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CLOSING THE FOREST TO THE PEOPLE

Eliminating Camps and Motor Vehicle Access

By Carol W. LaGrasse
April 26, 2006

Comments on
DEC'S Draft Unit Management Plan for the Moose River Plains Wild Forest

Under President Hu Jintao, the Communist Party of the People's Republic of China "is pouring $10 billion into the tourism infrastructure of dozens of scenic but impoverished areas" in far-flung rural areas, according to The Wall Street Journal in an article published on April 22. (1) Simultaneously, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) under the Governor George E. Pataki has brought a blitzkreig to close down the first-hand experience of the natural beauty of the scenic but economically depressed Adirondack region to all but the athletic. The rest of the population is to be satisfied to experience their enjoyment of the forested mountains through very limited outdoor experiences, through visits to the severely restricted villages, and by using their imagination, because the DEC is closing down a great portion of the trails, roads and campgrounds that have afforded families and ordinary people an outdoor experience in the forest.

At the beginning of World War II, the Germans used "lightning" fast air and land forces to bombard and conquer neighboring countries, but the DEC uses a more insidious process to destroy the right of the public to use the publicly owned forest land. The DEC process is one of paperwork, called "Unit Management Plans," or UMPs, for the various areas of the Adirondack forest region owned by the State of New York. One by one, these UMPs for the State-owned majority portion of the vast six million acres of forested mountains and stream valleys stretching across northern New York are desiccating the established recreation areas that draw tourists to the region each spring, summer, fall, and winter to camp, hunt, hike, and enjoy their snowmobiles and ATVs, with their families, fellow hunters, and recreation buddies.

The draft UMP for which the DEC is currently permitting comments is that for the Moose River Plains Wild Forest, a popular camping area in the west-central Adirondack region in Hamilton and Herkimer counties. The area to which the Moose River Plains Wild Forest draws recreationists is one of the most economically weak areas of the state and relies heavily on the popularity of the forest for hunting, fishing, camping and snowmobiling during all seasons. However, the DEC has created artificial constructs, most notably the master plan for the state lands, to use as excuses for not taking into account the comments of others than the extreme preservationists. The State Land Master Plan is currently in violation of statute because it has not been updated in decades, but DEC uses it an illegal basis to deny the public use of the publicly owned forest lands.

Because of three factors, the State of New York should be promoting policies that increase recreational usage of the Adirondack Forest Preserve. These factors are the increased acreage of State-owned lands in the Adirondacks (perhaps as much as a million acres since the Adirondack Park Agency Act requiring the management plans was passed), the increased demand for a variety of outdoor recreational experiences by the general population, and the need for improved economic activity in the localities (which are suffering from the State's insatiable appetite to add land to the Forest Preserve and thereby remove it from the timber industry and potential multi-purpose development). However, rather than promoting policies that increase recreational usage of the Forest Preserve, the State is doing the opposite.

The proposed elimination of at least two miles of motor vehicle access roads, 6.7 miles of ATV roads (including popular Otter Brook Road, page 84), 26.95 miles of snowmobile trails, and 99 of either 140 or 170 campsites, depending on how the numbering system is interpreted (2), in the Moose River Plains Area is particularly obnoxious, and actually illegal, considering that the lands were acquired with designated recreation funds. In addition, a bridge that the public relies on to reach beautiful campsites at Wakely Dam will be eliminated. Roads and camping areas were built as far back as the 1960s to satisfy the recreational purpose for which the lands were acquired by the State.

Furthermore, the closure of camps and roads is not in keeping with the classification of the lands as Wild Forest rather than Wilderness. Because these lands are Wild Forest, their use should be increased, not diminished, in response to current situations and needs. These situations and needs are the reasons for the reclassification. DEC seems to be defacto classifying these lands toward Wilderness, rather than Wild Forest. This is inconsistent with the basic classification concepts in the State Land Master Plan, such as it is.

Furthermore, the State Land Master Plan, cited by Ted Galusha in his masterful and thorough comments on the Moose River Plains UMP, states:

"The scenic 'plains' of the Moose and Red Rivers are well-known areas of interest to the public…The area is unique also in that the Department of Environmental Conservation maintains an extensive road system and provides numerous scattered individual camping sites along this system. This provides a type of outdoor recreation between that of a developed campground and primitive tent camping…Hunting, fishing, camping and snowmobiling make this one of the truly four-season recreational areas of the park." (3)

Galusha recalls that the master plan states that "rustic state campsites" are "a long accepted intensive use of the forest preserve." (4)

Galusha points out that the draft UMP states on page 53, "There are a few locations within the MRPWF that the amount of use or character of use is such that resource impacts are evident…These impacts do not necessarily suggest that the carrying capacity of these areas has been exceeded." (5)

