By David Gibson, Managing Partner, Adirondack Wild
Adirondack Explorer’s reporter and writer Gwendolyn Craig has authored a fine article this month titled “The Long Wait for Forest Preserve Plans,” referring to the lack of unit management plans (herein, “UMP”) for some significant Forest Preserve Wilderness areas, like West Canada Lake and William C. Whitney, and for a group of Wild Forest areas, such as Lake George, Ferris Lake, Wilcox Lake in the southern half of the Park, and Debar Mountain and Chazy Highlands in the northern half.
The APA Act of 1973 “directs DEC, in consultation with APA, to develop individual unit management plans for each unit of land…classified in the master plan…All plans will confirm to the guidelines and criteria set forth in the master plan and cannot amend the master plan itself.”
Craig’s article accurately points out many staffing and budgetary shortfalls, policy hurdles and other challenges in completing UMPs in order to comply with the master plan (and updating them). DEC Lands and Forests has suffered from serious personnel and other cuts since the late 1990s. There were a few, but far too few, young DEC professionals appointed around 1999 to respond to then Governor Pataki’s announcement to complete all UMPs within five years. They worked diligently and drafted UMPs but as the new century began discovered that their superiors were unable to provide them with clear, enforceable policy with respect to controversial matters such as the expansion of roads, all-terrain vehicles, and snowmobiles in classified Wild Forest areas.
Policy confusion – Some of these areas had previously been industrial forest roads owned by International Paper, Champion International, Domtar, all pulp and paper companies in the process of selling their Adirondack land base. Others had an established pattern of illegal motorized uses. Enforcement of existing rules and regulations, such as the use of motors and motorized equipment in the Forest Preserve (Part 196 of DEC regulations), proved challenging. In 2000 DEC told us they had to rely on the state Highway Law to address illegal ATV use; an ATV policy was drafted, but never released. Non-profit Park advocates like the Residents Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and others challenged DEC in court, leading to the 2003 APA-DEC Memorandum of Understanding with respect to management of the Forest Preserve, how to investigate alleged violations, and the review of UMPs. About this same time APA staff had to sanction DEC for allowing freshwater wetland violations, literally muddy holes in the preserve resulting from significant mechanization and alteration of Wild Forest trails. No wonder some of the large Wild Forest UMPs remained in draft form then, and even now. The very few young professionals hired to draft them grew frustrated by the policy paralysis, and were also pulled in too many directions.
No Master Plan Regulations – In part, UMP issues also result from the fact that the State Land Master Plan lacks regulatory teeth. For fifty years, APA and DEC have put off the task of developing rules and regulations for enforcing the guidelines of the master plan, including what must be included in a UMP. When push comes to shove the agencies sometimes view guidelines as mere “guidance” which their successors can resolve in the future – no matter that state courts have repeatedly ruled that the master plan has the force of law. As Craig’s article mentions, this attitude is noticeable in the DEC’s failure to launch any carrying capacity studies of lakes surrounded by the Forest Preserve, but also by numerous after-the- fact commitments by the APA, rarely undertaken, to complete measurements and assessments after UMPs are approved.
Areas of significant UMP improvement – Despite this, I reflect on 35 years of reviewing Forest Preserve UMPs and think of how far these plans have actually come. In the 1980s and lacking computers and GIS capability, the DEC’s UMP maps and other illustrations of land and water features, trails and other facilities were primitive by today’s standards, lacked color, and did not reproduce well in print. Those of us on the outside of DEC, and probably quite a few in DEC and APA squinted at the maps and tried to make sense of them.
Back then, the quality of the writing and assessments across DEC Regions 5 and 6 was also quite uneven. It still is, but not so much. Natural resource and facilities data and inventories could be haphazard back in the day, reliant on the writer’s recollections, notes, impressions, and outdated information. The DEC Natural Heritage database had hardly begun. Partnerships with nonprofit stewards, advocates and recreational enthusiasts, and the additive, on the ground knowledge they provide DEC were new or not yet launched. In the 1980s, many primitive campsites were still being approved or tolerated that failed to comply with required sight and sound separation distances. Close coordination between the regions and DEC central office to ensure that plans met master plan guidelines was, to be generous, imperfect.
Today, UMP maps and illustrations are sharp, detailed and more accurate, data more recently obtained, attempts to comply with basic master plan guidelines, like separation distances, more robust, draft UMP receive greater internal review for master plan compliance, leading to needed campsite and trail closures and restoration of natural conditions. UMPS are compelled to address through management more recreational preferences, technologies, and pressures than around 1985. They are also compelled to address a seriously altered climate and precipitation regime impacting the preserve and its resources and trails, a reality unheard of in 1985. As a result, UMPS need be quite a bit lengthier and written by teams of authors with various skill sets.
Inconsistent Training – The Forest Preserve inspired the National Wilderness Act of 1964 and is a designated National Landmark. It is also part of the globe’s largest biosphere reserve, the Champlain-Adirondack biosphere reserve. These are world-class designations. However, professional training to manage the Forest Preserve as a wildland is not world class. Training was practically non-existent until 2002 when Walter Linck, hired by the APA in 2001, Karyn Richards at DEC and others recognized the urgent need to train UMP writers, their supervisors and the APA board in applying the state land master plan and wilderness management principles and practices to the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve. Kicked off enthusiastically, to my knowledge these regularly scheduled in-service training sessions did not last the decade. Restarting wildland training in a systematic fashion for DEC and APA personnel should be a high priority today. We continue to encourage DEC to establish a training partnership with the federal Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center, a partnership of the four federal agencies administering units of America’s National Wilderness Preservation System and equipping agency personnel in the skills needed for their work.
