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FIELD NOTES: SAFEGUARDING THE WILD

Adirondack Wild Comment:

RE: APA-DEC Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on State-Owned Conservation Easements

Dear Commissioner Grannis, Chairman Stiles, Mr. Connolly:

Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve congratulates both the DEC and the APA for committing your staff leadership time to the important planning discussions and efforts that went into this MOU on State-owned Conservation Easements (CE). We recognize and appreciate that “cooperative elements of a coordinated State government program for the Park,” and “coordinated policy development and implementation” are vitally important aspects of Park management and administration which are long called for by study commissions, and heartily welcomed by our organization and others.

As lands conditioned by conservation easements now constitute such a significant percentage of the private lands in the Park, APA and DEC have responsibly responded to an urgent need for such coordinated review. This need was discussed at the interagency workshop on conservation easements held at the Adirondack Nature Conservancy in February 2009.

Adirondack Wild is concerned with wild lands in the Park, both publicly and privately owned: their care, stewardship, management, integrity, interrelationship, and constituencies. As such, we believe conservation easements are critical to extending conservation, watershed, ecological, recreational and wild land benefits in complementary fashion to our core Forest Preserve land holdings. Insuring that conservation easement lands and rights held by the People of New York State are truly protected through the integrated, collaborative DEC and APA oversight is one of the highest priorities of integrated ecosystem-based, wild land management goals for our wild parks in the Adirondacks and Catskills.

We recognize that these comments are reaching you past the deadline, and therefore we greatly appreciate your consideration of them and look forward to ongoing discussions about conservation easement policy and management questions in the future.

General Coordination and Communication

Adirondack Wild supports and appreciates the need for coordination and communication between the Adirondack Park Agency and Department of Environmental Conservation. Section 814 of the APA Act as well as Executive Order 150 provide significant basis for collaboration between both agencies on the administration, permitting and oversight of projects or actions on lands with state-held conservation easements.

The protection of natural landscapes, wild forests and all ecosystem values for CE lands is of fundamental importance. The State’s interest in these CE lands totaling nearly 800,000 acres should certainly require very significant review and oversight by both agencies. Specifically, Adirondack Wild would like to see all state-held CE made available to the public via a common link between the APA and DEC websites. The public and stakeholder groups should have access to these easements, and their conservation benefits and restrictions.

Ecosystem-based, Wild Land Management Vision and Goals are needed

It is time the State of New York instituted ecosystem-based, wild land management principles, goals and practices across the Forest Preserve and seeks to integrate these practices with State-held CE lands. Wherever development rights are purchased on CE lands, and wherever the fundamental CE purpose is to protect natural resources, the APA should review all changes in use or development, no matter their significance. It is essential that such CE lands not be subjected to an intensifying series of camp, boat launch, motorized use, road and other recreational facilities on a piecemeal basis which over time could overwhelm and eliminate the natural resource and ecosystem benefits of the easement. As a regional planning agency, APA oversight is essential to insure that CE lands serve as most important buffers for the Park’s core wild land resource on the Forest Preserve and consistent with the rights and interests of the underlying fee landowners.

New Land Use and Development

Unfortunately, we find no emphasis on ecosystem-based decision making in Section II., under New Land Use and Development. Natural resource protection and sustaining a viable forest land resource (for all its benefits including sustainable forestry, recreation, etc.) without “new land use and development” is in fact supposed to be the State’s priority in these conservation easements that cost taxpayers many millions of dollars and confer annual property tax reduction benefits to landowners.

