The Forest That Will Be Saved

By Little, Charles E. | American Forests, May-June 1990 | Go to article overview

The Forest That Will Be Saved


Little, Charles E., American Forests


THE FOREST THAT WILL BE SAVED

Not many natural-resource planners get to go back and do their plans over again 15 years later. As F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, "There are no second acts in American lives." But Fitzgerald didn't reckon on George D. Davis, who, as executive director of New York's Commission on the Adirondacks in the 21st Century, was given a second shot at saving his beloved Adirondack Park - a six-million-acre hunk of big-tree hardwood forest that is larger than the entire state of New Jersey.

The commission, chaired by Peter A. A. Berle, president of the National Audubon Society, was established last year by Governor Mario M. Cuomo. The idea was to eliminate the loop-holes in laws created in 1973 - Davis played a key role then as well - that many (including this writer) thought would forever protect this vast assemblage of scattered public forest preserve lands (2.3 million acres) and private ownerships (3.7 million acres) and confine development to the 13 villages and 70 unincorporated hamlets scattered amid its magnificent lakes and forests.

But nobody figured on leveraged buyouts weakening the grasp of giant forest-products companies on their holdings. Nobody figured that foreign investors would think that Adirondack land would be cheap at five times its asking price as sites for jet-set recreational development. Nobody knew how suburban condomania could metastasize into the far-north backcountry. Nobody (although Davis warned of it 15 years ago) knew how easily the primeval ambience of this last vast northeastern forest could be shattered by roadside zoos, roaring speedboats on the lakes, doublewide trailers along the highways, tacky advertising signs, and all the other whatnots of recreation-mad America the Ugly.

Now, if Davis and his colleagues have their way, new laws and regulations will snap the loopholes shut and sever some of the greedy worms within them into the bargain. Here are the key elements of what the commission - which counts among its membership the cream of New York state conservation, civic, and business leadership (see "The Commission Members" on page 57) - strongly recommends:

* The creation of the largest true wilderness area in the Northeast. In fact, at 400,000 acres, the Oswagatchie Great Wilderness, as it will be called, will be the third largest wilderness east of the Mississippi. But it is to be managed much more stringently than any federally designated wilderness area. In all, the Adirondack wilderness system will include 16 units and 1,650,000 acres. Remaining public lands are to be managed for low-intensity recreational use.

* The purchase of an additional 650,000 acres of land in fee title, mostly to go into the wilderness system and to protect biological diversity; and the authority to purchase conservation easements over the years on as much privately owned resource land as possible - theoretically all of it - to guarantee in perpetuity that the land will never be developed and to provide for recreational access as needed.

* On privately owned resource lands (87 percent of nonpublic lands, about 3 million acres in all, mostly in forest use), to reduce the building allowed under present regulations by 90 percent by allowing every landowner one residential unit, regardless of the size of holding. Those with larger acreages can build one additional residence per 2,000 acres. In addition, a "transfer of development rights" program permits owners to retain much of the development value of land under previous regulations. A forest-use tax-limiting program, along with the aggressive conservation easement program, rounds out the plan designed to preserve the park's forested character.

* Shoreline development along the many thousands of lakes and ponds and more than a thousand miles of rivers would not be permitted any closer than 650 feet in backcountry areas and 200 feet anywhere in the park; nor would owners be allowed to disturb vegetation, except for a five-foot path that must be designed so that no structure would be visible from the water. …

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