SARANAC LAKE - In March 2002, the state Department of Environmental Conservation hosted the first public meeting on its effort to develop a unit management plan for the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest, a 79,000-acre swath of state land that wraps around some of the most populated communities in the Adirondack Park: Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake.
A crowd of nearly 200 people filled the Saranac Lake High School cafeteria for what turned into a raucous hearing. It featured some of the traditional battle lines that have come to define state land issues in the Park: Sportsmen spoke passionately about preserving snowmobile, motorboat and all-terrain-vehicle access to the wild forest while environmentalists, although they were fewer in number, argued that the plan should include more restrictions on motorized access.
After listening to all the feedback, DEC officials set to work. They said it would take two years for the agency to finish the UMP.
Hunters Joe Trudeau of Plainville, left, and his father, Claude Trudeau of Waverly, gear up to go into the woods Wednesday at a trailhead on state Route 3 in the town of Harrietstown, in the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
A decade later, however, the plan remains incomplete, and many people who have an interest in the wild forest are upset that it's taken so long.
"It's frustrating. It's long overdue," Jack Drury, a Saranac Lake resident who used to teach wilderness recreation management at North Country Community College, said Wednesday. "In terms of the potential that I think exists for this area, we're not being able to maximize that potential because we don't have a unit management plan."
Drury isn't alone in his frustration. Just this week, both the village of Saranac Lake and town of Harrietstown approved resolutions calling on DEC to finish the UMP.
"We are surrounded by thousands of acres in the Saranac Lake Wild Forest that could provide much more recreational and scenic opportunities for our residents and visitors if the state would finally act on and updated UMP which has been in the works for seven years and is taking much too long," village Mayor Clyde Rabideau said in a press release.
Unlike state land classified as wilderness, wild forest allows some motorized boat and vehicle access as well as some permanent structures, opening up the land to a wider array of recreational uses.
Why so long?
In a statement to the Enterprise, DEC officials blamed the delay in completing the Saranac Lakes UMP on the complexity of the wild forest, which includes four popular DEC campgrounds, many miles of hiking trails and publicly owned shoreline, boat launches, snowmobile trails and fishing access sites.
"Three of the Adirondacks largest communities adjoin the wild forest which makes this area popular for a range of year-round recreational pursuits including camping, paddling, hunting, fishing, hiking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling," the statement reads. "There are also a number of complex issues associated with public use of the area including appropriate motorized access, protection of primitive camping experiences in the popular areas along shorelines, and managing and protecting access for hunting and fishing."
The agency also said it's been tied up trying to resolve "long-standing, overarching" management issues throughout the Park, like setting guidelines for snowmobile trails, studying roadside camping and looking for ways to measure the carrying capacity of lakes and rivers.
Several other factors, not mentioned in the agency's statement, slowed the Saranac Lakes UMP process. Initially, the agency planned to hire an outside contractor to develop the plan, but the state comptroller rejected the selection process and DEC decided to have its own staff develop the plan. On top of that, the lead DEC forester who's been in charge of the Saranac Lakes UMP, Steven Guglielmi, was called to active military duty overseas at least twice since the planning process began. And DEC's staffing has been cut dramatically in the last few years.
When the planning process for the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest began in 2002, there was so much public interest that DEC created a citizens advisory group made up of representatives of local towns, hunting and fishing organizations and environmental groups. The committee met 13 times over 25 weeks.
"I think DEC saw this as being a highly populated area and one where they wanted to get as much input as they could," said Bob Brown of Saranac Lake, who served on the committee. "We made quite a few recommendations."
Yet so many years have gone by that Brown worries if the committee's input may have been shelved or forgotten.
"They asked for our input, and then they don't do anything," Brown said. "We remember what we said. We are wondering how much they've tried to change all this, figuring we aren't going to remember being there. I remember it pretty clear."
What are the issues that sparked so much interest in the early days of the plan? They included a push by environmentalists to prohibit gas-powered motorboats on Weller Pond and have DEC more strictly enforce the 5 mph speed limit for motorboats on the Raquette River. Some hunters who use the river to access their hunting camps feared DEC would ban motorboats from the river entirely, as some environmentalists had suggested.
"I will take my boat to the falls (on the Raquette River) with a motor on it," Tim Jones of Tupper Lake said emphatically at the March 2002 hearing. "I will always do that. I will always hunt where I want to hunt; I will ride where I want to ride."
Another big issue was all-terrain-vehicle access on the dirt road that runs from the end of Averyville Road in Lake Placid to Pine Pond and Oseetah Lake. Adirondack Council spokesman John Sheehan said that's still an issue.
"It appears that ATVs have been trespassing there pretty frequently, into the (High Peaks) wilderness and into the wild forest areas where they don't belong," Sheehan said. "We think something ought to be done to control trespassing."
There's been speculation in the past that DEC could close the road to motor vehicles, a move that would undoubtedly spark protests from sportsmen who use it for hunting or to access their camps on Oseetah Lake.
"The access issue here is going to be a major issue with this whole thing," Brown said. "You're eliminating an awful lot of the public if you don't have good access for everybody."
Brown named other issues that have gone unresolved in the absence of a UMP, such as inadequate parking at the state boat launch on Second Pond and at the trailhead for Ampersand Mountain and the Middle Saranac beach, both of which are located along state Route 3, west of Saranac Lake.
Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, said management of the Saranac Lake Islands Campground on Lower and Middle Saranac lakes is one of several issues the UMP must address.
"It's an extremely popular camping area, but you basically have an intensive use area managed within a wild forest area," he said. "There are use and overuse issues. Getting a fair hearing for a motorless Weller Pond, and people are out there building mountain bike trails without having gone through an adequate resource inventory to see if these are the best places to put those trails - all the more reason to get a UMP out there."
Drury said the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest UMP is the second-most important plan in the Park, behind the High Peaks Wilderness UMP, which took the state more than two decades to craft.
"I look at the Saranac Lake Wild Forest, and I see tons of potential for recreational trails and multi-use trails," Drury said. "Without that plan, I don't think we have a chance of developing that potential."
Among his ideas, Drury suggested creating cross-country skiing and hiking trails that leave from the Second Pond boat launch, and a network of trails in the Scarface Mountain area.
"Perhaps the fact the plan isn't done opens more doors to considering these other options," Drury said. "That could be a silver lining to the cloud that's been hanging over us all this time."
That's exactly what the village of Saranac Lake, the town of Harrietstown and the Barkeater Trails Alliance, a mountain biking trail development group, hope. Representatives of BETA and the two local governments recently sat down with Guglielmi to push for increased mountain biking opportunities in the UMP.
"We stressed that inclusion of the trails is critical to our area's recreational and economic development, and to interconnectedness with other mountain-biking opportunities in the region," Rabideau said in the village's press release.
"The group provided some interesting and well designed proposals that appear to comply with the management guidelines for the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest," DEC spokesman David Winchell said. "Additional mountain bike trails will likely be included in the draft Saranac Lakes Wild Forest Unit Management Plan when it is released for public review."
So when will that happen?
DEC officials told the Enterprise this summer that the draft UMP would be released early next year. Village and town officials who attended the Oct. 24 meeting with DEC said they were told the process could take another one to two years to complete, although Guglielmi was reportedly optimistic it will be quicker than a year.
Regardless, all those involved seem to agree that there's a lot at stake, and that there will continue to be plenty of interest in the plan.
"The places close to us are the ones we tend to use the most in terms of public lands and waters," Sheehan said. "Given that this is the most populated place in the Park, I think there will be a lot of people interested in the outcome."