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View from the bluffs above Lows Lake. Source: NYSDEC
View from the bluffs above Lows Lake. Source: NYSDEC

Green groups win Lows Lake legal fight, Park precedent unclear

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New York state officials have decided to drop their appeal of a lawsuit filed by environmental groups over the management of Lows Lake, a popular paddling destination in the Adirondack Park. The Adirondack Mountain Club and Protect the Adirondacks have fought for years to have the lake itself, including the water and lake bed, classified as wilderness.

Earlier this month, the Adirondack Park Agency and the Department of Environmental Conservation decided to accept that designation. As Brian Mann reports, it's unclear how this legal victory for environmentalists will affect other lakes and rivers in the Adirondacks.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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For years, green groups have wanted Lows Lake, which lies between the communities of Tupper Lake and Long Lake, to be managed as a wilderness area. This designation would mean that no float planes would be allowed, and there would be strict restrictions on motor boats and other human activities.

In their lawsuit, environmentalists pointed to the fact that the state land around Lows Lake is already designated as wilderness. They said the water and lakebed should share that classification. Last August, a state supreme court judge in Albany sided with green groups, and earlier this month, the state of New York decided to suspend its appeal of the ruling.

John Caffry is an attorney with the group Protect the Adirondacks, and he said, “As far as precedent, the court found that state-owned forest reserve waters must be classified under the state line master plan. This applies where the land under water is owned by the state.”

Caffry thinks this court case has set a clear, new precedent for state agencies, requiring them not just to classify forest and shorelines but also water bodies themselves. That would mean that the state would have to sort out the classification of places like Lake George or the Racquette River that pass through or are bordered by state-owned wilderness or wild forest.

“I can’t say exactly how the Racquette or any other particular water body ought to be classified right now without looking at the specific situation, but yes, any water body where the state owns the bed should be classified,” said Caffry.

The 2011 ruling by Judge Michael Lynch found that state law requires the Adirondack Park Agency to “classify state-owned bodies of water even if the water is contiguous to a private land holding.” However, the legal meaning of this part of the decision remains in dispute.

On Tuesday, Park Agency spokesman Keith McKeever issued a statement arguing that the court’s ruling is “narrowly defined to Lows Lake and is not applicable or precedent setting for the rest of the Adirondacks.”

Fred Monroe, head of the Adirondack Park local government review board, says state officials actually dropped their appeal of this case as part of a legal strategy to avoid setting a wider precedent. Monroe said, “They said their reasoning was that this is a lower court and it doesn’t have binding effects throughout, but if they appealed it and got an adverse ruling there, then it would be binding. And basically they were saying that ‘we’d appreciate it if you didn’t make a lot of noise about this and oppose it because that’s the way we intend to do it.”

This question of whether the Lows Lake case is precedence-setting is likely to be tested by other legal fights over water bodies across the park. Caffry says green groups already have their eye on lakes and rivers that they think are being mismanaged because of the lack of a zoning designation. “I think there are, but again, I don’t want to go into specifics. We haven’t, on our side, figured out what those areas may be,” said Caffry.

Monroe says that if a wider legal precedent is established, it would mean big changes to management of lakes and rivers across the park. He says that would spark a backlash from groups like his that oppose more restrictions on development and recreation use.

“If we start to see other lawsuits affecting other water bodies in the Adirondacks, then I think DAC, APA and local government and residents all have to get involved because it could be disastrous if we start doing this on other water bodies,” said Monroe.

For now, one thing is clear: after years of wrangling, Lows Lake will be managed as wilderness. The ban on float planes will remain in place, and the only motor boats allowed on the lake will be operated by private land owners who still own chunks of shoreline.

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