Re. Public Comment, Wild Forest Guideline No. 4, “No Material Increase”
Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve
Ballston Lake, NY
Comment Summary: Adirondack Wild appreciates having the 60-day comment period, as it affords the public sufficient time to try and relate this particular State Land Master Plan guideline for which you are seeking input to the entire Master Plan. While we thank the Agency for the chance to “inform the APA Board’s interpretation of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan’s Wild Forest Basic Guideline No. 4,” we also think that in the process APA has created several erroneous impressions which are serious, and which should be corrected.
- One misimpression the APA has created is that Wild Forest Guideline No. 4, the so called “no material increase” guideline, can be interpreted in isolation from other important Wild Forest guidelines as well as other sections of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (hereinafter, the “Master Plan”). Adirondack Wild does not believe that Guideline No. 4 can be read in isolation but must be interpreted in context with other parts of the Master Plan because the Master Plan’s guidelines and contents are interrelated. They tie together. It is the Agency’s job to interpret the Master Plan as a whole and through training make the mutually reinforcing guidelines discernable and applicable to setting basic policy and long-range planning for the Park’s state lands.
- Another serious misimpression is that the APA’s request for public comment about the miles of road available for public motorized use strictly on Forest Preserve classified Wild Forest fails to examine the Adirondack Park as a whole, in which there are roughly 800,000 acres of private land under conservation easement, with roads opened by some of those easements to public motor vehicles year-round, or seasonally. Measurements of “materiality” in the increase of motorized miles or uses should not be made solely within Forest Preserve Wild Forest. Doing so makes little sense from a park planning perspective. In fact, the Master Plan specifically mandates that the APA take into account actual and projected uses on private land.
- A third misimpression: Although Wild Forest Guideline No. 4, “no material increase,” applies to snowmobile trails and motor vehicle roads, the APA presents its 2008 decision – that a 15% growth in the mileage of snowmobile trails since 1972 would not be considered “material” – as a reasonable standard or guide to apply to the growth in motorized road mileage on Wild Forest. In fact, the NYS Court of Appeals ruled in 2021 that the 27 miles of snowmobile community connector Class II trails approved by the APA and DEC after 2009 were not only material, they were unconstitutional. The 2021 NYS COA ruled, in part, that “the construction of the Class II trails is, for constitutional purposes, no different than the construction of the bobsleigh run. Both would work a substantial change to the Forest Preserve” – and, thus, both required a constitutional amendment. Therefore, in 2022 the APA should not accept its 2008 Master Plan interpretation of the materiality in the growth of snowmobile trails as any kind of justifiable guide or standard to be repeated today.
We will now delve into some detail about our 3-prong critique, above.
Basic Guideline No. 4: The APSLMP’s Wild Forest Basic Guideline No. 4 states that “Public use of motor vehicles will not be encouraged and there will not be any material increase in the mileage of roads and snowmobile trails open to motorized use by the public in wild forest areas that conformed to the master plan at the time of its original adoption in 1972.”
Measuring what may be a “material increase” in both road and snowmobile mileage on Wild Forest has bedeviled the staff of both agencies for 50 years. Staff do require accurate information as to what existed in 1972 and what exists today. We appreciate the work put in to establish today’s Wild Forest motorized road baselines and APA’s confidence in them.
However, confidence in the snowmobile trail mileage on Wild Forest has never existed. It was estimated from hand-drawn maps and field checked with surveyor wheels in the 1970s and again early in the 21st century. Those snowmobile estimates spanned the digital divide and the quality of the estimation varied considerably across the region. As a result, the snowmobile mileage remained an estimate. That lack of clarity contributed to the flawed “Comprehensive Snowmobile Master Plan” of 2006, and an incorrect 2008 determination by the APA that the growth in snowmobile trail mileage since 1972 was immaterial.
The Wild Forest snowmobile mileage estimate in 2006 was just over 750 miles. The snowmobile trail estimate on private and municipal lands at that time was 1100 miles parkwide. The state, private land and municipal snowmobile trails were never compiled together and never treated comprehensively, but the Master Plan says they should have been – just as motorized roads should be today.
Other Master Plan Guidelines Must Also be Considered: The Master Plan appeared internally integrated to its early authors and interpreters. It is tempting for today’s APA to improperly read these guidelines in isolation from each other. That appears to be happening. APA staff and board should be continually trained to interpret the Master Plan as a comprehensive, integrated document.
If one does, then Guideline No. 4 must be interpreted alongside Guideline No. 1 of Wild Forest Recreational Use and Overuse:
“All types of recreational uses considered appropriate for wilderness areas are compatible with wild forest and, in addition, snowmobiling, motorboating and travel by jeep or other motor vehicles on a limited and regulated basis that will not materially increase motorized uses that conformed to the Master Plan at the time of its adoption in 1972 and will not adversely affect the essentially wild character of the land are permitted” (emphasis ours).
