RAY BROOK - State Adirondack Park Agency commissioners were split Thursday over a controversial proposal to expedite the agency's review process for clear-cutting on private lands in the Park.
While the option of approving the proposed general permit had been taken off the table Wednesday by APA Chairwoman Lani Ulrich, commissioners still had plenty to say about it following a lengthy and detailed presentation on the proposal at their monthly meeting.
Under current regulations, any clear-cut of more than 25 acres requires an APA permit and must go through a stringent and lengthy environmental review that includes a final vote by the agency Board of Commissioners. APA officials say that has caused landowners and forest managers to skirt agency jurisdiction by performing multiple clear-cuts of less than 25 acres.
"They are scaling the intensity and size of their management activities to avoid jurisdiction, and that's not always the best thing for the land itself," said APA Deputy Director Rick Weber.
APA analyst Aaron Ziemann showed the board a satellite image of a clear-cut logging operation in the northern Adirondacks. It included areas of checkerboard-like patch cuts and long strip cuts, none of which crossed the agency's 25-acre threshold.
"It's clear the forester in charge here was aware of our jurisdiction and how to avoid it," Ziemann said.
The general permit is meant to give landowners an incentive to come into the agency's jurisdiction. It would shorten the time frame for approval of clear-cuts and allow agency staff to issue permits without votes by the APA board, but only for landowners certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. There are currently 700,000 to 800,000 acres of forest in the Adirondacks, owned by about 10 large landowners, that are certified by the two programs.
Since it was proposed in November, the general permit has sparked a heated debate among the Park's stakeholders. Forestry industry experts and local government leaders have generally supported the plan, but it has drawn the ire of environmentalists. Some green groups say the APA would be "abdicating" its review responsibilities to these outside groups, but Ziemann said that isn't the case.
"We wouldn't be handing over review to the certification programs or handing a blank check to the applicant," he said. "We'd just be using those two programs as one factor of eligibility as a starting point for our review."
Ziemann also said the proposal would not lead to large-scale clear-cuts like those seen in Western states.
"That's not in line with forestry in the Adirondacks today, and it would not be allowed under the sustainable harvest requirements contained in the certification programs," he said.
The agency has revised its proposal based on a flood of public comment. Among other things, it implemented provisions for public comment and proposed a three-year sunset clause for the general permit.
During the discussion that followed Ziemann's presentation, Commissioner Cecil Wray said he was worried about eliminating the board's role in reviewing clear-cuts.
"The critics say that we're abdicating our responsibility, but if this general permit is put into place, we're not going to have any review responsibility, meaning this board, which to me is a somewhat troublesome proposition," Wray said.
Wray suggested the agency involve the certifying agencies during the normal permit review process instead of an expedited general permit.
Both he and Commissioner Richard Booth said this general permit would be very different from others the agency has created, like for cell tower projects or the removal of invasive species.
"This is a generically different idea, I think, just because of the scale of it," Booth said. "Most of the general permits are for things that have been done, they're relatively small scale and don't raise significant kinds of questions."
Booth also questioned the agency's rationale for the permit. He said he couldn't believe that large landowners are keeping their clear-cuts below 25 acres because they don't want to go through a full APA environmental review.
"They have lawyers; they have resources," Booth said. "If the big landowners are using poor management tools to avoid our jurisdiction, that's their problem. But to raise that as a basic reason for this agency to set this new mechanism in place doesn't make any sense to me."
Booth also questioned why the agency would ease its clear-cutting review process while applicants for less significant projects would still go through the usual, more rigorous process.
"There's a substantial equity issue here," Booth said. "If we're saying (the big landowners) can't carry the burden of applying to the agency and going through a legitimate environmental review process, I just don't get that conclusion."
Other commissioners voiced support for the general permit.
"The staff feels passionately that this is a good improvement over the status quo," said Commissioner Frank Mezzano." I believe that to be true."
"Overall, I'm very much in favor of this (general permit) moving forward," said Commissioner Sherman Craig.
Commissioner Arthur Lussi said the agency was being proactive instead of reactive.
"This is one time when I think we're trying to do something right and good," he said. "I know numerous people who've done 24-acre clear-cuts to avoid APA jurisdiction. It's terrible. It's not good for the Park; it's not good for the future of our forests."
Ulrich said the agency would continue the dialogue at its meeting next month.