The classification debate over the Essex Chain Lakes and other newly acquired Forest Preserve is necessary and important; however, a more focused debate over balancing economic development and land preservation in the Adirondack Park is lacking and sorely needed.
We hope this latest debate leads to reform in the way the state manages economic development in the Adirondack Park. This is a unique place, and it deserves a unique management approach. The 40-year-old model simply isn’t working.
Classification — a job for the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) — is only the first possible step in redefining economic development and its relation to the Forest Preserve. Then comes the unit management plan, a job for the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). That’s where the real reform should be focused.
From the state of New York’s perspective, the APA should classify the newly Essex Chain Lakes tract wilderness. After all, what’s the point of having Forest Preserve if you’re not going to preserve its natural resources to the most pristine state possible?
From the local perspective, the APA should classify the Essex Chain Lakes wild forest. After all, what the point of having a park if you’re not going to open it up to as many users as possible?
Such is the dilemma the APA has been facing over the past several months.
The APA should side with home rule. Small communities such as Newcomb, Minerva, Indian Lake, Long Lake and North Hudson need an economic boost if they’re going to survive.
With tourism alone, Newcomb will never become the boom town it was when the National Lead mine was in full operation. But that’s not the point. People in Newcomb just want to be able to stay there and make a living. And that’s not too much to ask.
The future of the Adirondack Park is in the hands of the state government, especially as it buys new land for the Forest Preserve and classifies it for specific uses. We’re now at a critical point where a decision needs to be made about classifying the Essex Chain Lakes tract.
If the Essex Chain Lakes becomes wild forest — opening the land up to a myriad of uses, such as mountain biking, motor boating and snowmobiling — it would increase the traffic in communities near the property. So will wilderness, but there would most likely be fewer tourists with the limited access. Still, without infrastructure additions — such as beds and restaurants — those communities would not be able to take advantage of this new opportunity no matter the classification.
A wild forest classification will not be the magic bullet for economic development in the central Adirondacks. It will not solve the communities’ problems or create as many jobs as people say it will. But it may help. When you don’t have much, every little bit helps.
So why do communities continue to age and decline economically in the Adirondack Park while the state continues to buy new land? It’s not because of those purchases; they are assets to the state. It’s because of the way the state manages and regulates land — public and private — inside the Adirondack Park.
Take the Essex Chain Lakes, for example. Eight APA commissioners and designees from three other state agencies — DEC, Department of State, and Empire State Development — make the decision of how to classify Forest Preserve. What happens next? The DEC takes the lead on a unit management plan, with help from the APA, and the DOS and ESD go home to Albany. Why?
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again — ESD and DOS should be part of the unit management planning process, not in a way that takes the DEC away from its primary state land management role, but in a way that creates economic opportunities in the communities that are impacted by the Forest Preserve. In this case, ESD and DOS should be working to find ways to boost economic development in the five towns surrounding the Essex Chain Lakes.
If Gov. Cuomo really wants to make economic changes here in the Adirondack Park, he’ll direct ESD and DOS to stay and work with those communities after classification, whether it’s wilderness or wild forest. That’s a simple way to make reform. Don’t let them go home. Give them a more active role in managing the Park, not just sitting on the APA board. And they should be part of every unit management planning process, whether it’s a new acquisition or not.
As we continue to define the Adirondack Park and move forward with this grand experiment, let’s learn from past mistakes and make changes accordingly. New York has failed to link communities and Forest Preserve in a way that best creates an atmosphere for sustainable economic development. Entrepreneurs with deep pockets aren’t waiting in the wings to swoop down into tiny towns such as Newcomb and build restaurants and hotels for the tourists who use the state land. Yet that’s exactly what’s needed. The Adirondack Park needs an economic management plan. And that can only happen if the governor gives other state agencies, such as ESD and DOS, the task.