Dec 13, 2013 — Park Agency commissioners are expected to vote later today on creation of a vast new wilderness area in the central Adirondacks. The APA is in the final steps of deciding the fate of the former Finch timber lands.
There’s a lot of excitement around this project, not just about the new Hudson Gorge Wilderness Area that will include nearly 24,000 acres, but also about an adjacent primitive area that establishes another big chunk of motorless paddling on the Essex Chain. Some people are comparing that to the popular St. Regis canoe area, in its beauty and wildness.
Willie Janeway heads the Adirondack Council, the park’s largest green group.
“It certainly appears as if the Governor’s APA is proposing what looks like the maximum possible ecological protection for close to 34,000 of those 38,000 acres. So we see things to cheer on, in terms of the motor-free protection for the Essex Chain.”
Some environmentalists worry that this plan for the Finch lands will require the state to go back and change a series of regulations that currently prohibit some of the activities proposed, especially snowmobiling.
Dave Gibson is with Adirondack Wild.
“Basically this agency has been told, ‘it’s going to be a wild forest corridor. There’s going to be snowmobiling through the middle of the area, and possibly, violating the wild and scenic regulations,’” he said.
State officials say reworking those regulations after the fact is a common sense step needed to reach a compromise that allows multiple use in the area. During yesterday’s session, APA analyst Walt Link said the snowmobile trail proposed for the former Finch lands won’t disrupt the environment or impact other, non-motorized users.
“I mean, Rod Davies could contact Fort Drum and have them run tanks down through here,” he said. “And I don’t know if people on the river are going to hear them.”
The final decision is expected between 9 and 11 AM this morning. The proceedings will be broadcast at the APA’s website.
This is certainly a historic day in the Adirondacks. One of the big questions that still surrounds the Finch lands is how creation of this vast new public recreation and conservation area will affect the economy of local towns.
Blue Mountain Lake, Indian Lake, Long Lake, Minerva, Newcomb, North Hudson – all of these small communities are struggling.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has argued that this deal will boost tourism jobs. He spoke last September during a visit to the Finch lands.
“I want people in New York City to see this parcel,” he said.” I want people in New York City to know that from a tourism point of view, there’s Northern New York. If you live in New York State, there’s no reason that you need to leave New York State to vacation.”
Our Adirondack bureau chief Brian Mann joined Martha Foley on the phone to talk a bit more about this idea.
Martha Foley: Brian, the governor has suggested that there’s a real link between opening these lands and new tourism jobs.
How confident are people that this land will attract enough people to really establish a visitor industry in that part of the Park?
Brian Mann: There’s a lot of real skepticism actually. Obviously, these new lands will attract visitors – snowmobilers, paddlers, hikers. One of the big questions though is whether these little towns can develop the kind of amenities in terms of lodges, restaurants and shops that would translate that traffic into a cash economy. Sherman Craig is an APA commissioner from Wanakena. He talked at length yesterday about the heavy lift that’s coming for those towns.
“We’re talking about five small towns with not a lot of tourist infrastructure,” he said. “So many local landowners and local business owners are going to have a hard time changing the focus of their business, or creating new businesses. It’s going to be requiring the local leaders to do some things very, very differently. And it’s a very difficult job that they have, to take the new lands with the wonderful access that if we think we’re going to provide, and translating that into significant economic change in their town.”
MF: Right, so getting visitors to spend money and stay in hotels when there aren’t really those amenities. That sounds tough. But also, Brian, I wonder how visitors are supposed to know about these new lands. I mean, if this were a new theme park or a new resort, there would be advertising, marketing. But other than hard-core paddlers and campers, how would people even know that these new recreation opportunities exist?
BM: That’s a big problem. One real concern is that a lot of the people who use these newly opened lands will simply be the same visitors who would have visited the Park anyway but now will go to a different area. Dan Kelleher the Park Agency’s economic affairs specialist talked about this yesterday.
“In August, I called it ‘cannibalization,’” he said. “Just simply shifting current users of the park from one place to another. To bring in new money to the park, and not just reallocate it across the park, we need to actually go out into places surrounding the park, and try to bring in new dollars by marketing out there.”
MF: Okay, so this sounds like there are some big unanswered questions about tourism infrastructure and marketing. So bottom line - do people really think this might move the needle on tourism?
BM: There is some cautious optimism. People think that if these lands are made accessible and if some new tourism start-ups can get some traction, there could be some real excitement. Especially because there are so many uses here – from snowmobiling to rafting to canoe paddling to hiking and hunting. Here’s Neil Woodworth with the Adirondack Mountain Club.
“I think there very well may be an increase in horseshoes and mountain biking along the Chain Lakes Road,” he said. “For the towns – particularly Indian Lake and Newcomb, I think there will be an increase in financial activity.”
BM: One other thing that’s different here, Martha, is that people are talking more openly about these challenges – they’re not just assuming that if you open these wild lands it’ll sort of magically turn into a tourism economy.
This summer, the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, which engineered this whole project, announced that it will create a half-million dollar fund to help new start-ups and new businesses. Here’s Mike Carr, head of the Conservancy’s Adirondack program.
“We feel an obligation to continue our stakeholder outreach with the communities involved in the transaction, because of its scale,” he said. “And the things we’ve learned in the stakeholder outreach about where the opportunities might lie. And this is some seed capital that we’re raising as we speak, to provide the grant funding to the communities involved.”
MF: Okay, Mike Carr there from the Adirondack Nature Conservancy talking about how the former Finch lands might help local communities and their economies. We’ll follow that in the months and years ahead and see how it pans out.
Meanwhile, this big new wilderness and primitive area – more than 30 thousand acres — is expected to be created by the APA in the next couple of hours. We’ll keep you updated online today, and Brian, you’ll have a complete wrap-up on Monday.