Reimagining the Forest Preserve as a system of wildlands – The State Land Master Plan states on page one that “if there is a unifying theme to the master plan, it is that the protection and preservation of the natural resources of the state lands must be paramount.” That priority, therefore, must hold for all UMPs as well. “If” there is a unifying theme? The authors of the master plan were also challenged to distill the Forest Preserve’s foundation down to one, unified system of constitutionally protected and stewarded lands and waters – a wildland system.
Viewing all the units of the 3 million-acre Forest Preserve, however those units may be classified, as a unified system of wildlands is basic to their long-term survival. If your house has a shaky foundation, the new roof won’t last long. Similarly, our Forest Preserve needs a strong foundation that can be quickly described, embraced, and differentiated from other parks and recreation areas.
Wildlands are defined around the world as tracts of any size and current condition, permanently protected from development, in which management is explicitly intended to allow natural processes to prevail with “free will” and minimal human interference and without intentionally altering their structure, composition, or function. Our Forest Preserve assuredly qualifies. In fact, it’s size, durability and popularity are the envy of the northeastern United States and Canada.
Need for strong foundations – In 2021 the NYS Court of Appeals strengthened the Forest Preserve’s foundation when they upheld “forever wild,” or Article 14 of the NYS Constitution, stating:
“The Forest Preserve is a publicly owned wilderness of incomparable beauty. Located in two regions of the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains, the Forest Preserve—with its trees, rivers, wetlands, mountain landscape, and rugged terrain—is a respite from the demands of daily life and the encroachment of commercial development…This unique “forever wild” provision was deemed necessary by its drafters and the people of the State of New York to end the commercial destruction and despoliation of the soil and trees that jeopardized the state’s forests and, perhaps most importantly, the state watershed.”
These are strong and helpful foundational statements about the Forest Preserve from our state’s highest court. DEC should not find it difficult to come up with even better statements, but in too many instances they hesitate. Many UMPS, especially the High Peaks UMP (1999), express something akin to this foundational statement. However, too many do not. For instance, a proposed, not yet approved amendment to the Blue Ridge Wilderness Area UMP from 2018 stresses the importance of developing a snowmobile community connector network across the Park and never mentions a priority of managing a network of protected wildlands across the Park.
Here and elsewhere, accommodating recreational use as a first priority, motorized and non-motorized, weakened the foundation of the Forest Preserve. The flawed Comprehensive Snowmobile Plan of 2006, courtesy of Gov. Pataki, and the poorly implemented snowmobile trail guidance (2009) under Gov. A. Cuomo both weakened the Forest Preserve’s foundation and consumed 15 years of acrimony, litigation, delayed Wild Forest UMPs, and an unconstitutional ruling against DEC and APA by the 2021 Court of Appeals.
Resource professionals from elsewhere sometimes examine our Forest Preserve system and ask good questions. For instance, the science director for Parks Canada, Stephen Woodley, came to a Lake Placid conference we sponsored in 2001. He was asked about the complexities of unit management planning and responded, “I wonder why the planning principles underlying management targets for an historically unified system like the Forest Preserve are not made clearer under your master plan. Then, you can allow each unit plan to address the few exceptions, deviations, or special management needs. Do you really want to debate over and over the same planning principles in thirty or forty different unit plans?”
Large Wild Forest areas, like Wilcox Lake Wild Forest, lack completed UMPs because, in part, they have waited 20 years for big wildland policy decisions, like that of snowmobile trail standards, locations and density, to stop being debated and to start being decided. Today, DEC struggles with its small Lands and Forests staff to assemble new trail policies and standards for all recreational uses that will comply with the Court, Article XIV of our state constitution, and the master plan. A Trail Stewardship Working Group of a dozen individuals and nonprofits are working with them to help them achieve these difficult goals. Crucial to this job is to lay a strong Forest Preserve foundation for the new policies and trail standards. In the drafting, DEC must view the Forest Preserve as far more than an exemplary outdoor recreational resource, which it undoubtedly is. DEC must make prominent reference to the Forest Preserve’s wildness and wild character. Trails for all forms of recreational use should be designed, constructed, and maintained in ways that do not diminish that character. The desired conditions of the foot, ski, bike, horse and snowmobile trails of the future must have a vision behind the work: to forever be New York’s exemplary natural, scenic, and outdoor recreational resource within a wild setting that is unique in the eastern half of the United States and contrasts with and complements the more developed facilities of state and local park systems found elsewhere in the state. Altered rainfall intensity and snowfall and snowpack conditions must be taken into account.
So long as the qualities of wildness are embraced by DEC leadership and remain foundational to the Forest Preserve as a wildland system, so long as UMP writers and supervisors are well-trained and well led in wildland stewardship, then adaptive visitor use management tools can be successfully applied and UMPs can more rapidly gain compliance with the master plan. Let’s stop debating the same principles over and over for more than 40 Wild Forest and Wilderness UMPs in the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve. Let’s start embracing these principles, and proudly so because no other state has a “forever wild” Forest Preserve, a wildland system of 3 million acres and the envy of every other state in the northeast.
At top: Moose River Plains Wild Forest by Ken Rimany