The Recreational Use and Overuse guideline significantly conditions Guideline No. 4. It focuses on recreational use, not strictly mileage. It focuses on the essential wild character of the land. How much motorized uses (including mileage) have grown since 1972 and how they may be affecting the essential wild character are vital judgment calls, not strict measurements. While knowing the mileage of routes in 1972 and today and judging their “materiality” is very important, it is not at all sufficient.
We say this with some confidence because we met with Norman J. Van Valkenburgh in 2006 to seek answers about the Master Plan from someone who ought to know. Norm was the DEC’s Director of Lands and Forests at a crucial point in time from 1976-1980 when DEC felt obliged to carry out the Master Plan’s guidelines, including the Wild Forest guideline No. 4. We asked Norm about the Master Plan’s Wild Forest guidelines. We asked him how we should read them coherently. Even as everyone appears focused on the mileage of roads and trails open to motorized uses, Norm told us that emphasis is misplaced. The real emphasis should be on use.
Norm explained to us that Wild Forest Guideline No. 1 under Recreational Use and Overuse “doesn’t say mileage; it says use, which means the level of use today should be no greater than such use was in 1972. If there were, say, one hundred snowmobiles using the snowmobile trails on the Forest Preserve in 1972, then no more than one hundred should be allowed on those trails today – whatever mileage of trails there was or is today…Everyone has focused on the mileage of snowmobile trails and ignored the crux of the plan. The purpose of the Master Plan was to restrict and control use, not set a limit of the number of miles of trails. That’s why no such number was put in the Master Plan. Trail width, height, tread, parking and all other uses facilitating motorized vehicles such as snowmobiles similarly should not be materially increased beyond what existed in 1972,” he said.
Van Valkenburgh went on to say that unit management plans (UMP), the documents which carry out the general guidelines of the Master Plan, should be used to appropriately limit additional motorized uses, locations, mileages. “UMPs can actually be the tool to ratchet back such uses,” he said. “The Master Plan sets an upper limit on such uses, but DEC has ample authority to set those limits lower in each UMP.”
That DEC “ample authority” and need to exercise good judgment is found in Master Plan Wild Forest Guideline No. 3 under Motor Vehicles and Motorized Equipment:
“The Department of Environmental Conservation may restrict, under existing law and pursuant to authority provided in this master plan, the use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment and aircraft by the public or administrative personnel where in its judgment the character of the natural resources in a particular area or other factors make such restrictions desirable.”
Do Motorized Uses Expand with growth of the Forest Preserve? At their May 2022 meeting, some members of the APA seemed uncertain about whether “no material increase” applied only to pre-existing Forest Preserve as of 1972. Maybe what was intended, they asked, was the expansion of motor vehicle opportunities on Wild Forest classification whenever the Forest Preserve’s Wild Forest areas grew in acreage.
Once again, Wild Forest guidelines in the Master Plan must be read in their entirety. Under the heading Roads, Jeep Trails and State Truck Trails, Guideline No. 3 clarifies the question of newly acquired Forest Preserve classified as Wild Forest:
“Established roads or snowmobile trails in newly-acquired state lands classified as wild forest may be kept open to the public, subject to basic guideline 4 set forth above.”
“Subject to basic guideline 4” demonstrates that the Agency and the Department were anticipating the additional acquisition of Forest Preserve post 1972 and that agencies understood that the mileage open to public use of motor vehicles should be constrained and should not materially expand as the result of state land acquisitions.
Putting together all Master Plan Wild Forest guidance should give the APA little doubt of what was intended by the authors of the Master Plan – to tightly constrain the mileage open to public use of motor vehicles in the Adirondack Forest Preserve and not to expand that mileage as new state lands were acquired. The APA understood in 1972 that such constraints were fundamental to a 20th century application of the meaning of the “Forever Wild” provisions of Article 14, Section 1 of the New York State Constitution. Just one year ago the NYS Court of Appeals reaffirmed that constitutional meaning, cited the 1930 bobsled decision as precedent, ruled that community connector snowmobile trails were unconstitutional and essentially struck down the 2009 APA-DEC Master Plan conformance decisions with respect to those trails.
Private Ownerships: APA’s interpretation of Wild Forest Guideline No. 4 should and must take into account the Master Plan’s section on Private Ownerships (Master Plan, Page 3). It states that:
“The state has also acquired…a variety of conservation easements and less-than-fee interests in private lands that serve an important public purpose in either providing public access to state lands or in preserving the natural, open space character of the private land burdened by the easement for the benefit of other state lands in the Park (emphasis ours). These less-than-fee interests are an important element in the relationship between state and private lands…This master plan for state lands has therefore attempted to take into account…this intermingling of private and public lands within the Park” (emphasis ours).
One of the most fundamental changes to the Adirondack Park since 1972 is the very significant acreage of private lands now under conservation easement – more than 800,000 acres. There was no conservation easement law until 1983. Now, miles of private industrial roads as well as trails on conservation easements are open to some form of negotiated public motorized recreation. The latest example is the 16-miles of dirt road newly opened to public motorized uses from May-September through the Kildare Conservation Easement Recreation Area Management Plan. In fact, DEC’s easement program and its 2006 snowmobile plan were expressly intended to shift some motorized access off the Forest Preserve and onto routes on private land.
