by David Gibson
The dry language of the Adirondack Park Agency – Department of Environmental Conservation Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) concerning implementation of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan belies its contentious origins.
The MOU, first signed in 2003, updated in 2010, is found on the APA website. It has many “whereas” clauses, such as “WHEREAS, the AGENCY and the DEPARTMENT agree that it is in the interest of the State of New York to fully coordinate and integrate their respective program responsibilities as they pertain to the Adirondack Park for the good of the People of the State, State government, the Adirondack local governments, residents of the Park and Park visitors.” Other “whereas” clauses are followed by: NOW, THEREFORE, the parties do hereby agree to exercise their responsibilities and authorities through the cooperative arrangements created by this Memorandum.”
Cooperative agreements to coordinate and integrate program responsibilities between APA and DEC are, in concept, a very good thing – particularly regarding the protection of the Forest Preserve. I write to thank DEC and APA for a recent, quite successful outcome of that agreement. I’ll get to that later, but first, some history.
This agreement called the MOU came about 20 years ago because of a long pattern of motorized uses and motorized access abuses of guidelines in the State Land Master Plan which restrict and condition use of motor vehicles on the Forest Preserve, including the state’s own uses for “administrative purposes.” These abuses, particularly in Wild Forest areas of the “forever wild” Forest Preserve, coincided during the 1990s with the intense marketing and sales of all-terrain vehicles and wider snowmobiles. These powerful recreational vehicles for summer and winter off road travel didn’t exist at the time of the 1972 adoption of the State Land Master Plan.
In the 1990s, the state was both promoter of recreational motor sales, grantee to local snowmobile organizations (via NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation) and, at DEC, manager and guardian of the Forest Preserve whereby the lands of the state “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands.” Conflict was a virtual certainty. During the time of DEC Commissioner Mike Zagata (1995-1998), DEC was perfectly OK authorizing local snowmobile clubs to, as agents of the state, cut trees and, in some cases, bulldoze trails for the sake of widening existing snowmobile routes to accommodate the new, wider, more powerful class of snowmobiles.
During a 1997 meeting of the Forest Preserve Advisory Committee, I recall Commissioner Zagata telling us that, irrespective of Article XIV of the NYS Constitution, guidelines of the State Land Master Plan and DEC policy, he would personally authorize a minimum cleared width of 15-feet on Wild Forest trails to accommodate two-way passage by the new class of snowmobiles. I left that meeting alarmed, but forewarned.
ATV use of those trails, while prohibited by DEC regulation, naturally followed in spring, summer and fall, churning those Wild Forest trails into mudholes. During the late 1990s, APA staff went out and discovered that these trail abuses had damaged Adirondack wetlands, resulting in wetland restoration work by DEC.
At least three Adirondack nonprofits (Adirondack Mountain Club, Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, Residents Committee to Protect the Adirondacks) also went to work photographing and sharing the damage caused to the Forest Preserve. My file is full of letters and photographs sent to DEC, copied to APA, and some lengthy, defensive DEC responses in reply. One particularly effective investigation by the Residents’ Committee led to court action around 2002. One of the outcomes of that lawsuit was a legally binding commitment by the state to craft and adopt a memorandum of understanding about implementation and enforcement of the State Land Master Plan. That adoption came in 2003, [and was] revised and updated in 2010.
The “Snowmobile Plan for the Adirondack Park,” promoted as a more balanced successor to Mike Zagata’s 1997 vision of a snowmobile highway system, was approved by DEC and APA in 2006, implemented in 2009. Implementation on the ground proved a disaster, finally ended by the 2021 ruling of the NYS Court of Appeals that these wider, flatter, straighter trails, dubbed community connector snowmobile trails, violated Article XIV, Section 1 of the NYS Constitution (the case brought by Protect the Adirondacks v. DEC and APA).
A section of that APA-DEC MOU agreement (2003 and 2010) states that all complaints about alleged violations of the State Land Master Plan or Forest Preserve Unit Management Plans, including complaints from third parties, would be immediately forwarded to DEC and that APA would issue a tracking number to investigate such complaints. Both agencies would cooperate to investigate the basis for the allegation, including written material, maps, and field visits and, as warranted, result in a compliance agreement to resolve the violation signed by APA and DEC.
In the summer of 2023, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve (AWFFP) and Adirondack Wilderness Advocates (AWA) decided to test that provision of the MOU. In a letter addressed to both DEC and APA, we alleged that DEC personnel were routinely driving motor vehicles like ATVS down a Wild Forest trail in the Moose River Plains Wild Forest. In addition, the letter provided photographic documentation from AWA that DEC personnel were driving their ATV off that trail and into the adjacent West Canada Lake Wilderness.
Under the Master Plan, that might be OK, given an actual and ongoing emergency requiring DEC Wilderness search and rescue response, but in this case, there was no emergency. The ATV was driven there purely for DEC staff convenience. In the group letter, we also questioned if the apparently routine use of ATVs and other mechanized equipment on the Wild Forest trail was truly justified under the Master Plan’s Wild Forest guidelines.
To their credit, DEC executive staff notified APA in mid-summer that some of our allegations had merit, and invited APA planning staff to begin a joint, cooperative investigation – as per the MOU. APA planning director Megan Phillips formally opened that investigation and gave it a tracking number. Interagency meetings and exchange of information followed. Finally, that interagency investigation led to a compliance agreement signed on November 14, 2023, by the APA executive director and the DEC regional director in Ray Brook. That agreement stipulated that “corrective action” had been taken by DEC to prevent further encroachments into the Wilderness area, including written notice to field staff reminding them of the restrictions on motor vehicle use, particularly related to Wilderness areas.
While perhaps not all that AWFFP and AWA had hoped for, the signed compliance agreement may signal a fresh commitment by both APA and DEC staff to adhere to the MOU. The staff followed-up, worked together, investigated the facts, reached and released their conclusions in a signed agreement, and publicized its existence in the DEC’s Environmental Notice Bulletin (see ENB for November 22, 2023). Given abiding public concerns for the Forest Preserve and for efficiency and transparency in government, this interagency response to the allegations is heartening.
Photo at top: State of New York Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan cover. APA photo provided by David Gibson.