As such, we find several key aspects of this MOU troubling, especially for provisions under the section II. (b) Minor activities – No Agency Consultation or Review:

  • 1. Far too many uses and activities are deemed “minor,” or inconsequential, requiring no substantial APA review under Section 814 of the Act. Some of these uses deemed of little consequence may well damage or seriously compromise the wild land values of private lands which the parties to the easement may consider a priority of vital importance, or wild conditions they would not want to see impaired. Recreational uses and facilities judged “minor” in this document not subject to APA formal review that could easily compromise easement wild land values include, but are not limited to:
  • a. Unconditioned state cutting of trees, all manner of recreational structures and facilities, including 25-car parking lots and road construction up to a mile in length to facilitate existing motorized uses that may already be at a high or unsustainable level.
  • b. Use of all-terrain vehicles (ATV) on existing roads and trails that do not meet some vague, undefined thresholds which may make such uses subject to 814 review.
  • c. So called “ongoing emergency” under section (b) 1, needs to be much better defined for the benefit of appropriate review.

  • 2. Particularly with regard to motorized uses, we believe that staff responsible for monitoring and enforcing this MOU on easement lands will find it next to impossible to distinguish between “minor” uses and those uses triggering formal Section 814 review by the APA. The lines drawn are far too blurred to be of practical use in the field. For example, this MOU requires managers to distinguish between ATV traffic for recreational uses on existing trails, which is deemed minor and thus “OK,” and ATVs which use “interconnecting” or “loop” trails, or those which take the rider to trail connections “off the property” which are not minor and trigger formal APA review.

The public should gain more direct involvement in any new land use and construction proposals – in order to have light shed on whether or not the conservation easement goals and criteria are truly being met. Unless specified in the conservation easement itself, new use and development should not be permitted on easements where the development rights have been purchased.

The MOU also gives blanket permission to allow CE landowners to create access to small in-holdings of Forest Preserve. We disagree. Such access needs to be addressed on a case by case basis. The DEC should seek to treat all Forest Preserve in the same manner.

The large loopholes presented in this draft MOU raise serious concerns for the future integrity of the CE program if enacted as written. The weakness of this document in assuring review of activity that could compromise wild land values is shown by citing the ForestLand Group conservation easement near the South Branch of the Grasse River. In 1998 the State purchased a conservation easement which would require removal of all camps, and provide passive public recreational use down to the river. Numerous violations of the APA Act existed at leased camps throughout the property.

Now decades later, the landowner and DEC wish to alter the easement to allow more than 200 camps, many with existing violations, to remain with private ATV-truck access to all of them on a seasonal basis, yet the State is set to become the owner of all public recreational rights on the entire property, rights which are intended to be passive recreational rights, not motorized. We are unable to determine from this document whether an amendment of the existing easement to permit such intensity of development and motorized uses on existing roads and trails to remain would trigger Section 814 review.

Many Adirondack landowners who have conveyed or may in the future convey conservation easements in the Adirondack Park are as concerned with preserving wilderness or wild land conditions as they are with forest management and recreation. We urge the Agency and the Department to consider these owners, as well as their own land managers and administrators by reconsidering the many exceptions and caveats found in this document. Section 814 of the Act is there to ensure that New York State land use and development activity is reviewed as thoroughly and professionally as comparable private land use. While we thoroughly appreciate the efforts made towards that objective, we do not believe you have reached it.

We look forward to furthering our discussions on conservation easement policy, management and monitoring to safeguard the park’s extensive protected lands.

Sincerely,
David H. Gibson, Partner, Adirondack Wild
Daniel R. Plumley, Partner, Adirondack Wild


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2] Posted 10/07/10
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The mission of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve is to advance New York’s ‘Forever Wild’ legacy and Forest Preserve policies in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks, and promote public and private land stewardship that is consistent with wild land values through education, advocacy and research.

Top left, Moose River ©2010 Ken Rimany; Field Notes photographs ©2011 Ken Rimany. Wild Action Now photograph ©2011 David Gibson

ADIRONDACK PARK REGIONAL
Peter Brinkley, Honorary Chair
pbrinkley@frontiernet.net
Terry Jandreau, Chair
terry.jandreau@yahoo.com
 
Kenneth J. Rimany, Partner
krimany@adirondackwild.org
David H. Gibson, Managing Partner
dgibson@adirondackwild.org
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