Adirondack Park Agency officials have recommended "wilderness" classifications for the 345-acre waters of the Boreas Ponds and more than 11,000 acres of forest that surround them just south of the Adirondack High Peaks.
The agency also proposed a "wild forest" designation for a road corridor that could allow car access to within a quarter-mile of the ponds and more than 9,000 acres of forest in the southern portion of the 21,000-acre Boreas tract, which the state purchased from the Nature Conservancy in 2016.
The proposal, which was posted on the APA's website Thursday, will be taken up at a meeting of the agency's governing board on Feb. 1-2. The recommendation was hailed as an acceptable compromise in a fight over how open or restrictive access to the new state lands should be. A group of wilderness advocates swarmed public meetings, calling for a near-complete wilderness designation, while local town leaders, snowmobile and disability rights advocates wanted a designation that would allow for motorized access to — and potentially on or around — the ponds.
The proposed designations would essentially add another 20,000 acres of land to the High Peaks Wilderness, which is the state's largest wilderness area, comprising more than 200,000 acres. The area proposed for "wild forest" designation would be incorporated into the Vanderwhacker Wild Forest and could accommodate a snowmobile trail connecting the area's five towns — from North Hudson to Indian Lake.
"Everybody's come a long way in getting to this day," said Robin DeLoria, Newcomb town supervisor. "Ultimately, both sides have won."
For environmental groups, the proposed classifications avert their nightmare scenario: motorized access on and around Boreas Ponds, the state's highest-elevation wetlands and the home of fragile ecosystems. It also expands the High Peaks Wilderness, creating a direct connection to the Dix Mountain Wilderness, and it adds a new hiking and paddling destination to the state forest preserve in a place that offers sweeping views of Mount Marcy and the state's other highest mountains.
Wilderness advocates have repeatedly pointed out that connecting the High Peaks and Dix Mountain tracts through Boreas Ponds would create the third-largest wilderness area in the eastern United States.
"That's just one of the things that reaffirms the national significance of the Adirondack Park," said Peter Bauer, director of Protect the Adirondacks. "This is unquestionably an important day and important achievement in the history of the Adirondack Park."
The Adirondack Council also lauded the proposal as a compromise that will help protect the natural resources of Boreas Ponds while offering recreational opportunities to a variety of people with different interests.
The land classifications set the basic parameters of what is allowable under a management plan. Wilderness is the park's most restrictive designation, prohibiting all but hiking, hunting, camping and paddling. Wild forest allows for motorized vehicle access, such as snowmobile use, mountain biking and more.
"A wilderness plan for the Boreas Ponds protects pure waters, wild rivers and rare, fragile wildlife habitat for future generations," Adirondack Council Executive Director William Janeway said in a prepared statement Thursday.
Gulf Brook and Boreas Ponds roads, which lead from Blue Ridge Road a few miles west of Northway Exit 29 to the ponds, and 500 feet of space north of the roads would demarcate the different land classifications: wilderness to the north and wild forest to the south. The road corridor would extend to within about a quarter-mile of the base of the Boreas Ponds themselves, the closest motorized vehicles would be allowed. A pair of gravel pits would be used by state workers to maintain roads and trails within the Boreas tract.
Fights over access that were diffused by the proposed classifications could flare again when state officials flesh out the unit management plans that specify what is actually allowed on the land. That process will establish where parking is allowed, where campsites are available and what trails are established for hikers, bikers and snowmobilers.
"The [unit management plan] will certainly give another opportunity for public concerns about how close motor vehicle access will be to Boreas Ponds, and that's something I imagine a lot of folks will continue to discuss," Bauer said.