As the state considers a classification package for Boreas Ponds, a panel of Adirondack experts discussed the broader ramifications of the debate in Schroon Lake on Thursday, Feb. 2.
Photo by Pete DeMola
SCHROON LAKE — The state flubbed the classification process for Boreas Ponds.
That was the consensus by a panel of stakeholders following a forum on Adirondack land use issues in Schroon Lake last week.
“I think the process has been flawed, not just for me, but for a lot of stakeholders,” said Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council. “Moving forward, how do we reform the process and make it work better?”
Janeway, among other panelists, said the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) erred on a number of fronts during their facilitation of the public hearing process over the former Finch Pruyn timberlands, held last fall across the state.
LACK OF INVENTORY
A proper inventory was not conducted of the land, said Janeway, namely when it comes to roads and the condition of pre-existing infrastructure on the parcel.
The road aspect is critical because the ability of the land to withstand recreational use is the fulcrum central to the Wild Forest versus Wilderness debate.
“That detailed fact should have been there in the public record, and then have everyone look at it,” said Janeway, who has emerged as one of the APA’s fiercest critics since the process concluded last December.
Due to this dearth of information, said others, participants at the public hearings couldn’t agree on a baseline of facts and were forced to engage in education campaigns among their respective bases, which in turn led to polarization and tension.
“The paradox isn’t an either-or, it isn’t weighing one against the other,” said Hamilton County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Farber, a member of the Access the Adirondacks coalition.
The group of government officials, environmental groups and local stakeholders was convened by the Sun Community News, Adirondack Daily Enterprise and the Adirondack Explorer as a forum to discuss broader issues related to the classification without the advocacy that characterized the public hearing process.
During those hearings, stakeholders were given three-minute increments to make their case to the APA, the state agency tasked with compiling the comments before recommending a classification package.
The divisive affair was packed with theatrics and pageantry, and drew tens of thousands of written and oral comments.
Pete Nelson, co-founder of Adirondack Wilderness Advocates, said it was “empirically false” to pit sides against each other.
“We can do better,” he said. “We can do that, and that’s what we need to do.”
Jason Kemper, chair of the New York State Conservation Fund Advisory Board, said ordinarily, Finch Pruyn would have given a data set to the Nature Conservancy, which would have been passed to the state Department of Environmental Conservation and APA.
But Kemper, who also is the director of planning in Saratoga County, said he spent a significant amount of time and money trying to personally survey the landscape, hiking the parcel and even hiring someone to map the site with a drone.
Instead of discussion, Kemper said participants wasted valuable time “just trying to show everybody what was on the ground.”
NO PREFERRED ALTERNATIVE
Stakeholders also said the lack of a preferred alternative by the APA was problematic, and a consensus emerging among stakeholders suggests the ultimate classification decision may be preordained from Albany.
It’s a viewpoint given wings by comments offered by former APA Commission Richard Booth last spring when he said the evidence allowed to be presented to agency staff was “rigidly controlled” by the governor’s office.
“The process was clearly flawed,” said Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks. “We don’t think it complied with state law.”
Bauer said the APA learned little from the Essex Chain of Lakes process.
“The decision was made in Albany, not in Ray Brook — and we’re seeing a replay in the Boreas Pond classification,” said Bauer, who urged the governor to use facts, science and public sentiment when making a decision — not “just muscling through with his political power.”
Janeway said the state may restore some of its credibility by allowing the public to weigh evidence prior to the decision, as well as offer several more alternatives.
“We need a new and improved and more comprehensive and holistic process,” Janeway said. “I would hope there are lessons to be learned from this.”
The APA, which declined to send a representative to the forum, did not immediately respond for comment for this article.
A spokesman for the governor’s office defended the public hearing process.
“Any of the 1,200 individuals who attended the eight public meetings, each running several hours long with hundreds of speakers, would agree that APA’s public involvement process has been extensive and inclusive of all opinions,” said Leo Rosales, the spokesman. “In fact, APA’s robust public process continues with the agency carefully reviewing each of the 11,000 comments received. There is no question that the upcoming decision on the future of Boreas Ponds will be based on public comments, science and facts and not on the falsehoods a few headline grabbers would want you to believe.”