APA is a land use planning agency and should interpret the Master Plan’s guideline about materiality of Forest Preserve routes open to motorized uses through the planning lens of the entire Adirondack Park. A close reading of the Master Plan makes this comprehensive look mandatory. Under Private Ownerships, the Master Plan states on page 3 that:
“The Act clearly recognizes the unique land ownership pattern within the Adirondack Park…and mandates the Agency to reflect in this master plan the actual and projected uses of private lands within the Park.”
Before proceeding with an interpretation of Wild Forest Guideline No. 4, the APA should and indeed must know and map the mileage and location of routes on private and municipal land as well as on the Forest Preserve.
DEC Commissioner’s Policy 3, CP-3, Access for Persons with Disabilities: The APA’s question whether “CP-3” routes are road miles to be considered for “no material increase” purposes should be answered affirmatively. Most of these routes in approved UMPs or their alternatives were agreed to by the plaintiffs and parties to the Galusha case settled in 2001 in federal court, a settlement in which we took part. These routes were not to be on Wild Forest trails but on roads solely open to certified individuals with disabilities, and not to the general public. While from a legal perspective the routes cannot be closed to certified individuals with disabilities, from a Master Planning perspective the APA should include them because they contribute to motorized mileage and uses which exceed those available under the Master Plan in 1972.
Hard Cap Needed: Regardless of which scenario (1,2 or 3) the APA presents for public comment, it is clear that both motorized mileage (245 miles on Wild Forest in 2022) and motorized uses have grown by at least 20% on Wild Forest since 1972 (206 miles in 1972). Any reasonable definition of “materiality” in both motorized miles and uses has already been reached and exceeded. A hard cap on additional motorized miles and uses must be put in place. New roads that the agencies in future deem necessary to open to motorized uses in Wild Forest must, therefore, correspond to closure of resource damaging or damage inducing roads elsewhere.
Reduce the Increase: Given these material increases in both miles and motorized uses, efforts should be immediately made by the DEC Regions 5 and 6, pursuant to the Master Plan, to close some existing motorized roads especially damaging to the Forest Preserve, and thus to limit the total increase since 1972 to less than 15%. For example, parts of the Bear Pond Road in Watson’s East Triangle Wild Forest which border the Five Ponds Wilderness have long induced illegal off-road incursions into the Five Ponds Wilderness. Some motorized roads in the Aldrich Pond Wild Forest have long caused extensive natural resource damage, ongoing. Also, the section of Deer Pond Road (Blue Mountain Wild Forest) that enters the Essex Chain of Lakes Primitive Area should be closed because of damage to that Primitive Area. Parts of the easily eroded Gulf Brook Road, Vanderwhacker Wild Forest, should be closed due to resource damage, high maintenance cost and adjacency to Wilderness.
These are just some of the many examples of existing Wild Forest motorized road segments causing considerable damage to wilderness, natural resources and wild forest character where “DEC may restrict under existing law and pursuant to authority provided in this master plan the use of motor vehicles” (Master Plan, page 35).
We repeat: Reducing the increase in motorized miles and uses since 1972 to less than 15% and imposing a hard cap are especially justified because the 800,000 acres of private lands under easement in the Park has so significantly increased public motorized uses and opportunities in the Adirondack Park since 1972. Once identified, counted and mapped, these additional motorized miles and uses on private land should color and influence the APA’s interpretation of Wild Forest guidelines, including Guideline No. 4. This task of relating Wild Forest to private land motorized use is obligatory because the Master Plan on page 3 “mandates the Agency to reflect in this master plan the actual and projected uses of private lands within the Park” (emphasis ours).
Conclusions: A strict focus on Wild Forest Guideline No. 4 is improper and insufficient. Adirondack Wild feels the Agency is obligated to interpret the Master Plan more comprehensively, so that:
- Motorized mileage and uses are both read and considered as relevant to judgements about “materiality” under several interrelated Master Plan guidelines;
- Private lands under conservation easement allowing motorized uses are properly identified and factored into these judgments as required by the Master Plan;
- Motorized roads causing present damage to the Forest Preserve be assessed and, under the Master Plan, restricted from motorized use by the public (excluding Galusha CP-3 routes), keeping growth in motorized road miles and uses on Wild Forest since 1972 under 15%;
- In light of the 2021 Court of Appeals decision and employing a more comprehensive reading of the Master Plan, reconsider APA’s 2008 interpretation that a 15% increase in snowmobile trail mileage since 1972 was immaterial.
On behalf of our Board of Directors and Members, thank you very much for considering our comments, concerns and recommendations.
David Gibson, Managing Partner
Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve
P.O. Box 9247, Niskayuna, NY 12309
Cc: Barbara Rice, APA Executive Director
Chris Cooper, APA Legal Counsel
John Ernst, APA Chair and APA Members
DEC Regional Directors
Josh Clague, DEC Forest Preserve coordinator
Basil Seggos, DEC Commissioner
Adirondack Wild board and advisors