APA commissioner: Wild forest too lenient for Essex lakes

RAY BROOK – At least one state Adirondack Park Agency commissioner has weighed in on the proposed classification for a large swath of new state land in the central Adirondacks.

It will be another month, if not two, before the public hears what the rest of the agency board thinks.

Richard Booth, chairman of the APA’s State Land Committee, said Thursday that he doesn’t think a wild forest designation would be appropriate for the Essex Chain of Lakes, which has become the main battleground in the fight between public access to and protection of 27,000 acres of former Finch, Pruyn and Co. timberlands the state has purchased from The Nature Conservancy.

Wild forest, where some motorized use and structures are allowed, is the least restrictive classification option for state Forest Preserve and has generally been favored by local government leaders and sportsmen’s groups. The Park’s environmental groups want to see the Essex Chain become wilderness, the most restrictive classification where motorized use is prohibited. The other options are canoe and primitive.

“My opinion may be extreme, and I may end up being in the very distinct minority,” Booth told agency staff and board members. “I’ve looked at this enough, folks, to think that a wild forest classification, in my opinion, is not appropriate for this chain of lakes because of what the master plan says in terms of non-degradation and in terms of preserving the resources. This is a sensitive group of resources.”

Booth’s comments came as he asked APA staff to draft a “legal analysis” that spells out what are the most important factors, according to the State Land Master Plan, that the board needs to consider in classifying the lands.

While Booth said he’s concerned about degrading the Essex Chain’s resources, another commissioner, newcomer Karen Feldman, said she was worried about the land being degraded by lack of maintenance.

“I really haven’t heard a whole lot in our discussions, and maybe it’s premature, but I’m very concerned about, with the state taking over this land, how is it going to be maintained, who is going to maintain it and where is this money going to come from?” Feldman said.

APA Planning Director Jim Connolly quickly responded that issues related to maintenance of the lands would be addressed later, as part of the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s unit management planning process.

“It’s not something the agency deals with as part of the classification decision,” he said.

It’s clear that some commissioners are wrestling with which direction to take and are looking for middle ground. APA Chairwoman Lani Ulrich agreed that stewardship of the Park’s resources is paramount to the State Land Master Plan, “and at the same time there are incredible uses and potential within much of this land under a more permissive classification and with all the road networks that are there.

“I think that’s one of the reasons why the board has struggled getting ready for this decision and looking at all the issues that are out there,” she said. “I’m still looking for the magic ‘both/and’ solution as we move forward in this. What that means, I’ll let you know when I get there, but that’s one of the big challenges we have with the circumstances we have before us and the parcel we have before us, (is) between protection and access.”

Several commissioners said at the close of their two-day meeting on Friday that they’re eager to begin the debate over classification options but also don’t want to be rushed into one of the biggest state land decisions the agency has made in years. Some said they should wait until November, since the board has yet to get a classification recommendation from its staff and still hasn’t seen APA staff’s response to the huge volume of public comment on the classification proposals.

“My own thinking is there’s more work to be done and November looks to me right now as a more realistic and useful point in time for a decision than October,” Booth said.

Commissioner Art Lussi said he’s eager to “discuss, debate and have crossfire on specific classification issues and plans, and we really haven’t done that yet.

“But I thought Dick was right on the mark,” Lussi added. “You can’t expect us to get staff’s recommendation and then vote on it that month.”

Fred Monroe, director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, also encouraged the agency board to take its time.

“I think it’s something where there should be more input and consider and at least a month between the time a preferred alternative is presented and when commissioners vote on it,” he said.

Monroe also encouraged the board to consider other options than the classification proposals the agency has drafted. He said DEC’s plan for the lands, presented to the agency in December, should be reconsidered.

“It didn’t go as far (in terms of access to the lands) as local government would prefer, but I think it is much closer to what local government would want than the alternatives that have been presented so far to the commissioners and at the hearings,” Monroe said.

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