The final state plan for the Essex Chain Lakes area emphasizes opening thousands of remote acres to outdoor recreational use.
The plan authorizes the state Department of Environmental Conservation to implement projects that will boost public access to the lakes, ponds and back-country roads in the region, according to an Earth Day announcement from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“The Adirondacks are one of New York’s crown jewels, offering unparalleled natural beauty and some of the best outdoor recreation opportunities in the nation. I encourage New Yorkers and visitors alike to take a trip and experience all the Essex Chain Lakes have to offer,” Cuomo said in a statement.
But several environmental groups are unhappy with the decision to open so much of the 10,000-acre property to active recreation, particularly for snowmobiles. Two organizations filed a lawsuit against DEC over the plan in January.
The final Essex Chain Lakes plan was adopted by DEC earlier this month, as environmental groups gear up for another round of debate over recreational use versus wilderness purity, this time following the state’s acquisition in March of the 20,500-acre Boreas Ponds tract in North Hudson.
Both the Essex Chain and Boreas Ponds properties were acquired from The Nature Conservancy under a multiyear deal for lands previously owned by Finch Pruyn & Co., the Glens Falls paper manufacturer. The Essex Chain lands were purchased in 2012; the Boreas Ponds were the final major acquisition under that deal, in which 69,000 acres in total were added to the state’s Adirondack Park holdings.
The Essex Chain Lakes property is in both Essex and Hamilton counties, between Newcomb and Indian Lake. The property include long wild sections of the Hudson and Cedar rivers, and 18 significant bodies of water.
Local officials have generally called for opening as much land as possible to active outdoor recreation, hoping to increase visitor spending. Among its provisions, the plan allows for mountain bikes on backwoods roads where most vehicles will be prohibited, and includes building a new snowmobile bridge over the Cedar River, as well as keeping the existing Polaris bridge over the Hudson.
“The opening of these lands will be a connecting bridge and the new recreational opportunities that re available will allow all New Yorkers to enjoy the ‘Great Adirondack Experience,’ ” said Indian Lake Town Supervisor Brian Wells.
The Essex Chain property has been open to the public under an interim plan since 2013. Finalization of the plan will allow planning for the new bridge and other visitor accommodations to go forward.
But the legality of both bridges, as well other aspects of the plan, is questioned in the lawsuit brought by Protect the Adirondacks and Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve. The lawsuit says the state is violating the Adirondack Land Use Master Plan, as well as the state’s Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act, in its efforts to promote recreational use on lands they believe should be treated as wilderness.
“The state acquired this tract of land for the Forest Preserve, to be kept ‘forever wild’ under the state constitution, precisely because of its natural resources,” said Hannah Chang, an attorney representing the groups. “Yet in a headlong rush to introduce motorized and mechanized use, the state has turned its back on the very laws that are in effect to preserve these special, wild places.”
The lawsuit remains pending in state Supreme Court in Albany.
Meanwhile, the state has yet to begin the process of classifying the Boreas Pond lands. But environmental groups are nearly universally calling for it to be declared wilderness, which could limit recreational access to those willing to hike on foot. The property adjoins the High Peaks Wilderness.
A pair of scientific reports released Monday with the endorsement of eight environmental groups says the land should be preserved for its ecological value, and it probably contains rare species.
“If added to the High Peaks [Wilderness] management unit, the Boreas tract would enhance overall resilience, integrity, and local and regional connectedness of that unit,” states one of the reports, by The Wildlife Conservation Society.
“This is a rare, fragile and globally unique treasure,” said William C. Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council. “It deserves the state’s highest level of protection.”
A plan for how to manage the land will be developed by DEC and the Adirondack Park Agency.
The Boreas Ponds are currently open to the public, but only for hiking.
Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.