friday.
Bill Kissel of Lake Placid said it will be important for the agency to use the State Land Master Plan to guide its decision making with the Finch lands. He referenced two relevant legal cases, one of which was an August 2011 decision by state Supreme Court Justice Michael Lynch, who found the APA didn’t follow the SLMP when it failed to classify the waters of Lows Lake as wilderness.
“I’ve been a commissioner; I know the influences that can be brought upon us,” Kissel said. “The State Land Master Plan is where you go. … Don’t forget that. Don’t let people pull you aside.”
Kissel also brought up the environmental group Protect the Adirondacks’ recent announcement that it plans to sue the APA and DEC over the new “community connector” snowmobile trail cut in the Moose River Plains Wild Forest and the use of large-track snowmobile groomers on state land.
“My point here is, our environmental friends are very diligent and very passionate,” Kissel said. “The debate and the controversy has already started on the Finch, Pruyn lands. It’s certainly going to land here very shortly, and it’s going to be distractive. The enviros and others will make sure our feet are held to the fire, to make sure we adhere to the Master Plan mandates relative to how classification is to be done.
“I know some of you have not been through classifications,” Kissel added. “You’re about to have an appetizer with the Essex Chain, but as Kathy said, over the next two to three years you’re going to have a major menu here of this stuff.”
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.