The Adirondack Park Agency is still at least a month from deciding whether to classify new state lands around the upper Hudson River as wilderness or something that will open the land to more visitors.
The park’s major environmental groups — which are unanimous in seeking some sort of wilderness classification for the roughly 18,000 acres that were once timber company land — last week urged the APA not to make a decision at its September meeting. It won’t. The matter is up for committee discussion at the Sept. 12 meeting in Ray Brook, but no action is expected.
“We’ll see where we are in October,” agency spokesman Keith McKeever said Friday. “The board will not take any action in September.”
The land-use classification debate now going on over the upper Hudson is going to be repeated several more times in the next few years, as the state closes on pieces of the 69,000 acres it is acquiring from The Nature Conservancy. The park agency received roughly 3,500 responses during a public comment period that ended in July, with the overwhelming number favoring some form of wilderness classification for the land.
The land includes the Essex Chain of Lakes and miles of remote Hudson shoreline, as well at the spectacular Hudson River Gorge.
Wilderness, under the state’s land use rules, means there are to be no permanent signs of man; the land is to be, if possible, as pristine as if Christopher Columbus were still somewhere on the far side of Bermuda. Which he isn’t.
Since Finch, Pruyn & Co. formerly owned these lands, most have been logged at some point, and there’s a network of primitive roads that would be abandoned if the land were declared permanent wilderness. I’ve been on a couple of those roads, and calling them primitive is quite kind. They’re narrow dirt tracks that are filled with ruts and rocks, suitable only for high-wheeled vehicles with drivers willing to travel at the pace of a mule rather than a horse.
And that’s when the road is dry.
The roads lead into backwoods seasonal camps that were private leases from Finch Pruyn, and more recently The Nature Conservancy. The state is extinguishing the leases for exclusive places like the Polaris Club and Gooley Club this fall. The camp buildings themselves must be removed within five years.
A large part of what’s at stake in the current APA debate is whether those roads will remain open to anyone intrepid enough to try them. The state Department of Environmental Conservation is largely coming down in the affirmative and has installed sign-maps in surprising corners of the back country, treating them as open to the public for now.
While groups like Adirondack Wild and Protect the Adirondacks have some differences on the details, the park’s environmental advocates generally want the new lands combined with other lands the state already owns to create a new wilderness area of somewhere between 38,000 and 46,000 acres.
The environmental position, generally, is that the roads should be closed — and reaching the new lands should take significant effort.
“At stake is the fate of priceless natural areas, which are at risk from traffic, noise, pollution and invasive species,” said William C. Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council. “Parking lots and roads on adjacent wild forest lands should be near to, but not into, the lakes, rivers and most sensitive lands.”
Local officials, though, think keeping the roads open to summer visitors and winter snowmobilers will be the best thing for the local economies — and fit with Gov. Cuomo’s efforts to promote the Adirondacks as a tourist destination and get people out beyond the famed destinations like Lake Placid and Old Forge.
The towns of Indian Lake, Long Lake, Minerva, Newcomb and North Hudson, where the new lands are located, have formed the Upper Hudson Recreation Hub, and are working together to advocate for a “Wild Forest” classification, which they said would “achieve maximum access and achieve economic benefit for their communities.”
Whatever the APA commissioners decide, and whenever they decide it, the final decision on land classification will be made in Cuomo’s executive chambers.