By David Gibson
Banner hanging at the APA’s headquarters in Ray Brook. Photo © Ken Rimany
The 2015 report Adirondack Park at a Crossroad: A Road Map for Action begins this way:
“We document recent permit decisions and management practices by the NYS Adirondack Park Agency (APA) and Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) which we believe are inconsistent with the constitutional and statutory requirements designed to ensure long term protection of the Park’s integrity and which are irreconcilable with the agencies’ obligations as the public’s trustees of the Adirondack Park…We illustrate how this significant shift in priorities at APA and DEC…are part of a larger pattern of allowing increasingly destructive development to proceed with little or no environmental baseline data, only cursory environmental review, and little in the way of avoidance or mitigation of negative impacts.”
As the year ends, we see the pattern described in our report of favoring recreational use over the State Land Master Plan’s “paramount” purpose of natural resource and wilderness protection continuing. Several of the State Land Master Plan (SLMP) amendment alternatives sent by the APA in December to public hearing in January would, if selected as the preferred alternative, fundamentally alter wilderness protection policies in place since 1972.
Under the SLMP, Primitive areas are to be managed in a condition “as close to wilderness as possible” where most public motorized and mechanized uses are prohibited (SLMP pg. 27). Among the alternatives sent by APA to public hearing in January are two allowing bicycling on “former all season roads, now trails” in all Primitive areas and allowing motor vehicles such as tracked excavators to maintain those bicycle routes. Bicycling is already allowed under the SLMP on designated routes within 1.3 million acres of Forest Preserve classified as Wild Forest, as well as on Intensive Use areas such as Mt. Van Hoevenberg.
Why is this potential change important? Our National Wilderness Preservation Act of 1964 was modeled on New York’s “forever wild” constitution. In turn, our state’s State Land Master Plans and Wilderness (Primitive) guidelines were modeled after the National Wilderness Act. That act states: there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area” (Subsection 4c of the National Wilderness Preservation Act of 1964).
Off-road Bicycles constitute prohibited machinery and mechanical transport because they profoundly affect wilderness character and conditions. As Wilderness Society founder Bob Marshall wrote, wilderness is “a region which … possesses no possibility of conveyance by any mechanical means.” The lead House sponsor of the National Wilderness bill, Representative John P. Saylor, a conservative Pennsylvania Republican, explained to his colleagues in 1964: “the stress and strain of our crowded, fast-moving, highly-mechanized and raucously noisy civilization create another great need for wilderness — a deep need for areas of solitude and quiet, for areas of wilderness where life has not yet given way to machinery.”
I do not expect the citizens of New York State to favor bikes and motorized maintenance of bike routes in all Primitive areas, nor do I expect the APA to ultimately favor that alternative. Nonetheless, its inclusion as one possible alternative under consideration once again shows how recreational activities are trumping wild land protection considerations (those “paramount” concerns in the law) at the DEC, APA and Governor’s office. None of the impacts of this possible change to wilderness character and standards in Primitive was analyzed in advance by APA staff. No one at the APA analyzed in advance how the alternative would impact the following statement: “The objective for 22 of these areas (Primitive) is to eventually upgrade them to wilderness” (SLMP pg. 29). Should the bicycling-in-all Primitive area alternative be chosen and signed by Governor Cuomo, this “wilderness-in-waiting” policy for at least 22 Primitive areas would be foreclosed.
One might reasonably conclude that most members of the APA would be vocally concerned about a fundamental policy shift lacking sufficient study. And one would be wrong. Only the chairman of the State Land Committee, Mr. Booth, raised strong objection. “Primitive is near Wilderness according to our master plan,” he told his colleagues. “Think of motor vehicles traveling all through these primitive areas to maintain bike trails. This alternative will change primitive areas and is a major policy shift.”
“There is no factual basis to consider bikes and motor vehicles in all primitive areas,” Booth continued. “You have not presented information about the extent and location of former all-season roads in primitive. Therefore, it can’t be justified as an alternative.” APA staff admitted that “we did not map out the roads in primitive to be able to say which are all-season roads. We were unable to determine their condition or make an assessment.” Booth moved that alternatives 3a and 3b (the ones that would authorize biking and motorized maintenance of bike routes in all primitive areas) be eliminated. Mr. Booth also moved that alternative 5 which would authorize the use of non-natural materials, such as steel, in bridges within all Wild Forest areas be eliminated because it too had not received sufficient study and analysis as to current locations and conditions of bridges and impacts of the alternative on 1+ million acres of Wild Forest. Booth did not move to strike the alternative that would limit bicycling and related maintenance to the Essex Chain of Lakes Primitive area.
Mr. Booth’s motion to amend failed in the committee 3-2. Chairwoman Ulrich voted with Booth. But when a motion was made to approve the amendment package as presented by staff and send it to hearing, the chairwoman changed her vote and Mr. Booth was the lone “no” vote. Then, when the full board was prepared to vote Mr. Booth made one more effort. “You have not considered the alternative of creating an entirely new state land classification which could authorize bicycling in backcountry areas (without affecting existing Primitive areas). Without such an alternative, this is not a reasonable environmental impact statement.” Booth urged his colleagues not to support the EIS going out to public hearing. The vote was 9-1 to send the package to hearing in January. Those hearings are currently scheduled for Jan. 6 in Ray Brook, Jan. 7 in Newcomb, and Jan 13 at the Albany DEC headquarters.
APA staff and DEC were quick to react to Mr. Booth’s objections. They asserted that any motorized maintenance of bike routes in Primitive would be occasional, not routine, and only for major emergencies or major wash-outs and would require the approval of the DEC commissioner. Furthermore, they asserted that by using motor vehicles to repair wash-outs the repairs would be faster and therefore might cause less natural resource damage. Mr. Booth responded by stating that use of vehicles and motorized equipment to respond to sudden, actual and ongoing emergencies involving protection of human life or intrinsic resource values (search and rescue, forest fire, oil spills, large scale contamination of water bodies) in a Wilderness or Primitive area is already authorized by the SLMP. Secondly, he said that if motor vehicles were ever authorized to maintain bike trails in Primitive it is completely unrealistic to assume that such motorized maintenance would be used sparingly.
See you at the SLMP hearings in January.
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