New York State's Environmental Policies Demonstrate Anti-people
Land Acquired But Wait, Access Closed
The Announcements Promise More Public Access, the Practice is to Block the People
The gist of the announcement was familiar:
"We have reached an historic agreement that will provide public access to 139,000 acres of the Champion lands while ensuring that this rich forest resource remains perpetually available for timber production By opening up spectacular lands and waterways for public use while ensuring that forest will continue on the Champion lands, we are fueling the twin engines of the Adirondack economynatural resource-based tourism and the forest products industry."
That was in December 1998, when Governor George E. Pataki announced the State's largest land acquisition ever, that of the Champion lands in the northern Adirondacks. The Hamilton County News quoted the governor's long, glowing press release two days before the end of the year. The promise to welcome people to enter and enjoy the newly acquired State-owned land had always been a hallmark of official announcements of new acquisitions of private property. In the past, such lands supposedly were not enjoyed by ordinary people, and now the change in ownership would facilitate a great influx of folk enjoying the lands as never before.
But the outcome was also familiar, and not at all like the spirit of welcoming the people to the land seemingly embodied in the announcement.
The shoe first fell on modest hunting clubs situated on leased plots on the vast acreage that was acquired in fee simple along the waterways, as opposed to the clubs located on even larger areas where split interests were acquired, as conservation easements. This outcome, of eliminating these clubs, was supposedly justified because the hunting clubs were exclusive and the use of the land would be expanded by opening it to the public. The original announcement had mentioned that such exclusive use would end, but the low-cost, broad-based use of these clubs by thousands of people from all walks of life was hidden from the general public. Beginning five years after the purchase, these hunting clubs were demolished, shutting out the ordinary working men and women who were club members. News of state bridges being burned during 2005, rumored to be by angry local arsonists, never reached media beyond the immediate localities. One by one, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) began to block good logging roads, shutting down the area to the "public" referred to in the announcement, perhaps other hunters, who were supposed to have access rather than the members of the clubs who owned the 298 hunting camps, all of which are to be destroyed during the fifteen years after the purchase. Three generations of hunters, men and women who spent the fall days together with their children in this traditional way, were cut off.
After years passed, it came time for the DEC and the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) to classify the lands that were acquired in fee simple according to the arcane "Unit Management Plan" process. It is well known that hunters, generally of necessity because of the loads that they have to haul back to their pickup trucks, never travel very far from roads. A new study by the Pennsylvania Game Commission using GPS units on 500 hunters found that two-thirds of them never got more than one mile off the road. New York's land classification process could have been an opportunity to keep open existing roads and to provide new roads into the interior to make the lands universally accessible to hunters and all sorts of family camping, with many new campsites included. But this was not to be the case.
During 2004 and 2005, the DEC and APA held hearings on the classification of the vast 29,000 acres in St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties that the State acquired in fee simple from Champion to add to the Adirondack Forest Preserve. It is an interesting experience presenting one's opinion during DEC's official public hearings on such matters. Such hearings are consistently mere exercises, with the disdain by the DEC and APA hearing officers toward all but extreme green viewpoints often palpable. But people who believe in fair public use of the Forest Preserve still prepare statements, sometimes to a packed hall of public support, only to see their viewpoints disregarded.
These former Champion lands, which are located in wide strips on either side of the Saint Regis River, Madawaska Pond, East Branch of the St. Regis River, South Branch of the Grass River, Tooley Pond, Deer River, Alder Creek, Sand Pond, Gregg Lake and West Branch of the Oswegatchie River, have generally been classified as the most restrictive category, "Wilderness," or the category almost as restrictive, "Primitive," which is a steppingstone to the "Wilderness" category; whereas the category of "Wild Forest" would have allowed more public access and use than either of the other two categories. The classification of the recently acquired 29,000 acres of Forest Preserve formalized the true intent to close down most public access to these beautiful areas, which was consistent with the plan to demolish the hunting camps.
This short time frame of this example of the deceptive announcement of forestland acquisition and the revelation of actual intent and denouement was extraordinary. The unfolding policies for the giant fee simple portion of the Champion acquisition display the pattern in the Adirondack Mountains, as land is acquired, and, usually over a period of many years, gradually closed down from public access.
New Craze of Restrictions under Forest Preserve Management Plans
It is nearly impossible for local people to follow the details of the flood of new management plans for the various "units" of the Adirondack Forest Preserve that have been promulgated since Gov. Pataki announced the intention in 2001 to complete new plans for every section of the Forest Preserve. But some of the plans have gotten enough attention for people to realize DEC's intention to severely curtail future use of the forest. These particular new Unit Management Plans have aroused a local furor because of the announced intent to eliminate camp sites and close established roads, even official town highway mileage.
The plan for the 106,770-acre "Silver Lake" region of State forest land in Hamilton County, which called for destroying a well-maintained stretch of a town highway along the West Branch of the Sacandaga River, raised such controversy that the APA and DEC publicly agreed to put the status of the highway on hold, promising to work with the Town of Wells to find a mutually agreeable solution. But the status of the spacious campsites accessible from the highway was not left in question. The DEC intends to destroy many of them, particularly the most beautiful locations near the shores of the river, including many access roads, although they have existed for generations with no environmental damage.
