Current IssuesMuddy trails through the woods

By David Gibson, Managing Partner, Adirondack Wild

A Material Increase and Burdens on the Forest Preserve

How the Adirondack Park Agency interprets its own State Land Master Plan with respect to public motorized uses of roads on the Forest Preserve (Wild Forest guideline, “No Material Increase”) has been in the news since last spring and deservedly so. In contrast with more intensively developed park facilities elsewhere, the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve are “forever wild,” written into our state’s constitution.

The public’s general expectations on the Forest Preserve today is much as it always has been, to seek, find and experience peace, tranquility, awesome scenery, quiet, solitude, bird song, bees humming, red squirrels chattering, a sense of the primitive. The overall expectation is not to hear motors idling or accelerating. That is the contrast value of the Forest Preserve. No other state can boast of it. No other state has a Forest Preserve in their state constitution, kept, mostly, primitive and quiet, most of it within 3 miles of a paved road or highway. 20th and 21st century voters seem to like it that way.

So, why does an APA member like Art Lussi worry that the state might be right up against a limit or constraint on the mileage of Forest Preserve roads open to motors, one imposed by the State Land Master Plan that APA is supposed to oversee? What if, Lussi asked his APA colleagues, the state one day acquires the rest of Whitney Park in Long Lake? What’s going to happen to those dirt roads, he asked? “If we can’t use ( by use, I assume Art meant driving down those roads) those roads, what would be the purpose of acquiring Whitney for the Forest Preserve”?

I gritted my teeth. I imagine some APA staff did as well. This is the Forest Preserve, not a truck or ATV park. There are many reasons to acquire Whitney Park for uses other than one’s truck.

I was immediately heartened when another APA member, Benita Law-Diao, spoke up about the principles undergirding “forever wild.” By loosening legal constraints and expanding the road mileage open to motors, what would be the burden on the public’s Forest Preserve, she asked? I am paraphrasing, not quoting her. I felt that her question about the burden imposed on our public lands nicely turned Art’s question on its head.

Almost from the inception of the internal combustion engine, New York’s State Conservation Department officials wanted to build and maintain dirt roads on the Forest Preserve. So did our National Park and U.S. Forest Service officials elsewhere in the country. Roads allowed foresters access to battle forest fires or cut salvage after hurricanes like that of 1950. These roads then had the additional advantage of making motorized woods access easier for key constituents of the Conservation Department – hunters and fishermen – to reach their favored places.

People like Bob Marshall were appalled by the extent to which the Forest Preserve principle – “forever wild”- was being damaged by the state’s own conservation employees and their truck trails. Marshall sat at Johns Brook Loj one day with Paul Schaefer in July 1932. They had just summited Mt. Marcy at the same time. Hiking back down to the valley, they agreed that mechanized travel and wilderness were incompatible and pledged to work together to block Robert Moses’ plan to open the Forest Preserve to truly big roads for automobile traffic and commercial buildings by constitutional amendment. Energized by Marshall, Schaefer et. al., millions of New Yorkers were outraged by that amendment, too. In November 1932 the voters defeated Moses’ amendment by 600,000 votes. After 1894, having the Forest Preserve in the state constitution put the voters “in the driver’s seat,” sort of speak.

Once the 20th century pattern of mechanized use became established, the difficulty of closing any roads on the Forest Preserve loomed. How would the Conservation Department face what they viewed then (and which some still view) as their core constituents, the hunters, to tell them they had to walk into their favored destinations rather than drive to that remote place? Very reluctantly.

Paul Schaefer was, perhaps, the first to force the department to face the fact that “forever wild” and post-World War II jeeps should be, at least in some locations, incompatible. Through the force of Schaefer’s personality and determination, the trail to Second Pond in what is now the Siamese Ponds Wilderness was first closed to hunters’ jeeps around 1957. Many years of debate ensued whether that first example would be followed by more road closures. They were. By 1965, about 100 miles of former truck trails were closed to jeeps and trucks in places that would one day be designated Wilderness.

However, in other places in the Forest Preserve not destined for eventual Wilderness classification the same Conservation Department opened 300 miles of old truck trails to be driven on by hunters and fishers. It is those 300 miles, now calculated to be 206 miles on Forest Preserve land classified Wild Forest that are at issue and that take up hours of discussion around the APA’s table.

