For generations, the forest surrounding the confluence of the Hudson and Indian rivers and the pristine Essex Chain lakes has been the exclusive playground of private hunting clubs that leased it from a timber company.
Now, the state of New York has bought the land, and environmental groups want it closed to motorized access so it can return to wilderness. Members of the hunting clubs and leaders of the five surrounding towns say doing so would make the waterways inaccessible to all but the most able-bodied hikers and paddlers and deprive the region of any economic boost.
It’s a bitter and polarizing debate that has played out again and again since the master plan for managing state-owned Forest Preserve land in the 6 million-acre Adirondack Park was drafted four decades ago. Whenever the state buys a tract of land, it has to decide how to classify it. The most protective classification is wilderness, which prohibits motorized and bicycle access.
That’s the classification that local officials rail against, saying it limits the potential for tourist income.
“If there’s going to be an economic benefit to the towns, there has to be multiple access,” said George Canon, town supervisor of Newcomb and a member of the Gooley Club on the Essex Chain. “Snowmobiling would be a major part of the economic benefit, but if they lock it up as wilderness, that won’t be allowed.”
Wilderness advocates, including the Adirondack Mountain Club, envision a major paddling destination where people can portage from lake to lake and camp in a remote region, miles from the noise and fumes of motors. They note that major snowmobile routes already exist at the periphery of the new tracts.
The Adirondack Park Agency, which oversees land use for the public and private lands within the Adirondack Park, is expected within the next couple of months to make a recommendation to Gov. Andrew Cuomo on a classification plan for the land parcels known as the Finch-Pruyn tract. Cuomo has the final say.
The Nature Conservancy bought 161,000 acres of timberland from Finch, Pruyn & Co. in 2007. The group sold 92,000 acres, under a conservation easement, to a timber investor. New York state has purchased 24,000 acres, including the Essex Chain, upper Hudson and Indian river parcels in the Hudson gorge. The conservancy holds 41,000 acres that Cuomo has committed to buy in the future.
The current classification debate concerns the 24,000 acres purchased by the state in 2012, as well as 22,000 acres of adjacent land previously purchased and classified as wild forest.
At public hearings in the Adirondacks, comments were overwhelmingly in favor of wild forest classification, which would allow motorized access. But environmental groups that analyzed 3,600 written comments submitted to the agency found wilderness was favored 4 to 1.
Page 2 of 2 - Both sides argued that their preferred plan had economic value for local communities, but wilderness advocates stressed ecological importance while the wild forest side focused primarily on recreation for the widest range of users.
Fred Monroe, executive director of the Adirondack Local Government Review Board, which represents all the communities in the park, said many people who have hunted and fished on the Essex Chain lakes for half a century will be shut out if the region becomes wilderness, because they lack the physical stamina to go in on foot. He is a member of the Polaris Club, co-founded by his father, which is one of the 20 hunting clubs that will have to remove its cabins and leave the Essex Chain after 2018 regardless of the classification decision.
“With the rapid aging of our population, businesses folding, Indian Lake even losing its grocery store, we think it’s critically important for the survival of these communities to make this land wild forest,” Monroe said.