APA may hold Finch land decision until October

RAY BROOK – State Adirondack Park Agency commissioners may need until their October meeting to make a decision on the classification of three tracts of newly state-acquired former Finch, Pruyn and Co. timberlands.

Agency staff plan to make a recommendation to the board next month, but Richard Booth, chairman of the APA board’s State Land Committee, said Friday he’d be more comfortable if commissioners took more time to make a final decision. His comments came a day after the board sat through five hours of presentations and discussion about the classification options, which have generated a huge volume of public comment that commissioners also have to sift through.

“If we’re lucky, I would hope by next month’s meeting the draft (Final Environmental Impact Statement) is substantially complete, and that we might receive a preferred staff alternative,” Booth said. “I believe if that happens, we ought to not make a decision until October. I think there’s going to be a need for agency members to absorb all this work and understand what the staff has gone through to get to that point, and I somehow don’t think that can happen getting that document the week before an APA meeting.”

APA Executive Director Terry Martino said she understands the board may need more time to make a decision, but she said staff “will still be working very hard to bring you a draft FEIS in September.”

The agency is weighing seven classification options for 47,000 acres of state Forest Preserve land in the towns of Indian Lake, Minerva and Newcomb, including a combined 21,000 acres the state 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.

The classification types under consideration include wilderness, which is the most restrictive, along with primitive, canoe and wild forest, the least restrictive, where some motorized use and structures are allowed. Each option before the agency is a mix of classifications, and each contains more wilderness than anything else.

This will be one of the most watched and anticipated APA decisions in years. 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. More than 640 people attended a series of eight public hearings held around the state earlier this summer, at which 250 people spoke.

“Given the amount of comments we’ve received in this electronic age, the way that information is received electronically – you used to get 10, 15 or 20 comments a day to process,” said APA Planning Director Jim Connolly. “We were getting 300 a minute because some of the groups and organizations were gathering information on a server and sending it off to us. I cannot stress how amazing it was to see our staff at work processing all this on a continuing basis.”

Over the next month, APA staff will prepare their response to all that public comment, summarized and categorized on different topics, Connolly told the board Friday. Determining what comments are substantive will be a key issue, he said.

“In any process you have like this, you’ll get a lot of opinions and a lot of thoughts, and they are respected and something we take into account, but it’s often difficult to respond to people’s opinions,” Connolly said. “The key, in terms of what’s substantive and what isn’t, has to focus on the decision criteria under the State Land Master Plan.”

Department of State designee Dede Scozzafava asked how the board will address some of the “misperceptions” people wrote about in their comment letters, though she didn’t give any examples.

“I think there were a number of comments that ask us to do things that are clearly not covered by law,” agency Commissioner Sherman Craig added later. “Having a parking lot right at a particular water body that, based on the Rivers Act, we can’t even consider that. I’m wondering if there’s public information that we could respond to those and say, ‘You have to know that based on this law and this law, we can’t even consider it.'”

Booth said the example Craig provided would be specifically addressed in the draft FEIS. As for public misperceptions, Connolly said, “To the extent we can, we will attempt to respond to issues that may be people’s opinions or may be incorrect in a factual nature.”

Over the next month, APA staff will also work to answer nearly three dozen questions board members raised during Thursday’s presentations. Some of the topics that generated the most discussion surround public access to these new tracts: a network of old logging roads on the Essex Chain tract, floatplane access, public access to river corridors, and invasive species.

Booth asked APA staff to provide a chart tied to a map that identifies possible public access points around the Essex Chain of Lakes.

“There are dozens, if not hundreds, of comments about access,” Booth said. “Some people are talking about driving access all the way to the lakes. And that’s certainly something to look at. I’m talking more about if there’s walking access to the lakes, from where and over what kind of terrain is that possible. We’re going to need that put together so we can see it one place.”

Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or cknight@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.