Agency digs into Finch land classification options

RAY BROOK – State Adirondack Park Agency commissioners spent most of Thursday soaking up a massive amount of information about the proposed classification of 47,000 acres of state land in the central Adirondacks, including the first phase of former Finch, Pruyn and Co. lands to be acquired by the state.

The entire first day of the agency’s two-day monthly meeting was devoted to the classification package. It featured several hours of presentations by APA staff covering everything from the State Land Master Plan criteria for classifying newly acquired lands to the physical and biological characteristics of the lands: their soils, slopes, habitat, fisheries, wetlands and rare species. There were also presentations on recreational opportunities, road infrastructure and historic buildings on the lands.

Question-and-answer sessions followed the presentations, and while there was plenty of discussion among board members, no decision was made on the reclassification – nor was one expected. APA staff will present a preferred classification alternative at the agency’s September meeting. A decision could come then or be pushed back to the board’s October meeting.

In addition to the information presented Thursday, the APA board has a large amount of public comment to consider in its decision-making process. The agency received a total of 3,749 letters and emails about the classification package and five petitions containing a total of 2,380 signatures, the largest of which came from a coalition of environmental groups. More than 640 people attended a series of eight public hearings held around the state earlier this summer, at which 250 people spoke.

The agency is considering seven classification alternatives for the lands. The classification the agency picks, if it’s approved by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, will determine the extent of recreational access to the lands, some of which have been off limits to the general public for 150 years.

The classification proposals involve former Finch lands in the towns of Indian Lake, Minerva and Newcomb that the state has recently acquired from The Nature Conservancy: the Essex Chain tract, the OK Slip Falls tract and the Indian River tract. The agency is also considering reclassifying the Hudson River Gorge Primitive Area, and portions of the Vanderwhacker and Blue Mountain wild forests.

Classifications include wilderness, which is the most restrictive, along with primitive, canoe and wild forest. Each option before the agency is a mix of classifications, and each contains more wilderness than anything else. That’s largely because the 17,000-acre Hudson River Gorge Primitive Area is slated to become wilderness in all of the seven classification proposals due to a stipulation in the State Land Master Plan that says it should be reclassified as wilderness once the state buys the private lands that “intrude” in the area, namely the OK Slip Falls tract.

Commissioner Sherman Craig asked if the agency has “no option but to make (the primitive area) a wilderness.”

“That’s pretty much correct,” said APA legal counsel Jim Townsend.

Commissioner Richard Booth said the State Land Master Plan would have to be amended to alter that directive.

The classification option that seemed to generate the most discussion Thursday is 4B, one of the wild forest options. It includes a special management area that would extend over the Essex Chain that would allow the state Department of Environmental Conservation to implement restrictions on floatplane and motor vehicle access.

Commissioner Bill Valentino said he was “troubled by the undefined nature of a special management area” and asked if there would be any guarantees that DEC would implement the restrictions the agency could suggest. Craig asked if the agency has ever created a special management area of that size before.

APA Planning Director Jim Connolly said there’s a list of special management areas in the back of the State Land Master Plan, although he said some have never really been defined.

“We could (create a special management area), but we haven’t done it on this scale in a classification process previously,” Booth said.

The road infrastructure on the lands, specifically in the Essex Chain of Lakes tract, was also the subject of a lot of discussion. Supporters of creating more public access opportunities to the Essex Chain want the parcel’s road network to be maintained while environmentalists want to limit motor vehicle access to the tract.

Craig called the motorized access issue “the elephant in the room” and asked about the possibility of reconnecting a road that links the northern part of the Essex Chain tract to its southern end.

Commissioner Bill Thomas spoke several times about providing opportunities for snowmobile access through the lands. Connolly said there’s nothing in any of the classification options that would preclude community connector snowmobile trails linking Indian Lake, Newcomb and Minerva.

Floatplane access to some of the lakes in the Essex Chain tract, public access to the river corridors and invasive species issues were also discussed Thursday.

The agency will meet again this morning to discuss the next steps in the classification process.

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or