Galusha's quotation from page 33 of the draft UMP as follows demonstrates the character of the area where DEC's draft UMP inconsistently and harshly intends to greatly curtail public use:

"Due to the unique camping opportunities found within the MRPWF, patterns of use and of social values have developed that are unlike other wild forest areas. Many existing campsites are located in close proximity to each other and have allowed for the development of close associations between camping groups. Many users who come to MRPWL to camp tend to camp close together with other unaffiliated groups year after year. Many users plan their annual vacations around this opportunity for camping in the MRPWL. During the big game hunting season there are a majority of older hunters who began using the area by backpacking and setting up small camps, who then progressed to wall tents and RVs. These late season users prefer camping within the area close to their hunting locations over camping at a campground and than having to drive to their hunting locations daily." (6)

Actually, this way of camping during the big game hunting season is the same way the traditional hunters personally remember gathering for more than thirty years at the many DEC open field campsites at Whitehouse at the end of West River Road in Wells in the Silver Lake Wilderness, where DEC's new UMP calls for illegally closing portion of a official town highway that is kept in excellent condition by the town highway department and for eradicating the well-maintained, popular campsites. (7)

As have every one of the previous UMPs created by the DEC, the Moose River Plains draft plan violates SEQRA by failing to perform an environmental review of the impacts of the proposal. A perfunctory review fails to meet the law. The DEC's failure to do a disciplined analysis of the economic, social, cultural and historic impact is a violation of SEQRA.

The callous plan to close 26.95 miles of snowmobile trails is in violation of SEQRA, considering the significance of snowmobiling to the winter economy of the region, and the fact that no economic impact of the closure of the snowmobile trails is calculated in the draft UMP.

As quoted in the Hamilton County News on April 4, 2006, Long Lake Supervisor Gregg Wallace said, "We need all the snowmobilers, hikers, bikers, campers and birders we can get. Taking anything out is unacceptable. We need snowmobiling to survive in the winter." (8)

Further, as Ted Galusha points out, the question and answer SEQRA analysis in the draft UMP actually lies (page 276) by answering "no" to the question, "Will Proposed Action affect the quantity or quality of existing or future open spaces or recreational opportunities?"

A false answer of "no" is checked on page 277 to the question, "Will there be an impact on existing transportation systems?" considering that roads to campgrounds and a bridge will be closed.

A false answer of "no" is given on page 278 to the question, "Will Proposed Action affect the character of the existing community?" No impacts were investigated, and "other impacts" is merely left blank.

A completely unaware "no" is checked to the question on page 278 to, "Is there, or is there likely to be, public controversy related to potential adverse environmental impacts?"

These check-offs are worse than a perfunctory environmental study; they are dismissive and represent zero environmental impact analysis of economic, cultural, social, historic aspects.

The UMP also fails to provide the required information about the existing road system, including highways, snowmobile trails, ATV trails, and state land access roads, which leaves a weak basis on which to evaluate the impact of the closures proposed in the plan. We do not know whether when DEC puts up barriers it will also be barricading additional spurs or continuations of the roads to be closed. We have not been able to verify the accuracy of the UMPs information about the number of camps. This makes any attempt to verify this aspect of compliance with SEQRA impossible. This point relates to the fact that similar closures are being imposed through other UMPs without complete inventories.

In addition, the draft UMP reveals that DEC is allowing the degradation of the road system it received when a major portion of the lands was acquired from Gould Paper Company (page 83). Sites identified in 1996 (ten years ago) for installation of culverts have still not received these structures! (page 83) Inadequate provision for drainage causes inexorable erosion of the road. Such degradation of the property of the State of New York due to DEC's failure to maintain it is irresponsible and deserving of disciplinary action. What is the purpose of the UMP if the DEC is incapable of maintenance of State resources? Is the DEC only interested in tearing out campsites and roads? Is it the DEC's purpose to facillitate nature's destruction of roads by failing to maintain them in the same manner that any small town with a tiny fraction of DEC's budget accomplishes?

In addition to the failure of DEC to provide SEQRA analysis of the particular draft UMP for the Moose River Plains Wild Forest, the requirement for cumulative impact is totally overlooked. SEQRA requires that the cumulative economic, social, cultural, and historic impact of closure of campsites, roads, a bridge, ATV trails, and snowmobile trails proposed in the DEC's many concurrently working UMPs and other related State-owned land policies be considered and analyzed.

