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FIELD NOTES: EDUCATING FOR THE WILD

DEC: Biological Information ‘Not Applicable’
By Dave Gibson

 

Kushaqua Tract Conservation Easement, Towns of Brighton and Franklin, Franklin County

In its latest Recreational Management Plan for 19,000 acres near Rainbow Lake, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation appears disinterested in biological information, much less in taking actions protective of sensitive biological resources.

The Kushaqua Conservation Easement is 19,000 acres of managed private timberland, formerly International Paper Lands, now Lyme Timber lands, located in the Towns of Brighton and Franklin. The tract lies north of Rainbow Lake and Buck Pond Campground, west of Loon Lake, east of Meacham Lake, and much of the tract is surrounded by Forest Preserve in the form of the Debar Mountain Wild Forest. Kushaqua was placed under a conservation easement acquired by the State in 2004.

Since a conservation easement allowing various kind of public access and use is in place in cooperation with the landowner, a Draft DEC Recreational Management Plan (RMP) has been out for public comment since 2014. RMPs are different from Unit Management Plans (UMPs) in that UMPs are intended for Forest Preserve units. Still, both kinds of documents are legally required by the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQR) to assess the impacts of management actions.

Late in August, DEC announced that “DEC made changes to the Draft Plan to reflect comments made as part of the previous public comment period in 2014.” That begs the questions: what changes were made, reflective of what and whose comments? It’s hard to find answers to those questions based on a review of the current Draft. DEC does not now, nor in my memory has the agency ever highlighted new material or deleted material to show specific changes in Draft RMPs or UMPs. It would help the public asked to comment on a myriad of State documents to understand where changes to earlier drafts have been made and why.

The Draft Kushaqua RMP reflects the area’s history of use. This is a heavily timber-managed, extensively roaded tract. One hundred miles of roads exist on 19,000 acres, many of which were built by the former IP owner to accommodate lumber trucks. In the Adirondack Park, the State DEC has long negotiated with private landowner to allow public motorized uses, including use of ATVs, along dirt roads on private properties subject to a state-held Conservation Easement as a way to compensate for the prohibition of four-season motorized uses on the Forest Preserve. In fact, this accommodation has been widely supported by conservation interests, including me. But I am beginning to question myself.

In this RMP DEC proposes that approximately 30 miles of the 100 be open to public motorized use – trucks/cars, ATVs, snowmobiles, all or in some combination. This appears conservative. It will also construct new campsites, boardwalks, universally accessible facilities, non-motorized trails, boardwalks and wildlife viewing opportunities. And it will “construct and maintain gates and other barriers to prevent illegal motorized use on sections of roads that are not open to public use.” All this appears to make good sense.

However, in commenting on the 2014 draft Kushaqua RMP, Adirondack Wild included this comment:

“The same emphasis that DEC gives to recreational interests and connections in this unit should also be given to natural resources and ecological connections since both recreational and natural resource connections cross over into adjoining Forest Preserve…conservation easements are critical natural and ecological buffer lands for adjacent Forest Preserve and include varied assemblages of natural resource, wildlife and ecological as well as recreational values which are important to maintain and enhance in a final Plan. DEC should make the most of these easement lands to enhance ecological integrity and wildlife habitat connectivity, in addition to sustainable forestry and recreational access. We urge both DEC and APA to recognize the opportunities that the conservation easement program has to carry out truly integrated ecosystem management.”

In essence, we were reminding the DEC that it shares responsibilities with the landowner for protecting natural resources on lands protected by a conservation easement, and that easement lands are intended to complement adjoining Forest Preserve. This is one Adirondack Park.

DEC has a lengthy Response to Comments section in the current version of the Draft RMP. One reads as follows: “Commenter feels that more information on the biological and ecological composition of the property should be provided as part of the RMP.”

DEC’s response to comments like ours is short: “Information of this specific nature is not applicable to the intent and purpose of the RMP document.”
I do not know what is intended here since the nature of our information is not of a specific nature. Our point is a general one. What we asked was that DEC be concerned with natural resources including wildlife habitats and their interconnection in its assessment of public recreational opportunities in the RMP. Natural resource protection is, after all, the Department of Environmental Conservation’s job.

What is very concerning is that in its exuberance to maximize recreational uses on the easement property the authors and editors of this RMP – the DEC field and executive staff – appear to treat natural resource concerns and information as “not applicable.”

While our comment letter lacked scientific specificity, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s did not. In their comment letter of March, 2014  the organization points out that the Kushaqua area is full of wildlife sensitive habitats, especially lowland boreal wetland and lowland spruce fir forests surrounding these wetlands. Their research shows that these wetlands and surrounding forests are known to harbor some of the rarest birds in the northeast United States, with the Adirondack Park acting as outlier of these vast (and yes, threatened by climate change and energy development) Canadian boreal habitats to the north.