In 2022 APA and DEC staff calculated there were 211 miles of Wild Forest roads open to motorized uses in 1972, and some 206 miles today. The latter number excludes the roughly three dozen miles open, or potentially open for motorized use exclusively to persons with disabilities, by permit. Those miles should not be excluded, as they are roads open for driving by a segment of the public at DEC’s discretion or from a court consent order. The negative impacts motorized roads have on the Park’s wildlife and ecological systems were factually reported by the APA’s staff resource analysts in February. The wildlife prevented or dead from crossing these roads don’t care what segment of the public are driving them.

If the routes open exclusively to permittees (so-called CP-3 routes) are included in the counting, APA reports 245 miles of roads today – a significant, “material” increase since 1972. That may mean that in the future DEC might have to close some more roads to public motorized uses elsewhere in the Park. APA and DEC seem terrified by the prospect, even though their own State Land Master Plan states that recreational enjoyment of the Forest Preserve is important but secondary to protecting “forever wild” land. That protection, says the Master Plan, is “paramount.” It comes first.

Remember that DEC has already excluded from today’s count some 13 miles of the Limekiln-Cedar River Road through the Moose River Plains Wild Forest. That mileage was “counted” as existing in 1972 but is discounted now because most of that road was reclassified to Intensive Use a few years ago – and DEC is only counting miles in Wild Forest, not in Intensive Use.

In reality we should add the 13 miles of road in the Moose River Plains. We should be counting and evaluating the dozens of miles that the public can drive on private lands opened to us by conservation easement. There are over 800,000 acres under conservation easement. Overall, in the Adirondack Park there are well over 1000, perhaps 1200 miles of dirt roads and snowmobile trails that can be accessed by motor today. There is no shortage of opportunities.

DEC and APA ought to consider their own history. Their own records show that in 2001-2002, at some 67 locations across the Park DEC closed about 60 miles of Adirondack dirt roads on Wild Forest to public use of motor vehicles. The APA website uniformly lists the reason of each closure as “closed as a management decision.” 23 of those miles closed were in the Independence River Wild Forest alone. 17 miles were closed in Taylor Pond Wild Forest.

The backstory is that on many of those 60 miles, DEC had tolerated or sanctioned the use by All-Terrain Vehicles, or ATVs. Such ATV use on the Forest Preserve was illegal under DEC’s own regulations and under the Vehicle and Traffic Law, and DEC knew it then. The Residents Committee to Protect the Adirondacks, or RCPA, took DEC to court about it.

DEC and APA were forced to face some hard facts back then. Many of these so-called roads used by trucks and ATVs were not designed for use by cars, as the “road” definition in the State Land Master Plan specifies. Because these old truck trails, former logging roads, and wagon routes were so ill designed and located for repeated motor vehicle use, any use at all was causing a lot of damage to natural resources, including wetlands, violating the Master Plan and the APA Act, to say nothing of Article XIV of the state constitution. The result was a complete muddy mess, as photographs of the day revealed. Under scrutiny and pressure, including pressure from the APA, DEC finally bit the bullet and closed these routes to motorized traffic. That was then.

Today, if the DEC and APA seriously examined today’s Wild Forest roads open to vehicles, they would find more resource damage caused by vehicles traveling where natural resources say they should not go. In Wild Forest the DEC “may restrict the use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment and aircraft by the public where in its judgement the character of the natural resources in a particular area or other factors makes such restrictions desirable” (Wild Forest Guidelines, page 35, State Land Master Plan). These would be called “management decisions” by a management agency with the full-time responsibility for care, custody and control of the Forest Preserve. Not everywhere, but in certain specific locations I wager we all can name a few Forest Preserve “roads” you would not want to drive down without a friend coming along, with a winch. Difficulties lie in the fact that some may want those places to be someplace else, not in our own local patch of Forest Preserve.

Still, DEC should have the gumption to do what is right for the Forest Preserve and under the law. Hard facts were faced more than twenty years ago. They need to be again today. Road miles and uses have far exceeded a “material increase” since 1972. That is an additional “burden” on the Forest Preserve that our natural resource agencies and APA members should be concerned with.

Photos: Wild Forest “road” damaged by ATV use. Photos by D. Gibson