Furthermore, the draft UMP should be rejected because it was falsely announced. The press release, reflected in an article in the Hamilton County News, states in part:

"The draft UMP contains proposed management activities including:
"-bringing existing campsites into conformance with the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan." (9)

Although the reader would never guess it, this statement is a cryptic way of saying that a great number of campsites and roads will be closed! The statement totally avoids revealing that a large proportion of campsites, campsite access roads, snowmobile trails, and ATV roads will be closed. In fact, the remaining statements in the press release give the impression that the UMP will welcome a variety of recreationists. The press release states that "The Moose River Plains Area offers many recreational opportunities, including hiking, skiing, mountain biking, snowmobiling, canoeing, hunting, fishing, horseback riding and primitive camping." In fact, adding to the impression that the draft UMP is favorable to recreational use of the region, the press release also states, "Miles of trails and numerous lakes and ponds make this area an ideal destination for outdoors enthusiasts with varied interests and abilities."

Those of us who read the press release were amazed to discover the reality of the draft UMP that a closedown of much of the popular Moose River Plains was proposed! If the UMP were otherwise in conformance with statute, it would have to be re-advertised because the official announcement was patently false. As DEC's provision for comment on the UMP stands today, it violates SEQRA and SAPA (State Administrative Procedure Law).

But there is yet another reason to put the Moose River Plains UMP on hold. The time allotted for public comment was too short. The time was too short for three reasons. One, there is not enough time from an unknown date in March when the UMP was announced to April 28, 2006, when the final written comments are due, to prepare written comments, considering the length of 363 pages plus appendices and the fact that the spring weather had barely arrived, making few days available for travel to the area to experience it and prepare comments. Furthermore, the deadline to make oral comments, March 30, was only a couple of weeks (it is unknown when the plan was announced in March), therefore foreclosing the public in the region from commenting effectively. After complaints, DEC announced another public hearing, but this one was held far distant from the affected public, in Albany, effectively foreclosing their attendance. The third reason for the time being too short for comment is that the advertisement was false. The advertisement failed to warn the local public that DEC intended to eliminate a large proportion of the recreational opportunities in the Moose River Plains. It took a few weeks for the remarkably devoted citizens who took the time to study the plan to discover the falsity of the DEC advertisement, and after that the distressing news had to be transmitted by word of mouth.

It appears that, in addition to deliberately releasing a misleading press release, DEC had kept the comment time short to deny the public its right to participate in the public comment process. This is another violation of SEQRA and SAPA.

In violation of the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), the DEC customarily omits summaries of comments critical of their plans and fails to respond to the criticisms. We can expect similar treatment of critical comments related to the Draft Moose River Plains Wild Forest UMP.

The Draft Moose River Plains Unit Manage Plan should be withdrawn and revised to comply with SEQRA and other law and reissued with adequate public notice and time for public comment after the State Land Master Plan is revised in accordance with state law.

At the very least, if the UMP is not withdrawn, no sections of roads should be closed, no snowmobile or ATV trails should be closed, and no campgrounds should be closed. Additional campsites should be opened and the mileage of roads and snowmobile and ATV trails should be each increased at least in proportion to the acreage of new state land acquisitions.

###

Notes:

(1) "Hu Wants You — As China's president tours America, the government in Beijing is on a campaign to get tourists beyond the country's big cities—and into its vast interior," By Stan Sesser and Mei Fong, The Wall Street Journal, Saturday/Sunday April 22-23, 2006.

(2) Page 218 refers to a detailed assessment of 167 sites, but the highest count in the numbering system is "140" on the charts on pages 218 to 225. However, several sites have multiple camp locations and several are denoted with a different numbering system using letters rather than numbers

(3) APSLMP, pp. 89-90 cited by Ted Galusha, "Moose River Plains Wild Forest Draft UMP Comments" April 10, 20006.

(4) APSLMP, p. 6, as cited by Ted Galusha.

(5) Draft Moose River Plains UMP, p. 53, as cited by Ted Galusha.

(6) Draft Moose River Plains UMP, p. 33, as cited by Ted Galusha.

(7) The DEC promised at the March 9, 2006 Adirondack Park Agency meeting to delay the (illegal) closing of 0.7 mile of West River Road and the campsites at Whitehouse while it works with the Town of Wells, but the promise lacks clearly expressed commitment to preserving the road and campsites.

(8) "Speakers want Moose River Plains kept as is," By Pete Klein, Hamilton County News, April 4, 2006, pages 1 and 3,

(9) The press release was published as a non-credited article, "DEC issues the draft UMP for the Moose River Plains Wild Forest" in the Hamilton County News (p. 3) on March 21, 2006. This article is the same undated DEC letter "Dear Friend of the Moose River Plains Wild Forest" enclosed in the envelope with the draft UMP that I received from DEC on April 1, 2006.

 

Back to:
APA (Adirondack Park Agency) Access to Government Lands - New York Cultural Eradication - New York Preservation vs. The Future of the North Country
Hunting Issues - New York Stopping Government Land Acquisition

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