NEEDS MORE MANAGEMENT
The forum, attended by about 60 residents, was a largely civil affair with few fireworks despite the participants often being at loggerheads with one another.
Stakeholders also said overuse of recreational facilities — particularly in the High Peaks, which has been well publicized in recent months following a number of high-profile incidents — has reached critical mass and must be addressed.
A study by the Wilderness Conservation Society released last year revealed even hiking has detrimental effects on the environment.
At the same time, the state tax cap has resulted in spending at state agencies, including the DEC, kept flat despite increased visitation to the region.
Safeguards must be put in place to ensure the Boreas Ponds Tract is protected regardless of the exact classification, stakeholders said.
“There is under-management and under-stewardship,” said Roger Dziengeleski, a retired Finch Pruyn vice president and senior forester. “They’re not taking care of those trails the way they should be.”
Dziengeleski said the land flourished under Finch’s ownership because the company invested in the proper stewardship resources.
In fact, when Finch sold the parcel to the Nature Conservancy, the 20,578-acre parcel hosted more trees than before Finch owned it, he said.
“It’s hard to conceive how the land could be in better shape after 100 years of industrial ownership and management, but I suppose that is the case,” Dziengeleski said.
The state needs to budget more money for stewardship, he said, and train visitors to recognize invasive species and other abnormal behavior.
“We want those users to feel like they’re owners,” he said.
Janeway said the state has dropped the ball on its responsibilities.
“It’s a shame how the state of New York has taken care of these resources,” Janeway said. “We need world-class management.”
The stakeholders also broadly agreed that more comprehensive regional planning is needed, and use often transcends just Wilderness or Wild Forest classifications.
Janeway called for state and local agencies to conduct complex planning that pulls together all stakeholders.
“We should change how we do planning in the Adirondacks,” Janeway said. “That allows for a more comprehensive approach.”
Farber agreed: “Somehow, we have to, as the Adirondacks, get our head wrapped around how we can do this better.”
Participants also discussed the proposed Gateway to the Adirondacks project in North Hudson and ramifications of removing the dam at LaBier Flow, a sticking point during the public comment period.
Panelists generally agreed that the landscape would be altered, but were unclear as to what effect.
“Ecologically, the area would be transformed dramatically,” said Dziengeleski, predicting 100 acres of sensitive wetlands would be lost alongside brook trout populations.
Nelson said more study is needed: “From a scientific standpoint, we don’t know.”
Despite the forward-looking tack of the panel, some advocacy did trickle into the discussion.
Wilderness advocates said wilderness is a globally declining asset and must be obtained whenever possible.
“Wilderness is something we can take advantage of,” said Nelson, citing studies of federal lands in the western U.S. that reveal environmental protection can co-exist alongside economically vibrant communities.
Dan Plumley, of Adirondack Wild, said there are plenty of opportunities in the region to experience recreation allowed on Wild Forest, and compromise must be examined in the broader context of how rare the opportunity presents itself to acquire such a large parcel of Wilderness.
“We have those resources in those towns right now,” Plumley said. “What we don’t have in that 30 mile radius from Boreas Ponds are hardly a handful of remote wild ponds where the silence of nature is pre-eminent.”
“The compromise is the fact we need to look at it in context.”
Bauer said compromise is keeping the Gulf Brook Road open and using it as a boundary between Wilderness and Wild Forest, which “maintains the dignity of the State Land Master Plan” while also providing recreational access.
Ron Moore, supervisor of North Hudson, said the plan supported by Access the Adirondacks is already a compromise because the alternative contains an even split of Wild Forest and Wilderness.
“I don’t really have a compromise beyond that, I’m happy to say,” Moore said.
Essex County is home to twice as much Wilderness as Wild Forest, he said.
“We want to protect the environment as much as Peter Bauer and Willie Janeway do,” Moore said. “We feel we have compromised. That’s where we’re at, and that’s where we were from the beginning.”
Nelson added: “Ron Moore is right when he says his position is not extreme.”
The APA will discuss the classification package at its monthly meeting in Ray Brook this week.
On the agenda is the review of classification criteria alongside the physical and biological characteristics of the tract.
Agency staff will also review “intangible considerations and describe established facilities and structures present on the Boreas Ponds Tract as well as review retained rights and leases.”
No action will be taken at the meeting, said the APA.