The WCS letter mentions eleven species of birds – six of which are imperiled and five of which are vulnerable – which are experiencing population declines of 15 percent or more since 2007 and which are especially vulnerable to habitat disruption by climate change and by human-induced fragmentation (bay‐breasted warbler, Cape May warbler, rusty blackbird, Tennessee warbler, three‐toed woodpecker, palm warbler, black‐backed woodpecker, boreal chickadee, gray jay, olive‐sided flycatcher, yellow bellied flycatcher).

The WCS letter goes on to state that its scientists conducted bird counts on 7 long‐term study sites within 5 miles of the Kushaqua easement and 29 study sites within 10 miles of that tract. It notes that these birds are found only or mostly within the Adirondack Park and the Kushaqua tract has ideal habitat for them, and the birds are likely to occur there because of the WCS counts so nearby.

Moreover, WCS states that regular use of all-terrain vehicles (ATV) is known to fragment the habitats of these birds, causing them to abandon these smaller fragments in search of larger, better connected boreal wetlands.
The WCS letter to NYS DEC states:

“The mechanized forms of recreation proposed for the Kushaqua Tract are more likely to result in negative impacts to these habitats than other forms of recreation, and more likely to negatively impact these habitats than more resilient upland forest types. We urge you to consider the implications of allowing ATV use in this rare and fragile habitat. Setting a precedent here may have cascading effects on significant boreal resources throughout the park if this model is followed on other tracts.”

Examining the draft RMP more closely, the WCS letter notes: “The portions of the Kushaqua Tract proposed to be open for restricted ATV use are unfortunately those portions that are likely to be most sensitive to this type of recreational activity (Map 2). Specifically, Hunter’s Camp Road (#3), and Road 3‐3 are located almost entirely within sensitive habitat types.”
With this science-based information in hand, what have the authors of the DEC’s Kushaqua RMP done with it?

They appear to have ignored it.

First, in its review of wetlands or forests present on the tract, DEC authors note there are 1669 acres of wetlands, but fail to describe the presence, much less the importance, of lowland boreal wetlands and surrounding lowland spruce-fir forests present on the tract. The RMP fails to mention any actions it has taken in this RMP redraft which are responsive to the WCS’ scientific data and management concerns.

In its description of wildlife, specifically birds, the RMP only notes the importance of Bicknell’s thrush, but not the eleven species listed in the WCS letter which are dependent on habitats in the Kushaqua tract and which are considered imperiled or vulnerable by the State’s own Natural Heritage Program, as well as by the WCS and other experts. In other words, it appears in this case that the authors and the executive staff at DEC are ignoring scientific evidence and analysis that could accommodate unique forms of endemic Adirondack wildlife and people in its management actions.

Of the routes specifically mentioned by WCS as located almost entirely within the sensitive habitat types, where the WCS advises DEC that it should exercise great caution due to the sensitivity of species and their habitats, DEC’s revised draft RMP proposes to open more than five miles of the Hunters Camp Road and Road 3-3 to ATVs, and many more miles on roads which branch off from them.

In fact, comparing the WCS map of most of the sensitive low elevation boreal forest and boreal wetlands on the tract with most of the proposed new public motorized routes on the tract, one sees significant overlap, reflecting no concern or caution about protecting boreal wetlands or forests.

Here are two DEC responses to what appears to be the content of the WCS letter:

“Commenter believes the RMP lacks adequate biological data, natural resource character inventories and vulnerability-impact assessments.

Response: Information of this specific nature is not applicable to the intent and purpose of the RMP document.”

 Faced with a letter from qualified natural resource experts like the WCS containing specific resource-based information, DEC appears to find the data “not applicable.”

 “Commenter believes that the RMP proposes public access and motorized use in significant sensitive habitats and unique ecological communities which will ultimately result in negative resource impacts.

Response: The majority of public recreational access and facility development proposed in this

RMP focuses on areas already impacted by forest management and private recreational access both motorized and non-motorized. Locations on the property that will be newly impacted by facility construction will be carefully evaluated and constructed using best management practices (BMPs) to minimize long and short term impact to sensitive natural areas and habitats.”

In essence, this DEC response reflects an attitude – not based on any scientific evidence – that the tract is already heavily logged and roaded by private interests, so what difference does opening up these roads to public motorized use make? It then states that the use of best management practices will minimize impacts, yet fails to specify what those practices will be and why they will be effective. Moreover, DEC apparently fails to recommend actions which could avoid impacts altogether, as the law requires it to do.




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