One of the central controversies the APA board will have to settle, deals with forest fragmentation. Green groups say the project would fragment a huge swath of timberland, in a way that causes "undue" damage to the forest. But the developers, along with some independent scientists and state officials, say those concerns have been exaggerated.
Last month, APA commissioner Lani Ulrich – now chair of the board – joined a tour of the site where the Big Tupper resort would built.
"The west slope side is what we're looking at," she said, while questioning Agency staff about the project.
Looking on during that tour was Bob Harrison, co-chair of a group called Protect the Adirondacks.
"The concept of developing the ski area and doing a clustered development around the ski area is an excellent idea," Harrison said.
"What is proposed is way too big."
For years, this has been the core of concern raised by environmental groups. They say the far-flung network of roads, homes and amenities proposed by the developers would break up the forest, causing undue damage to the environment and key habitat.
Heidi Kretser is a researcher with the Wildlife Conservation Society, based in Saranac Lake.
After looking in-depth at the science, she concluded that this kind of development represents a dangerous kind of sprawl.
"We have a suite of species here in the Adirondack Park that live quite well on private lands. And when we put a house in the middle of it, our science shows that there are impacts in an area roughly equivalent to 25 acres around that house. It's changing, it's more homogenized. It looks like Anywhere America."
The science of forest fragmentation is well established and it’s seen as a major concern in the management of private timberland across the US.
But an investigation by North Country Public Radio in partnership with the Adirondack Explorer magazine found that in the case of the Adirondack Club and Resort, the situation on the ground is far more complicated.
State scientists who testified during lengthy public hearings, and independent experts contacted for this report, played down those fragmentation concerns.
They contend that this project’s impacts would be mitigated by its design and also by its unique setting.
The resort would be bordered by a vast, permanently wild landscape, made up of the High Peaks Wilderness and by Follensby Park, which is owned by the Nature Conservancy.
That means on a landscape scale, vast areas of forest and habitat will remain undisturbed.
Hal Salwasser is dean of the College of Forestry at Oregon State, and is one of the country’s top experts on forest ecology.
"The presence of the 200,000 acre preserve means that the development at the landscape regional scale is a blip," Salwasser said.
In their review of the project, state scientists generally agreed, noting that roughly 1200 acres of the resort property won’t be developed at all.
In the most sensitive area of the resort – the area zoned for resource management – APA researchers concluded that only about 18% of the land would be directly affected.
In written testimony submitted over the summer, APA biologist Dan Spada notes, "almost all of the resource management lands on the project remain undeveloped."
Spada concluded that impacts on wildlife will be “substantially minimized” and he went on to add this:
“I would not recommend denial of the project, based on the wildlife and habitat impacts that I believe will occur.”
This debate between scientists over the impact of fragmentation on the Big Tupper project site is so contentious that over the summer environmental groups convinced a hearing judge to have part of Spada’s testimony disqualified, based on a scheduling technicality.
John Sheehan, with the Adirondack Council, said he wanted the testimony thrown out because he’s convinced that state scientists are downplaying environmental concerns.
"There is increasing pressure on members of the Adirondack Park Agency staff to make this project happen," Sheehan said.
State officials deny that claim and during the hearings in Tupper Lake, APA attorney Paul Van Cott blasted green groups for blocking Spada’s testimony.
“Here we have the agency’s wildlife biologist offering testimony that will supplement the record with regard to wildlife habitat and [environmental groups] are in opposition to it,” Van Cott said, according to a report in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise
Behind this scientific debate, there is an enormous amount at stake.
The developers are counting on the early sale of large lots for Great Camp-style mansions to generate cash for the rest of the resort.
Green groups, meanwhile, say the design of the Big Tupper resort, if approved, will set a precedent for future projects that could lead to sprawl across the Park.
Michaele Glennon, who also works with the Wildlife Conservation Society, says this is the time to set the right pattern for future big resorts.
"We're talking about one project but ecology works on scales that are huge and time scales that are huge and the cumulative impact of all those things eventually add up to a big impact," Glennon said.
But there’s another wrinkle here—a big one. These ideas about clustered development and cumulative impacts that green groups and some scientists are pushing for are relatively new.
But Adirondack Park regulations were mostly drawn up in the 1970s.
While clustering is mentioned as a concept, environmentalists in the Park acknowledge that APA guidelines as currently written don’t require developers to adopt the kinds of cluster design that green groups prefer.
In order to deny the permit, commissioners would have to rule that its current design would cause impacts on the environment that are "undue."
But it’s unclear whether this APA board will be comfortable setting a new precedent for Park policy in the middle of a contentious, high-profile permit review, or whether that kind of outcome would survive a court challenge.
"They're not," Kretser said. "It would be great if they were, and it's up to the commissioners to decide what bar they're going to use for the 'undue adverse impacts.'"
Kretser argues that it’s long overdue for Park policy to catch up with research. "There hasn't been a real update to how the Agency reviews things, but this is what the current science is," she argues.