Wilderness vs. wild forest

RAY BROOK – If you were keeping score, it was 14 to 12.

Supporters of classifying 47,000 acres of state Forest Preserve land in the central Adirondacks primarily as wilderness slightly outnumbered those who’d rather see the lands designated as wild forest among those who spoke Wednesday at the first public hearing on the proposed classification alternatives.

Hosted by the state Adirondack Park Agency, the two-and-a-half-hour hearing was one of eight scheduled around the state on the seven classification options the agency has proposed for the 47,000 acres in the towns of Minerva, Newcomb and Indian Lake. That includes 21,000 acres of former Finch, Pruyn and Co. timberlands the state recently acquired from The Nature Conservancy: the Essex Chain of Lakes tract, the OK Slip Falls tract and the Indian River tract.

Representatives of the Park’s environmental groups were nearly unanimous in supporting option 1A, one of the two wilderness alternatives. Described by APA staff as a “large wilderness paddling experience,” it would classify 38,563 acres as wilderness and 7,032 acres as wild forest. Limited road access, across wild forest lands, would be allowed to the Essex Chain of Lakes and Hudson River; floatplane access to First and Pine lakes would be preserved; and there would be no impact on proposed or existing community-connector snowmobile trails.

Adirondack Council Executive Director Willie Janeway said option 1A is a “balanced approach” that protects the lands as wilderness but also provides some reasonable public access.

“Wilderness alternative 1A is the right choice,” said Peter Bauer of Protect the Adirondacks. “Simply put, this is a wilderness area that provides abundant public access, whether it’s disabled access, access for canoeing and camping on the Essex Chain, or access to the Hudson Gorge.”

Adirondack Mountain Club Executive Director Neil Woodworth said a wild forest classification would open up the extensive network of old logging and other roads in the Essex Chain tract to too much vehicle access.

“I think, in that very small area of lakes and ponds, you won’t be able to escape the sound of motors like you could if it’s managed as a wilderness area,” he said. “I also worry about boats with motors bringing in invasive species and overfishing.”

“Turning these lands into wild forest would be to destroy them,” said Lee Keet of Saranac Lake, an Adirondack Council board member who also backed option 1A. “I can see nothing less than complete havoc with motorized access in every direction into these properties.”

One environmental group, however, wasn’t satisfied with either of the two wilderness alternatives.

“Adirondack Wild believes that neither alternative 1A or 1B adequately protects the Essex Chain Lakes,” said the group’s Dan Plumley. He suggested modifying option 1A to provide a larger buffer of wilderness north of Deer, Fifth and Sixth lakes. “A wild forest boundary should not touch or come within close proximity of a wilderness lakeshore.”

There are two wild forest designations on the table. Options 4A and 4B would expand the Blue Mountain Wild Forest to include the Essex Chain of Lakes. In both options, there would be 33,942 acres of wilderness and 11,653 acres of wild forest. The only difference is that in 4B, a special management area would extend over the Essex Chain to let the state implement restrictions on floatplane and motor vehicle access to the lakes.

Supporters of the wild forest classifications said they would provide more opportunities for public access and, therefore, could create more economic benefit for the towns.

“It does seem to me that when our public looks at a map and sees that this is public land, there should be some easy public access,” said Ann Melious, Hamilton County’s economic development and tourism director. “Access to public land by dragging a canoe several miles or backpacking is not necessarily a reality for some people.”

Melious said the newly acquired lands will make three-quarters of her county state-owned. Thirty-nine percent of the county is wilderness.

“I can state as fact that wilderness has not helped economic development in Hamilton County,” Melious said.

Representatives of several sportsmen’s groups spoke in favor of wild forest classification 4A. Rod Boula of Keene, a regional director of the New York State Conservation Council, said that option “will provide equitable access for all user groups” and “will help ensure New York state is open for hunting and fishing.”

Jason Kemper, chairman of the state Conservation Fund Advisory Board, noted that the Essex Chain is “significantly different” than the other Finch tracts the state is scheduled to acquire because it has well-traveled roads and other infrastructure that can be used for public access.

“The classification of this vast network of existing roads to anything that will prevent vehicular access would be a disservice to the municipalities that surround this parcel and would limit the economic gain realized from the acquisition of these parcels,” Kemper said.

“Take a look at the real character of the land,” said Bill Farber, chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors. “Take a look at the infrastructure that’s there. Take a look at the roads and the uses that have existed there, and read the State Land Master Plan and the language specific to a wilderness.”

“These lands do not, by any stretch of the imagination, meet the definition of wilderness. It’s not even close,” said Fred Monroe, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board.

Town of Minerva Supervisor Sue Montgomery Corey said the classification of the lands will be critical to her town’s future.

“Our hope is that the classification will allow us to have a diverse base of recreation over four seasons,” she said. “Our community discussions led us to believe that a wild forest classification is the most appropriate.”

Roughly 70 people attended Wednesday’s public hearing. The next hearings will be held at 1 p.m. Monday at the Minerva Central School and 7 p.m. that same night at the Newcomb Central School. The agency is accepting public comments on the classification proposals through July 19.

APA officials have said their staff could present a preferred alternative to the agency board in August or September.

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or cknight@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.