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Early debate on plan to open up Essex Chain

RAY BROOK – The state has crafted a plan to provide a range of recreational opportunities in a lake-studded region in the central Adirondacks.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has scheduled public meetings and is accepting public comment on a draft plan for the Essex Chain Lakes Complex in the towns of Minerva, Newcomb and Indian Lake. The complex includes one of the state’s prized acquisitions from the Finch, Pruyn and Co. land deal, the 7,000-acre Essex Chain Lakes Primitive Area. DEC says its plan would bolster tourism by creating new opportunities for biking, horseback riding, snowmobiling, camping and paddling.

“The proposed plan helps fulfill the governor’s goal that the Essex Chain Lakes become a tourist destination and an economic engine for the towns that host this magnificent natural resource,” DEC Commissioner Joe Martens said in a press release.

However, a state Adirondack Park Agency commissioner raised a long list of issues with the plan when it was presented to the APA last week. Richard Booth, chairman of the agency’s State Lands Committee, said some of what DEC has proposed is based on “legal fictions.”

Goals, priorities

The complex includes the Essex Chain Lakes Primitive Area, the Pine Lake Primitive Area and portions of the Blue Mountain and Vanderwacker Mountain wild forests. Some of these lands were among 69,000 acres of former Finch, Pruyn timberlands that Gov. Andrew Cuomo agreed to have the state buy from The Nature Conservancy in the summer of 2012.

“This is the largest or part of the largest addition to the Adirondack Forest Preserve in over 100 years, and this is the culmination of over nine years of work,” said Rob Davies, director of DEC’s Division of Lands and Forests. “It was 2006 when Finch first put the properties up for sale, and it’s an understatement to say we feel very excited, proud and privileged to be a part of this process.”

Davies outlined the goals the state was trying to achieve with the plan. They include the following:

* Establishing a “community connector” trail for snowmobiling and other recreational uses between Indian Lake and Minerva

* Construction of a multi-use bridge over the Cedar River

* Providing camping and water access to persons with disabilities

* Creating a horse trail and biking trail networks

* Providing enhanced paddling opportunities, including additional carries on the Essex Chain.

Snowmobile route

Much of Davies’ presentation focused on the proposed community connector snowmobile trail between Indian Lake and Minerva, something he said had been on the table before the creation, in February 2014, of the Essex Chain Lakes Primitive Area and the Hudson Gorge Wilderness, land uses where motorized uses are generally prohibited.

He said several alternatives were considered but that the state settled on two possibilities: a route that runs from Indian Lake north to Newcomb, and another route that would run from Indian Lake north before making a sharp turn east toward Minerva.

The east-west connection, although it’s a more direct connection to Minerva, would be more difficult to build and maintain, Davies explained. DEC would have to construct 20 bridges and 15 bog bridges and perform ditching and drainage throughout the route.

“The towns are very much in support of having this more direct route, but the conditions are difficult,” he said. “It could be done, but it would not be the preferred location from a resource perspective.”

Both alternatives would use the existing Polaris Bridge over the Hudson River and both would require construction of a new bridge over the Cedar River.

Davies said motor vehicles, including snowmobiles, have used the Polaris Bridge historically, so no permit would be necessary. The site of the proposed Cedar River bridge has also been used by snowmobiles to cross the ice.

“We could allow, without a permit, under the same existing land use provisions to construct that bridge for snowmobile use,” Davies said. “However, under abundance of caution, we’re proposing to proceed by issuing a permit to construct the bridge.”

Horse, bike trails

The equestrian trails would be located on a series of existing roads around the Essex Chain Lakes. Some would be for saddle riding only with others for horse-drawn wagons.

The biking trails DEC has proposed would be on the same series of roads. Davies described it as more of a family biking trail network than for use by mountain bikers.

“It’s more accessible, and the roads are in good shape,” he said. “We think this is going to be attractive to family-style biking.”

DEC would also designate administrative roads around the Essex Chain Lakes to maintain the area’s bridges, bike trails and horse trails and to maintain and reclaim gravel pits.

Reaction

At the outset of the meeting, Davies had apologized to the agency board for not giving it the plan sooner. Most commissioners were just seeing it for the first time on Thursday, which Commissioner Arthur Lussi said was disappointing.

“I know what’s going to happen,” he said. “We’re gong to have these public meetings, and we’ll get these plans in a few months from now, and we’re going to have to vote on them. It doesn’t allow for us to give you input. I feel like, as commissioners, this was our opportunity to comment on your thoughtful work, and I can’t do that because it’s been given to me today.”

Others suggested Davies return to the board next month, after commissioners have had a chance to read through the plan, to hear what they have to say. Chairwoman Lani Ulrich suggested board members could attend the upcoming public meetings on the plan, set for July 7 at Newcomb Central School and July 9 at the Indian Lake Theater.

Criticism

Booth said he doesn’t think DEC has “adequately thought out a number of significant issues” and that the plan isn’t ready for the public.

“I’ve been through three drafts of this document in the last week, and the one we’re seeing today is the fourth one,” he said. “This has been a rapidly evolving document over the last couple of weeks.”

Booth said he didn’t feel DEC had done a proper analysis of alternative snowmobile trails for the Indian Lake-Minerva connector using areas west of the Hudson River. He also said the proposed alternative that would go from Indian Lake to Newcomb, then on to Minerva, is redundant to an existing snowmobile connector between Indian Lake and Newcomb.

“I don’t think the guidance permits two community connection trails into Newcomb that close together, basically going to and from the same place,” he said.

Booth also said the Polaris Bridge hasn’t historically been open to the public, just to Finch, Pruyn staff and the hunting clubs that leased the company’s lands.

“The State Land Master Plan is very clear in distinguishing between roadways and roadways that have been open to the public,” he said. “That is a distinction that runs through the master plan, and it can’t just be wished away.”

Booth also said DEC can’t create bike trails by simply declaring the roads in the Essex Chain administrative. He also raised questions about a plan to provide parking for the general public near a handicapped-accessible parking area at Deer Pond, calling it a “a mask for providing public parking closer than where the public generally has to park.”

More work

Ulrich said said she was aware that some of DEC’s goals would take a “Herculean effort by all legal minds, both at the department and the agency, to find ways forward.

“I believe that kind of work has begun and has been happening,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of work to still be done. I’d again call on all the legal minds who are interested in this to continue their work on ways forward. …. I think everybody at this table believes there’s ways forward to accomplish certain things. We just may disagree on those ways.”

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