News & Politics

Adirondack Groups Say Cuomo’s Luxury Campsite Plan Violates State Constitution

Governor’s proposed “glamping” facilities risk destroying wilderness in the name of tourism

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A proposal by Governor Andrew Cuomo to construct “glamping” — glamorous camping — facilities in the middle of the Adirondack Forest Preserve has drawn fire from conservation groups, which are mobilizing to fight the proposal if it is approved.

These groups fear the proposal would open the door to developing glamping facilities throughout New York’s vast network of state-owned forest preserve lands, diminishing the primeval character of timberland that has been protected by the state constitution since the late 19th century.

“We are ready,” Neil F. Woodworth, executive director and counsel to the Adirondack Mountain Club, tells the Voice. The organization “has done a great deal of legal research in contemplation of eventual litigation,” he says, and talks are underway to build a coalition with other conservation groups.

Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, tells the Voice that “Governor Cuomo is already fully implementing through administrative rule bending and breaking the largest expansion of motorized recreational uses on the forest preserve, and now he’s looking to build a network of rental cabins. This is a bad and illegal idea.”

Decimated by logging in the 1800s, Adirondack forests exist today because New York purchased vast tracts of despoiled wilderness, eventually sewing together a statewide patchwork of rewilded land called the forest preserve. In 1894, voters amended the state constitution to command that all land within the forest preserve “shall forever be kept as wild forest lands.”

The glamping plan was first announced by the governor in his 2017 State of the State report. The report declared — in no uncertain terms — that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation “will construct infrastructure at Boreas Ponds in the Adirondacks and build trails as part of the ‘Hut-to-Hut’ system that links State lands to community amenities.”

The details of the plan had been spelled out in a 2015 report commissioned by the state DEC. Notably, the plan covers not just the Boreas Ponds Tract, a former logging-company parcel acquired by the state last year as part of a previously agreed-to deal with the Nature Conservancy, but the adjacent High Peaks and Dix Mountain Wilderness areas as well, combined with three additional glamping sites within the forest preserve.

The High Peaks region is the heart of the Adirondack Forest Preserve — a 300,000-acre wilderness that includes 33 mountains with elevation in excess of 4,000 feet, as well as hundreds of pristine lakes, ponds, and streams. The region is home to Mount Marcy, the highest mountain in New York, and Lake Tear of the Clouds, the headwaters of the Hudson River. The 20,000-acre Boreas Ponds Tract lies just south of the High Peaks region, in part of a new parkland parcel that includes 90 mountains, 300 lakes and ponds, 415 miles of rivers and streams, and 15,000 acres of wetlands.

The Boreas tract is currently home to several primitive hunting camps — all closed to the public since the Nature Conservancy bought the site in 2007, and slated for removal when their current leases expire in 2018. But environmental groups say the proposed glamp grounds are just as prohibited as the hunting camps, because they would irrevocably alter the land’s protected status. The roads that Glamping facilities require, for example, make the wilderness more accessible, but less wild.

Last month, the Adirondack Daily Enterprise published an op-ed titled “DEC wants to help more NYers experience the outdoors,” written by Basil Seggos, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation. In the op-ed, Seggos confirmed that some glamping infrastructure for the hut-to-hut system would be on forest preserve land, though he said it would only be in “rare instances” where there is no other “practical option.”

“In these cases,” Seggos wrote, “huts will be primitive in nature, temporary, and self-serviced, and…include no more than a dry tent structure with a cot and mattress.”

But this assertion contradicts the 2015 DEC-commissioned report, which found that, in order to be “successful,” glampgrounds must include: huts with single-room availability; a total capacity of 24 to 36 people; a full-service kitchen; toilets; insect-free space; and road access, allowing motorized public/private transportation and backpack-shuttling services, for those unable or unwilling to carry their own equipment.

Asked if the DEC’s idea of “primitive, temporary, and self-serviced” includes these amenities, a spokesperson for Seggos, Erica Ringewald, tells the Voice that “there have been no proposals for public lands, including Boreas Ponds,” despite what Seggos wrote in his op-ed.

Whatever the particulars of Governor Cuomo’s glamping proposal, several North Country environmental groups are arrayed against it.

In addition to the Adirondack Mountain Club and Protect the Adirondacks, David Gibson of Adirondack Wild and John Sheehan of the Adirondack Council also tell the Voice that allowing “huts” of any kind and other glamping amenities on state forest preserve land would violate the forever-wild amendment to the state constitution.

Richard Booth, who as a member of the state’s Adirondack Park Agency in 2015 spoke out against the Cuomo administration’s loosening of protections on other land the governor sought to open up to tourism, agrees. “It’s absolutely unconstitutional,” says Booth, who left the APA last year. “You can’t do that. That proposal is so blatantly wrong it’s amazing to me it’s still being considered.”

A fifth group, the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, declined to state explicitly whether it supports or opposes glamping on forest preserve land. However, a spokesperson for the group, Connie Prickett, pointed to its suggested plan for the Boreas Pond Tract, which does not include a glampground. “We support,” Prickett wrote in an email to the Voice, “the classification for Boreas set forth in our recommendation, which does not include intensive use.”

Whenever the state adds land to the forest preserve, the APA is charged with classifying the added land in one of several categories.

The strictest classification is Wilderness, which forbids the construction of roads or structures or the use of motor-driven transport within it — even bicycles are prohibited.

According to the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Woodworth, 83 percent of the public comments to the Adirondack Park Agency support Wilderness classification.

Yet, he says, multiple sources within the APA and DEC told him that the governor’s office has asked the APA “to leave five acres of unclassified lands on the Boreas Road to the west of the four corners on the Boreas Ponds Tract so that these five acres can eventually be classified as Intensive Use.”

Booth tells the Voice that his former agency cannot be trusted to give opponents a full and fair hearing. The process there, he charges, is “seriously flawed,” as the governor has “put a muzzle on the staff of the park agency regarding what issues can be discussed.”

According to a state employer familiar with the APA, who spoke to the Voice on background because he fears retaliation, this is precisely what is happening regarding the Boreas Ponds classification decision: “They’re trying to find a way to accommodate Cuomo’s plan.”

John Sheehan, the director of communication for the Adirondack Council, agrees with Booth that Adirondack environmental regulations are being systemically weakened as the governor and upstate communities seek to open up protected wilderness lands for economic development reasons. “What we are seeing over the past few years has been an emphasis on recreation and tourism,” he says. “Much less protection of the environment. Of course, that is exactly our concern for Boreas Ponds.”

A spokesperson for Governor Cuomo, Dani Lever, did not answer emails seeking a response to Booth’s claims.

A spokesperson for the APA, Keith McKeever, did not respond to Booth’s allegations, or requests to confirm whether the Cuomo administration asked the agency to leave portions of the Boreas Ponds Tract unclassified or classified for Intensive Use.

Instead, KcKeever said the APA was still working on a “final environmental impact statement that includes responses to over ten thousand public comments. We anticipate bringing this classification package to the APA board for its deliberation this fall.”

Booth, now a professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University, says he’s speaking out now because Cuomo’s glamping plans present an urgent threat to the wilderness land he had pledged to protect.

“Several of the building blocks that protect the forever-wild lands are now in jeopardy,” he says, “because this governor has not played by the rules. And the people of the state ought to know about that.”

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