APA pushes Finch lands decision back to October

RAY BROOK – One of the biggest and most closely watched decisions the state Adirondack Park Agency will make in years has been put off for at least another month.

APA spokesman Keith McKeever told the Enterprise Friday that when APA commissioners meet next week, they will not make a decision on the classification of three tracts of land the state recently bought from The Nature Conservancy, which had bought them in 2007 from the Finch, Pruyn and Co. timber company.

“There’s going to be no staff recommendation and no board action this month,” he said.

At the board’s August meeting, APA state land staff said it hoped to provide commissioners with a preferred classification alternative by this month’s meeting, but McKeever said a heavy workload prevented that from happening.

“There’s a lot of work going into this, and we just want to make sure we do it right and factor all the different variables,” he said. “We’re taking our time here to make sure we come out with something that is going to be in the best interest of the Park.”

Speaking at last month’s meeting, APA State Land Committee Chairman Richard Booth encouraged the board to wait until October at the earliest to make a decision, given the amount of information and public comment the board has to absorb in this process.

While a decision has now been formally put off until at least October, the topic will be on the agenda when the APA board meets next week in Ray Brook. During Thursday’s State Land Committee meeting, scheduled for 3 p.m., staff will outline their responses to questions the board raised last month. Board discussion and a question-and-answer-session will follow.

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, primitive, canoe and wild forest, the least restrictive, where some motorized use and structures are allowed. Each option before the agency has a mix of classifications, and each contains more wilderness than anything else.

The agency has 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.

In recent weeks, the Park’s environmental groups have continued their push for a wilderness classification. They’ve also encouraged the agency to “go slowly” in making a recommendation to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who will have the final say on classification of the lands.

“The APA is duty bound to address core classification criteria found in the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, which has the force and effect of law,” David Gibson of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, said in an Aug. 30 press release. “The agency staff clearly needs more time to conduct this evaluation. These criteria include physical and biological characteristics of the land which affect the carrying capacity of the land or water, such as the nature of the wetlands, wildlife values and wildlife habitats, as well as the sense of remoteness and degree of wildness available to users.”

Advocates for wild forest classification have also been making their voices heard. In a July 17 letter to APA staff, Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board Director Fred Monroe said “reasonable access” to the newly acquired Finch lands could benefit the towns affected by the deal.

“If those lands are locked up as wilderness, there will be little benefit,” Monroe wrote.

“A wild forest classification for the Essex Chain is the wise decision and would provide recreational opportunities for multiple user groups along with increased economic opportunities for the surrounding communities,” the New York State Conservation Council wrote in a July 10 letter to the agency. “At the same time there is the ability to conserve the resources through appropriate regulations and unit management planning.”

This is the first of what’s expected to be several major classification decisions before the APA over the next five years. The Nature Conservancy is still holding another 41,000 acres of former Finch lands that the state has agreed to buy, including the 11,950-acre McIntyre Works tract near Newcomb and the 22,000-acre Boreas Ponds parcel, which borders the High Peaks and Dix Mountain wilderness areas.

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