Current IssuesA gate with signs on it blocking access to a road into the wilderness

By David Gibson, Managing Partner, Adirondack Wild

Wild Forest roads: “No Material Increase” needs context

Fifty-one years ago (1971) the newly created Adirondack Park Agency was granted the authority to draft, revise, and interpret the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, or APSLMP. That plan was signed by the Governor in 1972 and revised by many Governors since. The NYS courts have found that the APSLMP has the force and effect of law.

No Material Increase: This past week, the APA sent the public notice that we have 60 days to comment in order to “inform the APA Board’s interpretation of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan’s Wild Forest Basic Guideline No. 4 – no material increase of road mileage on lands classified as Wild Forest.” The rest of APA’s press release consists of seemingly arcane questions and alternatives that presumes public awareness and understanding of the past and how it relates today.

I have a few basic problems with what APA has sent out to the public. First, what precipitated this sudden rush to submit a complex set of questions and alternatives to public comment? APA provides no clues and no context. A public workshop is planned, presumably to help answer basic questions like this, but this educational step should have been completed before scheduling a public comment period.

Second, and as I will explain, the Agency’s apparently sole focus on Wild Forest Guideline No. 4 is misplaced. This guideline should be interpreted in context with other guidelines in the  State Land Master Plan.

Third, the entire exercise ignores the Adirondack Park as a whole in which there are 800,000 acres under some form of conservation easement, many of which contain miles of trails and dirt roads open to public motor vehicles, either year-round or seasonally. To signal, as the Agency appears to be doing, that all measurements of “materiality” in the increase of such motorized access must be realized within Wild Forest areas of the Adirondack Forest Preserve makes little sense from a Park planning perspective.

Basic Guideline 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 “material increase” has bedeviled the staff of both agencies for 50 years. Staff need accurate information as to what existed in 1972, what exists today and what constitutes materiality. I do not gainsay this need for the staff to know the information and to be able to trust it and present it with confidence to the boards and to the public.

This has not always been the case. Case in point: the snowmobile trail mileage on Wild Forest areas of the Forest Preserve 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 both sides of the digital divide. Moreover, the quality of the estimation varied considerably across the Adirondacks. As a result, the estimates were just that – and were continually changing. That lack of clarity frustrated members of the Snowmobile Focus Group brought together by DEC for several years some 20 years ago. I was one of those Focus Group members. The snowmobile mileage numbers on the Adirondack Forest Preserve, over 750 miles, are still estimates, as are the snowmobile trail numbers on private and municipal lands, some 1100 miles Parkwide.

State Land Master Plan guidelines once appeared internally coherent and integrated to its authors and early interpreters, but as the decades pass, they appear less and less coherent and integrated to the staff and boards now in charge. It is tempting for today’s planning administrators to read these guidelines in isolation from each other. That appears to be happening now. That means that staff and board must be continually trained to read and interpret the State Land Master Plan as one coherent, cohesive, integrated document.

If one does that, Guideline 4 cannot be read in isolation from other Master Plan Wild Forest guidelines, such as this guideline found under the very relevant heading 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 (underlining is mine).

This guideline expands on Guideline 4 on which so much APA attention appears solely focused. This other guideline focuses on recreational use, not just mileage. It focuses on the essential wild character of the land. How much motorized uses (as opposed to mileage) have grown since 1972 and how they may be affecting the essential wild character are vital judgment calls, not measurements. This guideline appears to suggest that while knowing the mileage of routes in 1972 and today and judging their “materiality” is important, it is not at all sufficient.

Meeting with a key DEC Director of Lands and Forests: I organized a small group to meet with Norman J. Van Valkenburgh in 2006 to seek answers from a man 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 guidelines cited here. We asked Norm about the confusing caveats and qualifications of the Master Plan, especially in its Wild Forest guidelines. We asked how we should read the Master Plan coherently. Norm told us he felt on firmer ground than we did. 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, he said.

During our 2006 meeting Norm explained that Wild Forest guideline 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.

Norm went on to say that unit management plans (UMP), the documents which carry out the general guidelines of the Master Plan in the field, 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.”

DEC’s “ample authority” to set lower limits on motorized uses is found in this State Land Master Plan guideline under the heading of 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 still seemed uncertain about whether “no material increase” applied only to pre-existing Forest Preserve as of 1972. Maybe what was intended was expansion of motor vehicle opportunities on Wild Forest classification whenever the Forest Preserve’s Wild Forest grew.

Once again, Wild Forest guidelines in the State Land Master Plan must be read in their entirety. Under the heading Roads, Jeep Trails and State Truck Trails, guideline 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 was constrained and should not materially expand as the result of new state land acquisitions.

Putting together all of the State Land Master Plan Wild Forest guidance should give the APA little doubt of what was intended by the authors of the State Land Master Plan – to tightly constrain not just the mileage open to public use of motor vehicles in the Adirondack Forest Preserve, but the motorized uses as well, and not to expand that mileage and uses 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. The same understanding should persist today.

Conservation easements and Park context: One of the biggest 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. Once, pulp and paper companies held onto their lands for extractive use at mills. Those ownerships ended years ago. Now, miles of private industrial roads as well as trails on conservation easements are open to some form of negotiated public motorized recreation. In fact, DEC’s easement program and its snowmobile plan are partially intended to shift some motorized access off the Forest Preserve and onto routes negotiated with private landowners.

APA and DEC are planning agencies 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. The agencies should know the mileage and location of routes on private and municipal land as well as on the Forest Preserve. APA should analyze Wild Forest materiality knowing also the extent, location and connectivity of motorized opportunities on privately-held conservation easement land and municipal land. After all,  isn’t this one Adirondack Park?

Photo: Gulf Brook Road on the Forest Preserve in North Hudson