The intent to eliminate most of the remaining historic use of the land around Whitehouse on the West Branch of the Sacandaga in the town of Wells has a parallel with another DEC closure plan that also has aroused a furor, that for the Moose River Plains region in Herkimer and Hamilton Counties. The land in the Moose River Plains was acquired in 1964 from Gould Paper Company with the clear intent to create hunting and camping access, which was fulfilled shortly afterwards with the construction of many camp sites with their access roads. The original agreement between Gould and the State of New York guaranteed perpetual access and use along with adequate primitive sites to be available to sportsmen. To make matters even more crystal clear, it would be illegal to eliminate the campsites and travel routes because the lands were acquired with designated recreation funds. Yet, DEC announced this year that, in the Moose River Plains region, it intends to eliminate at least two miles of motor vehicle access roads, 6.7 miles of ATV roads (including popular Otter Brook Road), 26.95 miles of snowmobile trails, and 99 of either 140 or 170 campsites, depending on how the numbering system is interpreted. The agency also intends to eliminate the bridge that the public relies on to reach beautiful campsites at Wakely Dam. The plan has aroused so much controversy that a second comment period was announced by DEC late in the summer. In all of these DEC plans, it should be kept in mind that the announced number of campsites can be substantially less than the actual closure for two reasons; the agency has been surreptitiously closing campsites and roads and it may understate the number of campsites in each area that it intends to close.
The revisions to the Unit Management Plans have fallen into a pattern. One of DEC's latest plans approved by the APA was that for the Jessup River Wild Forest. During August, Jack Leadley, Sr., an outdoor columnist for the Hamilton County News, criticized the APA for unanimously approving the plan. Many campsites on Mason Lake will be eliminated on the grounds that, "This action is necessary to prevent further natural resource degradation."
Mr. Leadley commented, "We have camped there for more than 100 years. Was it the APA staff that claims it is overcrowded and [that this is] deteriorating the campsites? I doubt the public has complained about this " He had just returned from a tour of the targeted campsites during fine weather. "We saw no overcrowding or deterioration of grounds," he wrote, pointing out that relatively few of the campsites were occupied and that all but one were exceptionally neat. He wrote, "Today, we see the unanimous passing of the Jessup River UMP by the same powers that have squeezed us out of our use of the Forest Preserve."
Disabled AccessAnother Shell Game
The State also plays games with disabled access. In 1992, the DEC had completed a complicated deal involving the Richard King Mellon Fund as the sponsor of the Conservation Fund, to acquire beautiful forested land on the east bank of the Hudson in Warrensburg in Warren County from the Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation.
"The Hudson River Recreation Area, located in the Buttermilk Falls area, will provide picnic areas, hiking trails and mountain bicycle trails on about 500 wooded acres along the river, the Glens Falls Post-Star reported in July 1992. "The Conservation Fund is also providing $41,000 to the county to help pay for the project" to complete the picnic areas and trails, the paper reported
"Tucked inside 1,200 acres along the river are 75 picnic tables, more than 20 barbecue grills, 10 bathrooms and a 12-mile mountain bike trail," the Post-Star reported that August, referring to the larger overall tract in which the recreation area was included. Swimming and hiking were also allowed. A photo showed children frolicking on the Bear Slide, a smooth rock formation over which water naturally flows. All ages had free access by motor vehicle and enjoyed the area.
As planned, the State ultimately became the owner of the Hudson River Recreation Area. The DEC changed the name on the official sign to "Hudson River Forest Preserve," which implied a less welcoming policy than that expressed in the original title of "Hudson River Recreation Area." Ultimately all the picnic tables, grills and toilets in the picnic areas were eliminated and the motor vehicle roads into the areas blocked. Warrensburg resident Theodore (Ted ) E. Galusha, an avid camper who suffers from multiple sclerosis, was cut off from the Buttermilk area, where he had loved to picnic and camp with his friends and family for many years. In July 1998, Mr. Galusha, William Searles of Chestertown, and Teena L. Willard of Wilton brought a historic lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act. They forced the State of New York to agree to opening many sites and roads throughout the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserves to the disabled, and to invest $4.8 million in construction of special access facilities. However, in July 2006 the five-year deadline for all the conditions of the lawsuit settlement arrived, and the DEC had blocked roads into the Hudson River Recreation Area campsites and picnic areas, and still had not restored picnic tables, grills, and toilets.
On the other hand, in October 2005, the State played the disabled card with great fanfare, opening a high-profile area exclusively for the disabled in the town of Long Lake named John Dillon Park after the retired chairman of International Paper Co. The State opened other expensive facilities exclusively for the disabled, but continues to close down historic access where roads and camp sites had allowed the disabled to simply share the experience of enjoying the forested area with others who do not obviously have their mobility impaired.
The two state agencies charged with management of the Adirondack Forest Preserve have settled intransigently into a pattern of blunt denial of the traditional uses of the forest by ordinary people, especially hunters. Faced with a court order requiring disabled access, the agencies exploited it to present a public stance of being benefactors of the disabled, while radically reducing the ability of disabled individuals to enjoy the forest preserve as they would have historically, with families, hunters, people of all ages, with and without disabilities.
The State's policies toward public enjoyment of the Forest Preserve are geared to services to a favored sector, hikers and paddlers. The other sector, the ordinary people who hunt, camp out as families, and use pickup trucks, ATVs and other four-wheel drive vehicles to enjoy recreation in the vast forest, are treated as less than citizens by the elite radicals who control state policy.
Carol W. LaGrasse