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DEC Commissioner Joe Martens hauls a canoe over one of the carry trails between the Essex Chain Lakes.  Photo:  Brian Mann
DEC Commissioner Joe Martens hauls a canoe over one of the carry trails between the Essex Chain Lakes. Photo: Brian Mann

New to explore in the Adirondacks: the Essex Chain Lakes

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This is the final week for public comment on the new management plan for the Essex Chain Lakes in the central Adirondacks.

The 11,000-acre chunk of wild forest and lakes near the town of Newcomb is part of the massive Finch Pruyn conservation deal that has expanded the Park's public land.

State officials are hoping the Essex Chain will offer a popular new alternative for paddlers and hikers and anglers, drawing more visitors to a part of the Park that often sees little traffic.

Our Adirondack bureau chief Brian Mann made the trip last week and has our story.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

Nature Conservancy staff-member Connie Pricket paddles one of the narrow stretches of the Essex Chain Lakes.  Photo:  Brian Mann
Nature Conservancy staff-member Connie Pricket paddles one of the narrow stretches of the Essex Chain Lakes. Photo: Brian Mann
After years of debate, dipping a paddle in Third Lake

I'm paddling along the shore of Third Lake, passing one of the campsites put in this year by New York state.  It's a gorgeous site, tucked between two noses of rock.

Going ashore, I find that the campsite looks primitive, wild.  No campfires will be allowed here.  That's part of an experiment to allow a fair amount of use and public access, without damaging the forest or shoreline.

It feels spectacular, you know, that people are going to tell their own stories about these places and discover them. That's very powerful
On this day, I’m traveling with a couple of the men who opened this place, once owned by the Finch Pruyn paper company, to the public for the first time in more than a century. 

"Lush green, big tall pines, puffy cumulus clouds, a little breeze, just stunningly beautiful," says Mike Carr who heads the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, based in Keene.

The Adirondack Nature Conservancy produced a video about the Essex Chain Lakes

A conservation project nearly derailed by the Great Recession

The Essex Chain Lakes are located near the town of Newcomb in the very heart of the Adirondacks.  Map:  New York State DEC
The Essex Chain Lakes are located near the town of Newcomb in the very heart of the Adirondacks. Map: New York State DEC
This 11,000 acre tract is part of the massive Finch Pruyn conservation deal engineered by Carr and the Conservancy, affecting more than 160,000 acres of Adirondack forest. 

It was first unveiled seven years ago just at the start of the Great Recession.  As we carry the canoes over one of the portage trails, Carr says there were times when it seemed like the whole project might collapse.  It just seemed too big, too expensive.

"The downturn was really difficult.  People had to pull back.  We were trying to raise 35 million dollars privately to make this happen and our most committed supporters said, 'We can't commit now, but plesae come back.'  We had to develop a strategy that allowed us to carry the property, pay the taxes, pay the interest on the money we borrowed.  That was the moment, I think, when we had some questions about whether or not it was going to happen."

I’m also here with Joe Martens, commissioner of New York’s Conservation Department.  He says there were times when it seemed like New York state just wouldn’t be able to find the money to buy these lands.

"There's a lot of people who doubted that this would ever go forward," Martens says.  He credits Governor Andrew Cuomo for deciding to commit New York state to the project. 

He also credits the Conservancy for what Martens describes as "a leap of faith."

A net gain for Adirondack towns?

This project has been controversial.  As we paddle, one of the landmarks on shore of Third Lake is the historic Gooley Club, a traditional hunting camp that traces its history back to the 1800s.

As part of this project, it will be torn down and removed in 2018. 

Club members were given the opportunity to relocate to lands nearby, but many sportsmen are angry that the deal didn’t preserve their camp.

Martens says he hopes that with wider public access, this project will be a net gain, bringing in more visitors, more benefits to nearby towns.

"I think we won't know the results of it completely for several years," Martens acknowledges.  "We have to find out if it benefits the towns...like we all hope it will.  That's part of the experiment that has yet to play out."

New York state is working hard to make this place more accessible, partnering with the town of Newcomb to improve road access, planning to eventually allow mountain biking, snowmobile riding, and also making provisions for handicap access.   

But there are also some new restrictions.  The campsites are designed to be more primitive, that’s why no campfires are allowed. 

And during the peak summer season, people will also have to reserve one of the eleven campsites in advance. Those rules are designed to maintain the sense of remoteness, of wildness.

Mike Carr, with the Nature Conservancy, says the most important thing is that the Essex Chain Lakes are now open.  After all those years of uncertainty and debate, people can come here and see it for themselves.

"It feels very real.  It feels spectacular, you know, that people are going to tell their own stories about these places and discover them.  That's very powerful."

DEC forester Chris Alberga says the Essex Chain Lakes will eventually offer a wide range of recreation access, from mountain biking and snowmobiling to primitive camping and hunting.  Photo:  Brian Mann
DEC forester Chris Alberga says the Essex Chain Lakes will eventually offer a wide range of recreation access, from mountain biking and snowmobiling to primitive camping and hunting. Photo: Brian Mann
The public comment period for the Essex Chain Lakes wraps up this week.  Find out more information about how to register your opinions by clicking here.

For more information from the Adirondack Interpretive Center in Newcomb about reserving campsites, and for a map of campsite locations in the Essex Chain Lakes, click here.

Click here for the New York Conservation Department info page about the Essex Chain Lakes, which includes downloadable maps and information about the complex of newly-opened lands.

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